WARNING: On 11th March 2011 the area was hit by an earthquake with a 9.0 magnitude followed by a tsunami and several aftershocks. As a coastal site, the Matsushima area has been severely affected. Japan Railways' Senseki Line has been heavily damaged.
The main islands area of Matsushima was not heavily impacted by the tsunami, but services are still quite limited. Many hotels are still closed, and water service is not available in many buildings. Power service is also somewhat unreliable due to aftershocks.
The officials of the area are encouraging tourists to return this summer (2011), but you should expect to encounter challenges if you you go to this area, at this time.
The town faces Matsushima Bay, famous for some 260 tiny islands (島 - shima) covered in pines (松 - matsu) — hence the name -- and ranked as one of Japan's Three Great Views.
In 1689, Haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited Matsushima on the trip recorded in Narrow Road to the Deep North. A well-known poem often attributed to Basho claims to record his reaction, signifying that nothing more could be said:
Today's Matsushima is perhaps a little less inspiring, but still a worthwhile day trip if in the region.
The town is only a short distance from prefectural capital Sendai.
Most visitors arrive on the JR Senseki Line (仙石線) connecting Sendai (25 minutes by express train or 40 minutes by local) and Ishinomaki. The most convenient station is Matsushima-Kaigan (松島海岸). The Matsushima station on the JR Tohoku Main Line is located a fair distance away from the seashore.
From Tokyo, the Shinkansen bullet train runs to Sendai for connection to the Senseki Line. The total one-way fare is ¥10,900 using the fastest, all-reserved shinkansen service, and the journey to Matsushima-Kaigan lasts around 2 3/4 hours. There is no charge if you use the Japan Rail Pass.
Another popular choice is to take the JR Senseki line train to Hon-Shiogama (don't mistake it with JR Tohuku line train to Shiogama station), connect to a sightseeing boat to Matsushima (viewing some of the famous islands along the way), then return by train.
Matsushima's seaside attractions are within walking distance of the train station and ferry pier, but the best views are from mountaintops not so easy to reach on foot. The most spectacular views are from Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park, a ¥660 cab ride up from the station. It is covered with cherry blossoms in the spring, but the food available there is nothing special. Other overlooks are Sōkanzan, a promontory that juts out into the bay, and Ōgitani, a hill across the coastal highway from Sokanzan.
Zuigan-ji Temple (瑞巌寺), . 8AM-3:30PM (sometimes later). Matsushima's top Zen temple with over a thousand years of history, but not a top choice for relaxation: tickets are sold from vending machines and guides shouting into megaphones herd tour groups through the temple, which has been turning into a museum with everything of interest partitioned off and/or packaged in glass cases. The approach with its moss-covered Kannon statues is atmospheric though. Repairs on the main temple roof started in 2009 and are projected to last 5 or more years.¥700.
Kanran-tei Pavilion (観覧亭). Originally built in Kyoto by famed Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, this was eventually moved to Matsushima by Date Tadamune in 1645 and is the largest Momoyama-style tea house in Japan. An excellent place to stop for a ¥200 cup of tea (traditional Japanese sweets included) and a view of the Matsushima coastline.
Fukuura Island (福浦島; Fukuura-jima). Connected to the mainland by a long bridge, the island is crisscrossed in all directions by paths small and large, paved and muddy, well-trod and overgrown. A circuit of the island won't take more than an hour and there are some very sparsely beautiful spots to be seen. An interesting anecdote, there is a local superstition that crossing the bridge with a girlfriend/boyfriend will cause a breakup.
Ōtakamori (大高森). One of The 4 Famous Places to view Matsushima Bay and a good place to catch the sunset over the island. The start of the 1-km trail to the top is some 3 kilometers from the Pila Youth Hostel in Oku-Matsushima.
Date Shojin Kaiseki Ryori Ungai, 67 Chonai, Matsushima-aza, ☎ +81 22 353 2626. Traditional vegetarian cuisine.
Pila Matsushima/Oku-Matsushima YH (パイラ松島･奥松島ＹＨ), ☎ +81 0225-88-2220, . Good youth hostel inconveniently located a few stops out from Matsushima-Kaigan on the Senseki Line and a 15-minute trek down from JR Nobiru (野蒜) station to boot. On the plus side, this is a great way to see the less tourist Oku-Matsushima region of the archipelago. Offers bicycles for rent for about 600¥ per day, with which you can explore the coasts around Oku-Matsushima.
You can continue eastward from here towards Kinkazan.