Shiogama is a city sitting on the coast of Miyagi, in between Sendai and Matsushima. As an old harbour town, it remains on the forefront of Japan’s fishing industry today, and can claim the title of having the most number of sushi restaurants per square kilometre in Japan. A ferry service connects it to Matsushima, so it is easy to stop off on the way from Sendai before carrying on by sea to Matsushima. As a tourist destination it is less well-known than Matsushima, one of the three great sights of Japan, which is expected, but a shame, as Shiogama has many treats in store for those that do decide to stop by.
A 10-minute walk from Honshiogama station lies Shiogama Shrine – a Shinto complex over 1,200 years old. Main access to the shrine is by climbing some 200 large stone steps, although there are more gentle sloping paths that will take visitors to the top, located slightly back towards the station. In July, a huge festival known as Minato Matsuri (port festival), that signals the start of the summer festival season takes place, and the mikoshi (shrine floats) which have been transferred by boat across Matshushima bay, are brought up these steps back to the shrine. Once you reach the top, there are several shrines, a garden, and a museum to visit. The museum displays Edo-period（1600-1868）items, and objects related to the salt- and fishing industries. There are over 300 cherry trees in the grounds, making this a perfect spot to enjoy blossom-viewing in Spring. You may also catch a wedding ceremony taking place here. As well as the aforementioned harbour festival, there are yabusame (horseback archery) tournaments that take place in summer, and a festival to celebrate the salt-making industry, from where Shiogama gets its name, as Shiogama literally means salt furnace.
Local sake with a long history
A short walk from the steps of Shiogama Shrine lies a long street (Motomachi), home to the smaller Okama shrine, where the large wooden cauldrons used for making salt are kept. An ancient salt-making ritual is still performed here every July. Along this street there are several sites of interest. A must-stop is Urakasumi brewery. Founded in 1724, they produce a range of nihonshu (sake), including seasonal and limited editions. For example, the hiyaoroshi, limited to autumn and made from Miyagi’s famous Sasanishiki rice, has a rich, traditional taste. There is a tasting set for 300 yen, where one can sample 3 different types of sake, as well as a plum wine. The staffs are able to make some basic explanations about the drinks on offer in English, and after the sampling is finished, you can take home the engraved tasting cup too.
Sweet treats and fresh fish
This same street is also home to a gelato ice-cream shop. The owner was originally a fruit vendor, but decided to evolve his business into using the range of local fruits as ingredients for the ice creams. There are a variety of flavours, and a premium range. Across the road there is a chocolatier producing a range of chocolate bars and cakes. They use the locally-produced salt in their mixes, and you can even pick up some packets of the salt here. The small, moulded sweets will make for a good present, or a treat on your journey. Shiogama does have a range of eating options available, such as around Honshiogama station or at the Marine Gate Pier, although it would be amiss to not sample such high quality seafood if you are only briefly stopping here. We visited Kameki-zushi ordering the moriawase (assortment) seasonal set. The quality was truly excellent, and it felt like a luxurious treat, and this for a restaurant where even the locals stop by regularly to eat, it is well recommended.
Enchanted by the wonders of this small town
After lunch you could head to the harbour, Marine Gate, to set sail for Matsushima and view the islands, or alternatively, visitors with an afternoon to spare could head to the Sugimura Jun Art Museum. A short walk from the Motomachi street, it is home to a permanent collection of works by Sugimura Jun, who moved to Shiogama following the Second World War, and, enamoured by its people and landscape, stayed there to produce landscapes, portraits and still life paintings. The museum houses the “townspeople’s gallery” showcasing other local artworks, as well as being home to a quirky café. Just like Sugimura Jun, you too may fall in love with Shiogama after visiting.
Take the JR Tohoku Senseki Line to Hon-Shiogama station. Local train, 29min, 320yen.
Shiogama Shrine HP (in Japanese) http://www.shiogamajinja.jp/index.html
Urakasumi HP (in English) http://www.urakasumi.com/en/
Gelato, Fruits Laboratory HP http://www.fruitslaboratory.com/
Chocolatier, Cleauventerre HP http://www.cevt-chocolat.com/
Kamekizushi HP (In Japanese) http://www.kamekisushi.jp/
Sugimura Jun Museum HP http://sugimurajun.shiomo.jp/