Episode 19.1: Hedonistic Zen Monk -- Matsushima
  There came a day when the clouds drifting along with the wind
  aroused a wanderlust in me, and I set off on a journey to
  roam along the seashores...
                                                   Basho, TNRttDN


I set off at 9 AM sharp.  After a dazzlingly complicated array of
train and bus transfers, I found myself thumb in the air at Hasuda PA,
exactly 2 hours after departure from home, which by Tokyo standards
is very fast indeed.  I hadn't even managed to stand there and grin
like a maniac for 10 minutes, when I was rescued by an unlikely
angel: a family pulling up and asking (in English!) where I'm going.
They were going to Tochigi, which was good enough for me.  In the
end, it turned out their English wasn't that great, but Pop's company
has lots of gaijin so he knew how to speak gaijinteki-na nihongo
(hakkiri yukkuri kantan-na!).  We got on well enough, and as they
were on their way to pick up Granny for a weekend excursion to their
summer house, they decided to take me along.  Granny lived out in the
middle of nowhere (a pretty good description for much of Toohoku), and
everything in sight was straight out of Totoro, including Granny
herself, or at least her voice.
Unlikely angels
A silent trucker

Pine grove near hostel
Some 150 km down the road I was deposited at Nasu, only to be picked
up right after a quick lunch by a truck driver.  In awe I clambered
up to the giddy heights (most truckers in Japan don't take hitchers
because company rules forbid it), but the driver turned out to be a
quiet young half-Chinese guy.  Emphasis on the quiet: he didn't speak
much and steadfastly refused to continue any conversation beyond 2
lines.  Fine, I sat there and enjoyed the scenery...  and I had
plenty of time for that since halfway to Sendai he turned off the
expressway onto a mostly clogged national highway.  Nevertheless,
I was dropped off near a train station well past Sendai at 5 PM,
which means the 400-odd kilometers took me 6 hours.  Not bad.
Two local trains and a short taxi ride later I arrived at the
Paila Matsushima Yuusu Hosuteru, having spent a total of 1910 yen
to get there.  (For reference purposes, just a one-way Tokyo-Sendai
shinkansen ticket is around 15,000 yen.)

It's only been 12 hours, but being a yuppie yamabushi has turned out
to be a heavy job -- literally.  My pack is half-empty, and
individually all this gear is light, but when added together...
and carrying half a dozen books, all more or less indispensable,
doesn't help.  And my UG 12-eye combat boots, which I brought along
for the assault on Dewa Sanzan, are killing my feet after 4 months
of sneakers.  No pain, no gain!

The next day, surprisingly painlessly up at 7:30, it was time to
backtrack to Matsushima.  It had rained since I arrived in Sendai,
and it was still either drizzling very lightly or just very wet and
foggy.  It would've been pleasantly cool, but with humidity was 100%,
moving around was sweaty indeed.  Just the same, I liked Matsushima.
Even on a summer Sunday, there weren't too many people, and (mostly
by accident) I got my day off to a great start at the Kanrantei
Pavilion.  I was only going to the museum, but the ticket lady
offered tea for 200 yen, so I decided to give it a shot.  So there
I was, sipping matcha (tea ceremony tea) and munching on the two
included wagashi (tea ceremony sweets), facing a misty panorama
of the Matsushima coastline, sitting cross-legged on the tatami
floor in a beautiful classical pavilion.  Wonderful.
Misty Matsushima Bay
Approaching Zuiganji

Bridge to Fukuurajima
Up next was the Zuigan-ji Temple, a total contrast.  Tickets (600 yen!)
were sold from vending machines outside, tour groups were herded
about by flag-waving guides politely yelling into megaphones,
and the main hall had been turned into a museum with everything
partitioned off or in glass cases with neat little explanations.
It wasn't bad at all as far as museums go, but not quite what I
had in mind.  And I couldn't get a decent picture of the wonderful
moss-covered Kannon statues outside, the one that would've been good
was blurred because I was too lazy to use my monopod!  Grr.

Something a bit closer to what I did have in mind was found at
Fukuura-jima Island.  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.  Thanks to my
combat boots, I was able to stomp around and do a grand tour of
the island.   Some very sabishii spots, in the Bashoan sense,
meaning something along the lines of lonely, sparse beauty that
the mist only added to.  The Chilis' "Under the Bridge" kept
running through my head, a seemingly random choice but the feeling
evoked by that song is similar.  Again by contrast, the next
attraction, the Matsushima Tower, turned out to be a rusting relic
sitting there since the 60s, worrisomely propped up by two extra
diagonal pillars.

I returned to the hostel and pondered.  Some 3 km away was Otakamori,
one of The 4 Famous Places to view Matsushima Bay, and with the
cloud cover breaking up the sunset might be nice.  Earlier in the day,
I had attempted to find some of the other Famous Places, until I
realized that the map had no scale and even the closest ones were
miles away, not just around the corner.  But it was already
17 and dinner was at 18:30 sharp, did I have time?  Well of course!
So, at military pace, I hiked the 3 km, arriving at Otakamori
a sweaty 30 minutes later -- only to discover that ha, the
observation point is another kilometer up a hill.  Stomp stomp!
I arrived at the top (running into some Israeli gaijin astonished
to see other non-natives on the trail along the way) and was
treated to a beautiful pre-sunset; I shot a whole "roll" but the
camera as usual managed to be unable to distinguish overcast sky
and gray seas.  Regretfully, with my pre-paid meal I felt the
clock breathing down my neck, so before sunset I left and, once
on the road, stuck out my thumb.  Yet again, within seconds
I was picked up and deposited at the hostel's doorstep, this time
by the Kuroda family, who were also vacationing nearby.
Sunset at Otakamori

After all this asceticism, it was about time to engage in some
hedonism -- long live the ofuro!  I experienced this Japanese
tradition for the first time at Matsushima and was instantly hooked.
To quote a memorable description, ofuro consists of "a bunch of
men sitting in a tub naked", although it's worth noting that the
water of such a tub varies between hot and boiling.  Now, being
a veteran of Finnish saunas and even German nudist beaches I thought
I was pretty jaded, and the water temperature certainly didn't
cause any problems (not hot enough if you ask me!).  Nevertheless,
I was still forced to lift an eyebrow when I was joined in the tub
by a beautiful, long-haired, naked Japanese girl.  Unfortunately,
the days of kon'nyoku (mixed bathing) are long over and this girl
was not only chaperoned by Pops, but all of 5 years old.  Ah well.
And so, after a long chat with a Mr. Watanabe, it was time to retire
to bed.  Some final thoughts...

It's impossible to write about Matsushima without quoting what it
is probably the world's most famous haiku (by Basho, of course):

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

This tends to strike people as either quaintly Japanese or just as
plain stupid.  I tended to fall in the latter camp, but now that
I've been there, I'm starting to understand.  "Matsushima" means
"Pine Island", and indeed, pines and islands, separately and
together, are what Matsushima is all about.  Generations later,
the pines and the islands are still there, and Matsushima well
deserves its status as one of the Three Great Views of Japan.
Tomorrow Kinkazan!


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