Matsushima's best-known structure is the most famous Zen temple in northern Japan. Located just a couple minutes' walk from Matsushima Kaigan Pier and 10 minutes from the train station, its entrance is shaded by tall cedar trees. On the right side of the pathway leading to the temple are caves and grottoes dug out by priests long ago; adorned with Buddhist statues and memorial tablets, they were used for practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and are an impressive sight. Here, too, you'll find what is probably Japan's only monument to . . . eels!

Now a National Treasure and the highlight of a stay in Matsushima, Zuiganji Temple was originally founded in the Heian Period (828) as a Tendai temple but became a Zen temple in the 13th century. After a period of decline, it was remodeled in 1604 by order of Date Masamune, the most powerful and important lord of northern Honshu. Unifying the region known as Tohoku, Date built his castle in nearby Sendai, and today almost all sites in and around Sendai and Matsushima are tied to the Date family. It took hundreds of workers 5 years to build the impressive main hall, a large wooden structure that was constructed in the shoin-zukuri style typical of the Momoyama Period and served as the Date family temple. But it's the temple's interior that impresses, especially the wood-carved transoms and brilliantly painted, gold-plated fusuma (sliding doors). A room at the back is dedicated to the samurai who were laid to rest here, having followed their Date lord into death by committing ritualistic suicide. On temple grounds is the Zuiganji Art Museum (Seiryuden), which houses temple and Date family treasures displayed on a rotating basis, including painted sliding doors, portraits and statues of the Date clan, teacups, scrolls, calligraphy, and woodblock prints, many of Matsushima as it looked in former times. In all, you'll probably spend an hour at Zuiganji Temple.

Under the supervision of Zuiganji Temple is Godaido, a small wooden worship hall on a tiny island not far from the pier. Connected to the mainland by a short bridge, its grounds are open night and day and are free, but there's not much to see other than the bay. Nevertheless, Godaido is often featured in brochures of Matsushima, making this delicate wooden temple one of the town's best-known landmarks.