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Island-hopping and people-watching in Miyagi

It’s postcard-beauty by day, buzzy neon by night in one of Tohoku’s most scenic regions

Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

By Time Out in association with NHK World

Japan has an official list of the 'three most beautiful places' in the country. It’s not something that’s up for debate – the list dates back to 1643, is attributed to a Confucian scholar named Hayashi Gaho and, like the Seven Wonders of the World, is accepted as a kind of fact. Spend some time in Matsushima, one of those three most-beautiful places, and you’ll find little reason to argue with the wise Gaho’s choices.

Off the coast of this tiny town in Miyagi, some 260 tiny, pine-covered limestone islands dot a cove of almost-impossibly still waters. From the shore, it looks like something Katsushika Hokusai might have dreamt up, with hazy sunlight and ocean blues; on the back of a ferry, weaving between the islands and the poles of an occasional oyster farm, you’ll feel lost in the picture and possibly in time. (Book a ferry ride through Marubun Matsushima Kisen.)

The islands have protected Matsushima in different ways throughout the years: Samurai once stationed themselves here to ward off intruders from the sea, and in March 2011, the islands acted as a kind of buffer against the tsunami that devastated so many neighbouring towns. Matsushima wasn’t spared – images in the ferry terminal of that time show a bus half subsumed by water – but the town mostly remained defiantly, beautifully intact.

MatsushimaPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

On land, the main attraction here is Zuiganji Temple (9 Matsushimachonai, Matsushima-machi, Miyagi-gun; 022 354 2023), built in AD 828 and rebuilt by feudal lord Date Masamune in the early 1600s. Approaching it, you can see where the 2011 tsunami and quake took their toll: A small forest of cedars that once framed a grand walkway to the site is now being replanted after seawater ruined the soil; the temple’s main building is also under extensive construction. A kitchen building, never before available to the public, has been opened in the temple’s stead and holds some of its most important artifacts and icons. You’ll find more relics at the on-site Zuiganji Art Museum, where you can watch the main building’s mammoth gate being lovingly restored; in the nearby gardens, with their mossed-over caves, you can visit an elevated shrine to Date’s wife.

Zuiganji TemplePhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

If a day revelling peacefully in the ancient has you hankering for something more modern, Sendai awaits less than an hour away. The largest city in the Tohoku region brims with the delights of a modern megacity: rowdy sake bars, multiple cat cafés, pachinko arcades and some excellent people-watching – yes, that was a woman dressed as an Andrew Lloyd Webber–style feline passing you at the crossing.

You’ll want to get views of the city and beyond from the 31st floor of the AER Building (1-3-1 Chuo, Aoba Ward, Sendai), from which you can see the 100m Goddess of Kannon statue in the foothills, and shop on the buzzy, enclosed Cli’s Road, which turns the city into a kind of giant mall. But most of all you should seek out Ganso Robata (2-10-8 Kokubuncho, Aoba Ward, Sendai) a tiny, time-warping restaurant that first opened in 1950 and moved to its current location 25 years ago.

Ganso RobataPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Here, sit at a bar encircling your friendly hostess as she warms sake on the fire and, from three metres away, hands it to you on the end of an oar. You’re then presented with a spread of exotic eats: a barbecued whole squid, sliced up and splayed out in front of you like a delicious accordion; grilled uni (sea urchin), still in its spiky shell; and, if you’re brave (and not ethically opposed), slivers of raw whale bacon.

The check is calculated on a wooden abacus, and the receipt is written in inky calligraphy on parchment. The restaurant may not officially be one of Japan’s most beautiful places, but it makes a strong argument for being one of Sendai’s.

Check out our Tohoku travel series

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