Matsushima: Nature Trail

When summer gets too hot, the Japanese flee the cities. And it's just a short hop by bullet train to this favourite haunt, the Cotswolds of Japan. Adrian Mourby reports
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The Independent Travel

The Japanese are proud of their bullet trains. As the long, white shinkansen pulls into Sendai station two women cleaners in pale blue fatigues bow to the driver before scampering on board to give each compartment a thorough going over. I watch as holiday makers wait in their orderly queues, then file on board along tracks painted on the platform.

I'm heading for Matsushima Bay. If I were Japanese, this would be nothing unusual. People in Tokyo often weekend in Matsushima during the summer. It's what the Cotswolds is to Londoners, a 24-hour return to nature and the simple life. But for me, nothing is simple. I'm more than 300km from Tokyo and the Latin alphabet ran out several stations ago. Nervously counting the stops, I eventually alight on a platform in the middle of nowhere where I'm delighted to see Ms Kori, a local "Goodwill Guide", waiting for me with a big sign reading "Mr Adrian".

Ms Kori is a tiny lady. She looks like a cross between Madam Mao and Rosa Klebb, but turns out to be much kinder. Her services are offered for free. In return, I am expected to buy her lunch. It's a price I'm happy to pay. I feel wholly adrift here on the Pacific coast. I think Ms K and I are the only people who speak English in the entire Miyagi prefecture.

"First we go to the Zuiganji Buddhist Temple," says Ms Kori as we clamber into her huge car. "We must also take a boat trip round the archipelago. This is one of the three most scenic sights in Japan," she tells me. As Number 2 Sight - the floating torii (gate) of Miyajima - is recovering from typhoon damage, Matsushima is very crowded this day. Japanese visitors are piling in for the weekend, as are tourists from Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In this small seaside town, I am the only person over 5ft 6in.

Matsushima looks like the Lake District with conifers and cherry blossoms. The main street faces the bay and was built to sell knick-knacks. Out to sea, hundreds of islands are scattered across the bay, each topped with trees and a few sporting red-painted shrines.

At Zuiganji, Ms Kori dons the volunteer guide's fluorescent jacket and leads me into a densely forested valley where a 17th-century warlord, Date Masamune, built his temple. It's small and serene, despite the grisly memorial to dozens of samurai who committed ritual suicide when Masamune died.

"Now we go lunch," says Ms Kori. Her favourite restaurant is on the dockside and is called Chuuou. It has an old-fashioned tokonoma alcove where you sit on mats to eat. A large red telephone shares the floor with us and Ms Kori uses this hotline to call the kitchen whenever we want more food. Kama, small metal pots, boil rice at the side of our table. As we consume raw fish and tempura and make stilted conversation I am ashamed to admit that I wish there were just one familiar thing about our surroundings, even a Coca-Cola ad. Yes, I wanted to holiday as the Japanese do, but this is so much more alien than Tokyo.

We have time to kill before the obligatory boat tour of the islands. So Ms Kori diverts us into the waxworks, where we can see tableaux representing the life of Date Masamune who, at all stages of his long life, exhibits that anguished, acutely constipated look we westerners associate with kabuki. There's also a whole sequence of rooms displaying waxworks of prominent Japanese writers, scientists and politicians, making me realise how little even people like me, who actually visit the country, know about its history.

The trip proves a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped we'd be on the bright-red dragon-headed boat that is based on a samurai naval design, but there are so many Koreans queuing on the dock that we end up being shunted on to something resembling an old Isle of Wight ferry. The weather turns against us too (hardly surprising: Japan has just as much summer rainfall as the UK). I'm sure a 60-minute boat trip round 40 or so of Matsushima's islands (most of them too small to be populated by anything other than conifers) would prove delightful in the right weather. But on a dull overcast afternoon not even the incessant music ("I love a boy from Sendai/ But where has he gone?") cheers me up. The Japanese can't get enough of it though. As Ms Kori and I disembark, 200 more tourists crowd eagerly on board.

Before we part, Ms Kori takes me to two islands that can be reached from the shore by picturesque little red bridges. On the first is a tiny red temple, Godaido, while on the second- hardly an island at all, just a rock on the seashore - is Kanrantei, a two-man tea room that was brought from Kyoto by Date Masamune and reassembled with the Shogun's blessing.

Ms Kori asks if I am pleased with what I have seen.

"Is there anything else?" I ask.

"No."

"Then I am pleased."

Checking into my hotel, which sits on a cliff above the bay, I am almost knocked down by an avalanche of Japanese tourists dressed in identical blue-spotted yukata who are hurrying to the dining room to see a 5ft tuna carved up for sushi. Cameras flash. I feel rather at a loss until I reach my room - all tatami mats and slippers but nothing that looks like a bed, not even a futon - when I find that a blue-spotted yukata has been provided for me too. I pick up my camera and head for the dining room. Maybe I'll pass for a typical Japanese tourist after all.

Adrian Mourby flew as a guest of KLM (0870 507 4074; klm.com), which offers return flights to Tokyo from £478 via Amsterdam. In Matsushima Prefecture, double rooms at the Hotel Taikanso (00 81 22 354-2161; taikanso.co.jp/eg/) start at 9,922 yen (£46) for a twin room with breakfast. For more information contact the Japan National Tourist Organization (020-7734 6870; seejapan.co.uk)

1. Aizu Wakamatsu

WHAT TO SEE: Tsuruga is a huge, refurbished Samurai castle. Also don't miss Buke-yashiki, a rare 38-room Samurai house.

WHERE TO EAT: Mangerou (00 81 242 27 4567) is housed in a traditional building and meals are served in a tatami-mat room with rice paper screens which are left open so that guests can look out over the fine garden.

CONTACT: Information: city.aizuwakamatsu .fukushima.jp

2. Kitakata

WHAT TO SEE: Kitakata is home to more than 2,600 traditional mud-walled warehouses known as kuras, and there's even a mud-walled temple. The souvenir to buy is an oki-agari doll, which

always rolls upright

when you knock it over.

WHERE TO EAT: Genraikan (00 81 241 22 0091) serves ramen, Kitakata's

renowned soup made from water, soy sauce, sake and thick, curly noodles.

CONTACT: jnto.go.jp

3. Shin-Shirakawa

WHAT TO SEE: British Hills is a hugely popular British theme park with its own pub, castle and 'Cotswold' village. English speakers are employed for that exotic touch.

WHERE TO EAT: The Refectory (00 81 248 85 1313) is based on an Oxford college dining-hall, but serves French cuisine.

CONTACT: british-hills.co.jp/bhintro

4. Sendai

WHAT TO SEE: Mostly flattened by Allied bombing, Sendai contains the ruins of Aoba, Date Masamune's castle (1602) with its statue of the one-eyed warlord and local hero.

WHERE TO EAT: Isshin (00 81 222 61 9888) offers locally made sake and fresh seafood including the local delicacy called hoya (sea squirt), which is at its best in the summer months.

CONTACT: city.sendai.jp

5. Shiogama

WHAT TO SEE: Every July the ritual of making salt from seawater is performed at the Okama Jinja Shinto Shrine.

WHERE TO EAT: Shiogama boasts more sushi restaurants per square kilometre than any other Japanese city. Yamato (00 81 223 67 5744), is justifiably famous for its seafood and sushi and is only 10 minutes' walk from the railway station.

CONTACT: pref.miyagi.jp/kankou

6. Matsushima

WHAT TO SEE: Zuigan-ji is a Zen training temple founded by Date Masamune in 1609. Its forested grounds are lined with meditation caves.

WHERE TO EAT: Matsushima oysters are considered as good as those from Hiroshima; sample them on the deck of a Gozabune lunch cruise around the bay.

CONTACT: town.matsushima.miyagi.jp/english/index.htm

7. Hiraisumi

WHAT TO SEE: Chuson-ji is a ninth-century temple decorated with gold leaf and black lacquer and is also the final resting place of the Fujiwara clan, who were wiped out for supporting the wrong shogun.

WHERE TO EAT: Izumiya (00 81 191 46 2038) offers a set meal of soba (buckwheat) including soba soup, soba sashimi, soba with sauce and even a soba dessert.

CONTACT: pref.iwate.jp/english/index .html

8. Hanamaki

WHAT TO SEE: Miyazawa Memorial Museum commemorates one of Japan's best-loved poets who was born in this onsen (spa) town in 1896.

WHERE TO EAT: Menbo Takamatsuan (00 81 198 31 2888) is place to sample an array of healthy dishes made from the turnip, which has been cultivated in the area for over 400 years.

CONTACT: city.hanamaki .iwate.jp

9. Tono

WHAT TO SEE: Nakayama is a 350-year-old private residence in the Kamigo district with a collection of traditional cloth-covered carved stick dolls, known as oshirasama.

WHERE TO EAT: Ichi-riki (00 81 198 62 2008) offers traditional-style, seafood and top of the range tofu tempura.

CONTACT: iwatetabi.jp/en/index.php

10. Miyako

WHAT TO SEE: Todogasaki Lighthouse is on the most easterly point on the Island of Honshu and is the first place in Japan to see the sun rise on a new day.

WHERE TO EAT: Yoshi Zushi (00 81 193 62 1017) near the station is very popular with locals for its tuna, conger sushi, and the local button shrimp.

CONTACT: iwatetabi.jp/en/index.php

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