MATSUSHIMA, Miyagi - "I have made up my mind to go see the pale moon in Matsushima" (Matsushima no oborozuki mini to omoitachisoro).
So wrote revered haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) to one of his disciples, before setting off on a trip that became the basis for his famous travelogue "Oku no Hosomichi" (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).
On June 25 (May 9 in the lunar calendar) of 1689, he arrived by sea route in Matsushima, a scenic site with a group of about 200 small islands in what is now in Matsushima Bay, Miyagi Prefecture.
Travelers coming from the direction of Sendai at that time could take an inland road to Matsushima. But according to Eiichi Kyono, a local historian in the town of Matsushima, "The sea route was the only option for Basho, who went around visiting 'utamakura' places [places of natural beauty and historical importance sung in old waka poems].
Kyono, 66, has researched Basho's visit to Matsushima for many years.
From the port of Shiogama, which is also in the prefecture, Basho took a boat and arrived at Oshima island or one of the islands nearby in Matsushima Bay. Oshima is known for its rocky shore, called Oshima-ga-iso, which has been described in waka poems since ancient times.
Kyono thinks Basho intended to land on one of the Matsushima islands even before starting the trip.
From a pier of Matsushima Port, I took a sightseeing boat that cruised through the islands. In "Oku no Hosomichi," Basho described the route to Oshima in detail, saying that the islands huddled together in groups of two and three looked like they were carrying their child or grandchild on their backs or holding a child in their arms. I looked around the islands on the left and right, trying to imagine which ones he referred to.
After the boat trip, I crossed the Fukuurabashi bridge on the east side of the port to Fukuurajima island and spent an hour or so walking around. Through the tree branches, I could see silhouettes in various different shapes of the Matsushima islands.
I went back to the pier and waited for the moon to rise in the sky covered by ill-timed clouds. Then the full moon appeared through clouds above Fukuurajima island. By the time I had walked close to the Fukuurabashi bridge, the full moon had come out of the clouds completely, casting a silver reflection of itself on the sea's surface.
The scenic beauty of the islands in Matsushima Bay and the view of the moon has been known in China and other foreign countries from ancient times. There are records of Albert Einstein being impressed with the twilight view of the moon in Matsushima in 1922.
In December 2013, Matsushima Bay became the first Japanese bay to be admitted to the Vanne, France-based Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club at its annual general meeting held in Cambodia.
"[The club] thought highly of not only the scenic beauty of Matsushima, but also its cultural background of being loved for many years as one of the three major scenic sites in Japan," said Kyuichiro Sato, the head of the Matsushima Tourism Association at that time and who attended the meeting as a member of the local delegation.
Sato, 65, is now the head of Michinoku Date Masamune Rekishikan (Historical museum of Date Masamune) in Matsushima.
The museum commemorates the famous feudal lord Date Masamune (1567-1636), and I could feel myself slipping back to the time of the man who founded the Sendai clan and rebuilt Zuiganji temple as his family temple.
After traveling in time and space, I took a rest at Date Cafe, which faces the museum. I ordered a Hasekura parfait, which is served to only 20 customers a day. The dessert is named after Hasekura Tsunenaga (1571-1622), who travelled to Europe at his lord Masamune's order about 400 years ago.
On top of the parfait is a homemade cookie in the shape of the Western-style sailing ship on which Hasekura set off. As I finished the savory cookie, I found creamy chocolate beneath.
"Hasekura and his company are believed to have tasted chocolate in Europe when it was not known in Japan," Sato said.
Scenic beauty, history and fun - I thought Matsushima has unlimited potential as an international tourist spot.
It is 95 minutes at the fastest from JR Tokyo Station to Sendai Station on a Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train. From Sendai Station, take an express train for about 25 minutes on the JR Senseki Line to Matsushima-Kaigan Station.