Tohoku’s nature reveals her beauty and wonder as we head to Zao National Park and the 5 star Chikusenso Mt Zao Onsen Resort & Spa in Miyagi prefecture. With only 32 rooms it is a boutique lodging of understated luxury and opulence. Acclaimed architect Yukio Hashimoto is true to his goal “to design not the material, but the ambience” as the wonderful use of space, locally sourced chestnut flooring, Japanese stucco walls (wara juraku), richly woven soft furnishings, Towada stone quarried from Aomori and the impressive Bonshō (Buddhist bell) in the library lounge area immediately impress upon me that this is the height of Japanese design and style whilst maintaining a traditional feel in harmony with the lush green surrounding.
A memorable kaiseki banquet at the refined Kamajin restaurant in a semi-private dining room is nothing short of culinary indulgence as Head Chef Kiyakazu Naoi presents each of the delectable 9 courses like a piece of fine art that, but for my insatiable appetite, seem a shame to eat. From Sendai beef to sweet fish to a surprisingly delicate bite sized meat pie it was an outstanding feast of Japan’s highest form of cuisine. Of course accompanying such a meal with a fine bottle of La Forge Estate Chardonnay from Languedoc, France seemed only natural, though sake would probably have been more appropriate.
Ensconced within 16 acres of heavily forested bamboo, maple and water oak within the Zao National Park it’s an exceptional place for relaxation, reflection and appetite.
Chikusenso is probably not the place to take the kids, but the nearby Miyagi Zao Kokeshi Museum in Tōgatta Onsen certainly is. The large museum is home to over 5,000 intricately painted kokeshi dolls from all over Japan and other hand crafted items, and offers the opportunity to paint your own Tōgatta style kokeshi doll, which was actually a lot more fun than it initially sounded. Under the watchful and guiding eye of a master artisan we slowly and gently paint her petite face, ornate headpiece and a green and red kimono adorned with flowers, to create our own bespoke kokeshi. Traditionally adored by girls, whilst the boys had fun spinning tops, the origins of kokeshi date back to this area of Tohoku during the middle of the Edo Period, some 283 years ago, created by skilled woodworkers to sell as souvenirs to onsen visitors.
Whether it’s the unique ruggedness of Mt Zao or the unique kokeshi of Tōgatta, Miyagi prefecture also lays claim to the unique honour of having one of Japan’s three most scenic spots – Matsushima. Haiku poetry master Bashō Matsuo famously lost for words to describe the sheer beauty and wonder of Matsushima is said to have penned “Matsushima ya, a a Matsushima ya, Matsushima ya”. It’s an astonishing archipelago of 260 pine covered islets within the protected Matsushima Bay, half an hour north of Sendai, which escaped relatively unscathed from the 2011 tsunami. The view is wonderful from every angle, be it high at Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu lookout park, through the windows of Taritsu-an Restaurant feasting on scallops, fried oysters and tempura sea eel, partaking in a time honoured tea ceremony shore side at Kanrantei or on one of the tourist boats that cruise the bay.
The amazing beauty extends on shore to within the grounds of the Zuigan-ji Buddhist Temple which boasts manicured gardens, traditional buildings and a collection of exquisite gold plated panels dating back to the 17th century depicting intricate scenes of nature, such as hawks hunting white herons and scampering rabbits to chrysanthemums, pine and cherry trees blooming to regal peacocks and proud roosters painted by Hasegawa Toin, Sakuma Sakyo and others. The tile covered Hōjō, built of zelkova, cyprus and cedar by 130 master craftsmen was commissioned by Lord Date Masamune and declared a National Treasure in 1953.
Another National Treasure and personal highlight was Hiraizumi in Iwate prefecture – one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. To walk this quaint town with its expansive public spaces, shrines and temples, ornamental ponds, productive rice paddies, archaeological sites, heavenly parks, manicured gardens, breathing the fresh floral scented air to the tunes of birds singing, children playing and irrigation trickling is a sensory delight. The calming soulfulness of this place rested my mind and raised my spirit and is the idyllic backdrop to five UNESCO World Heritage sites representing the Buddhist Pure Land.
The magical Chūson- ji Temple occupies 284 acres of gently undulating forest with a complex of well-preserved buildings, lush greenery and the amazing Konjikidō (Golden Hall) nestled within a wood of giant maples and cyprus standing guard like sentinels. Completed in 1124 by the Ōshu Fujiwara warrior clan the 5 x 5m structure is blanketed in resplendent gold leaf shining on the walls, floors, ceiling and eaves. Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light, adorns the central altar and golden peacocks, elaborate paintings, scenes of nature, statues and inlaid mother-of-pearl decorate the first architectural structure in Japan to be designated a National Treasure. Pilgrims solemnly make offerings and bow their heads whilst an orange and black robed monk quietly recites prayers.
Nearby Mōtsū-ji Temple with one of Japan’s last pure land gardens centred around a large ornamental pond was awash with a rainbow of colour playing host to an iris festival which was a pure delight for a garden lover like myself.