Zuigan-ji is a Rinzai Zen temple in Matsushima, a costal town in Miyagi Prefecture famous for its scenic beauty from the feudal times as one of the Three Views of Japan (the other two are Ama-no-hashidate in Kyoto Prefecture and Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture).
According to legend, Zuigan-ji, initially called Enpuku-ji, was founded in 828 by Ennin (794 – 864), a prominent Buddhist priest in Japanese history, as a base to diffuse Tendai Buddhism in the Tohoku region.
The temple won the support of the Oshu Fujiwara clan which ruled the region in the late Heian period and the Kamakura shogunate which subsequently subverted the clan. The crystal container storing Buddha’s ashes presently exhibited at the temple’s museum was offered by Hojo Masako (1157 – 1225), the wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo who founded the shogunate.
In the 13th century, the temple was converted into a Rinzai Zen temple by monk Hosshin who had been to China to study Zen and was practicing his Zen at a cave in Matsushima.
But soon after that the temple went into decline, and by the end of the 16th century it was almost in ruins. It was not until the 17th century that the temple revived its glory. Date Masamune (1567 – 1636), the powerful feudal lord who ruled modern-day Miyagi Prefecture including Matsushima in those days, completed the reconstruction of the temple in 1609 and renamed the temple Zuigan-ji.
It took him five years to rebuild the temple, gathering more than a hundred carpenters and craftsmen from around the nation. Of the present temple buildings, Hondo (the main hall), Kuri (the residence of priests), and Roka (the wooden passage) were erected then and are designated as Natural Treasures.
Usually, Kuri at Buddhist temples are built simple because these are residential buildings of ascetic monks, but here at Zuigan-ji, it has an impressive roof and is decorated with elegant arabesque design, which enable you to you can feel the aesthetic sense of Masamune.
It is said that it is one of the three best Kuri in Japan (the other two are those of Myoho-ji and Myoshin-ji, both located in Kyoto City). Other than these, Onarimon, Chumon, and Godaido are listed as Important Cultural Properties.
Outside of the building, Japanese cedar trees are lining holily along the main approach to the temple, and on the right, there are caves carved into the rock to house small pagodas.
At the temple’s museum, along with other artifacts, the life-sized statue of Date Masamune wearing his iconic armor is on display, and sometimes, the gorgeous wall paintings of the room for feudal lords will also be exhibited.
Where to eat around Zuigan-ji
Entsu-in, located to the south of Zuigan-ji, is a temple where Date Mitsumune, a grandson of Masamune’s is buried, and is known for its beautiful garden.
On the grounds of this temple is a restaurant called Ungai. It serves healthy kaiseki cuisine using fresh, seasonal and regional foods. Dishes using fish from Matsushima bay are especially noteworthy.
They also use Sendai Miso (soy paste) and Hitomebore (a variety of rice), both of which are well-known local specialties of Miyagi Prefecture. Enjoying the garden over a nice meal is a wonderful experience. Note that you must make a reservation beforehand (tel 022-353-2626).
Where to stay around Zuigan-ji
There are many hotels from the windows of which you can view Matsushima Bay. Of them, below two are popular among women.
Matsushima Century Hotel
Matsushima Century Hotel is a hotel overlooking Matsushima Coast. Every room on the sea side has a balcony facing the bay, enabling you to feel the breeze of the sea. You can also enjoy great views from the common open-air bath.
Some guest rooms are even equipped with their own open-air bath. What makes this hotel popular among women is the existence of an aromatherapy salon called Setsugetsuka. It offers facial treatments using its original organic cosmetics.
Ubudo is another hotel looking over Matsushima Bay. There’s a beauty salon which offers full-body massage. As for the rooms, some have an open-air bathtub made of wood on their balconies.
Zuigan-ji is one of the most prominent Rinzai Zen temples, not only in the Tohoku Region but also in Eastern Japan.
The number of the National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties it possesses is one of the largest in the region. Along with the renowned view of Matsushima, it is a very popular tourist destination in Eastern Japan.