Ah, Matsushima

<< 2012-11-03 10:49 >>

Matsushima seafront

On the face of it, Matsushima is just a small Japanese port. However, it's also home to a famous temple, and Basho considered the islands in the bay outside one of the three great views of Japan. In fact, "a vision of the moon at Matsushima" was one of the things that convinced him to set out on his great journey.

We arrived in Matsushima by train from Ichinoseki, then set out on foot for the temple, Zuigan-ji. One of the first things I saw was pictures of a man in samurai armor, with a huge metal crescent on his helmet. This, apparently, was Daté Masamune, founder of nearby Sendai.

Masamune is actually an interesting character. He lost an eye to smallpox as a child, but even so took over from his father as daimyo (comparable to a duke in European terms), and conquered several neighbouring domains. Eventually, he joined forces with Tokugawa Ieyasu, who conquered all of Japan at this time, and he was richly rewarded for his services, being appointed local ruler of the rich Sendai Domain.

Masamune statue, Zuigan-ji, Matsushima

Masamune picked what seemed a good location on the road to Tokyo (then Edo), and built a castle there in 1600, and founding a town the year after. Today the city is Sendai, with 1 million inhabitants. Masamune also had visiting Europeans build him a galleon, and sent an expedition literally round the globe to Rome, with a letter to the pope, and back again. Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu forbade further foreign contact, and Japan sank into centuries of isolation.

Temples being repaired

At Zuigan-ji, most of the temple buildings were closed off for repair, but there was still a good bit of Buddhist art to see. In the plaza between the buildings we met a guard, dressed in a uniform much like a European parking enforcement officer, but strutting proudly in a manner more remiscent of an Italian fascist dictator. Seeming to enjoy the sound of his own voice, he told us how the earthquake had damaged the temple buildings, but how a Buddhist religious device in the temple had saved the town of Matsushima from being damaged by the tsunami.

Leaving the temple we walked down little alleys in the temple woods, watched by rows upon rows of weird statues, all encrusted in moss. The whole area seemed ... eerie in a way that I find difficult to explain. After all, it was just rock, trees and moss, and no evil intent seemed to be implied by the statues. Far from it, in fact. The Buddhas were smiling.


Down by the harbour, we sat down to lunch at one of the many restaurants facing the bay. Lunch was noodle soup and fried eel, probably as healthy a meal as you can have. Getting up to pay I noticed a sink and a mirror next to the till. Across the mirror hung a red line, with a sign saying 1.2 meters blahblah water. In other words, the tsunami came this high within the restaurant.

I looked around in confusion. Tsunami? In here? But didn't the fascist parking officer say that the buddhist device protected Matsushima from the tsunami? Later I was to learn that there was no contradiction there. The resturant was right next to the seafront, yet the tsunami left it standing, if mud-smeared. In context, that was actually miraculously lucky, and must have seemed to some in need of explanation.

Naito-san told me that the coastline in Matsushima Bay is what's called a "ria coastline", meaning a coast that's effectively a series of sunken river valleys, leaving lots of bays and islands. It's thought that the shape of this coast dispersed the power of the wave, and protected Matsushima town against the worst of the tsunami, and this is probably the explanation.

Anyway, we took the ferry out of the terminal, headed for Shiogama, through the real wonder of Matsushima: the bay studded with islands in many shapes. The islets are covered in pine trees, and carved in strange shapes by the sea. Quite a few look like waves, weirdly, and one island is pierced by three tunnels, causing it to boom like a bell when the sea is rough.

Kanejima (bell island)

It was a fairy-tale landscape, only faintly marred by the guidebook narration over the loudspeakers, and the roar of the engines. Basho, however, saw it by moonlight, at the speed of oars, and was inspired to write this haiku:

Ah, Matsushima!
Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah!
Matsushima! Ah!

This poem is interesting in several different ways. Spoken correctly, it actually works very well as a poem. At the same time it's as if the poet is rendered speechless by what he's seen, even though in Japanese the poem is actually grammatically correct.

But did Basho actually write it? No such haiku appears in his book, and nobody's been able to show where he published this poem. In the book, however, another haiku appears, written by his disciple Sora, and probably inspiring the more famous haiku by some unknown author. It was written on an island in the bay, in an inn with great views of the bay.

Matsushima, oh ...
you will need cranes' wings to fly
little cuckoo bird


Similar posts

Hiraizumi — the Kyoto of the north

In 1100, the Fujiwara clan made Hiraizumi their capital, and ruled almost a third of Japan from here

Read | 2012-09-02 20:48

Shiogama, sushi city

We really came to Shiogama because we happened to be passing by on our way from Matsushima Bay to Sendai

Read | 2012-11-09 16:17

Into the tsunami zone

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami must be one of the most widely reported stories ever, so does the world really need another account

Read | 2013-01-04 13:54


No comments.

Add a comment

Name required
Email optional, not published
URL optional, published
Spam don't check this if you want to be posted
Not spam do check this if you want to be posted