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Flash Fiction: Ah Matsushima! Twice is not enough

Thomas Joel - Friday, June 10, 2016

Fiction Fridays is a new online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan. This piece is from Portland author R.J. Jim” Mockford and was inspired by old memories and recent travels to Japan’s most exotic and scenic areas after the tsunami of 2011.

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Ah Matsushima! Twice is not enough by Jim Mockford

On my first visit to Matsushima in the spring of a college year in Japan, I felt the romance of ancient Japan as I crossed Fukuura Bridge to the island. I stopped at a midway point on the 252-meter red bridge to take in the view of the Japanese red pine and cedar trees on Fukuura Island that spread their greenery as a greeting over the blue water of Matsushima Bay, and their boughs beckoned me into the shadows of the trail leading to another view. I found many more remarkable views from this island each with a partial selection of the some 260 islands that comprise Matsushima, a word that means Pine Islands. It was easy to agree with the age old Japanese saying “it’s one of Japan’s top three scenic views.” These views filled my memory that I kept for 40 years before I returned once again to Matsushima.

I knew it was time to return to Matsushima during the year after the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011. I had been to Japan many times on business over several decades but always just to Tokyo or Kansai and never to Tohoku. I regretted the long lapse of a visit to Matsushima and after seeing the horrifying images of the tsunami on television and via the internet, it seemed after a lifetime away that I should make a journey to the north to Tohoku to pay my respects to the people who had been lost and to those who survived in the places I had visited so long ago. In a way I would also be paying respect to my youth and the life-changing experience that a student exchange program in Japan had given me, to recall with appreciation the Japanese teachers and colleagues to whom I was indebted, and to remember my Japanese host family whom I had lived with for a year in Tokyo and whose grandparents lived in Fukushima. These teachers, mentors, and friends had encouraged my studies and adventures in Japan including travels to distant parts of every major Japanese island. My tour of the Sanriku Coast and Matsushima was a favorite memory.

As the train neared Matsushima Station in 2012, I looked out the window fearing a view of devastation by the tsunami that had stricken just a year earlier. However, the many islands of Matsushima looked much as I remembered, and I was to learn that the geography of the bay and the islands served to protect Matsushima to some extent from the great wave that directly flooded and greatly damaged cities such as Ishinomaki, Kensenuma, Rikuzentakata, and others to the north. There had been damage I was told but in fact I was astonished at the beauty of Matsushima. I walked across the red bridge again to Fukuura Island and took many digital photos remembering how little film I had left in the camera of my college days. I walked to Zuiganji, the ancient temple built by a priest whose name I had forgotten. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami waters had damaged the temple but not destroyed it. Perhaps the blessing of its founding Tendai Priest had kept it safe.

There was a time in the early 1600s when the temple needed repair, and the Lord of the Domain Date Masamune brought timbers from far-off Mount Kumano in Kii Province and carpenters from Kyoto and Wakayama to make sure that Zuiganji would last for the ages. The famous poet Matsuo Basho visited the temple on his journey to the north and was inspired to write about its golden walls, but he is better known for having been struck nearly speechless at the first view of Matsushima and a legacy that included attribution of a haiku that simply captured the feeling: “Matsushima ah, A-ah Matsushima, ah Matsushima, ah!” I had visited Matsushima twice in my life, and both times I could say, “Matsushima ah.” But somehow I feel that twice in a lifetime is not enough to know Matsushima. The years tell me that it must be my quest to return a third time to say once again, “A-ah Matsuhima, ah!”

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R.J. “Jim” Mockford is a Portland writer and graduate of the University of Oregon Honors College where a colloquium visit by Ken Kesey encouraged adventures and writing. He published his first essay after sailing from Portland to San Francisco on a Japanese yacht in 1980. In 2014 he authored “Pacific Passages: Lady Washington in Japan” with illustrations by Lucy Bellwood (a maritime themed mini-comic about the first American flag ship to visit Japan in 1791). Jim’s articles are found in Mains’l Haul by San Diego Maritime Museum, Noticias del Puerto de Monterey, Oregon Historical Quarterly, and The Northern Mariner. You can connect with Jim via Wordpress and Twitter.

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