Avoiding temple fatigue

As I’m exploring the relatively unknown world of Buddhism and Shintoism (specific to Japan), there are so many unfamiliar sights, actions, and sounds at the temples and shrine, that I often can only stand back and admire instead of getting into the action.

Traveling during the off-season has it’s perks: Empty tourist sites. But this means there are few people to ask, and even fewer that can give you an answer in a language you speak. So I took some pictures and did a little research, and found some interesting tidbits that I thought I would share. (If any experts out there catch some errors, please let me know!)

And certainly knowing a little more helps to appreciate the immensity of the tradition within all of the lovely temples and shrines here in Japan.

So here we go. There is a quiz at the end, so take notes ūüôā


Wooden votive plaques. Bought and hand-written with your wishes and hung outside the temple.

Omi kuji

Paper fortunes that you can buy at various temples. Through a random process (sometimes more or less complex), you receive a fortune- if it is good, take it home. if it is bad, leave it at the temple to be cleansed by the gods.

Senjya fuda

The old sticker ‘calling cards’ of pilgrims visiting the temples and shrines to state that they have been there. You seem them stuck all over the place on the buildings. As it was eventually found to be defacing the facade, the pilgrims now use strips of paper to state their visit to that temple. White paper for the novice, red for 10-19 site visits, silver for 20-29, gold for 30+. The colours and numbers vary, ¬†sometimes gold only is granted after 100+ site visits.

Jizo altars

Jizo is a Bodhisattva (an enlightened person who has chosen to stay on Earth to help guide other people to enlightenment) who provides supreme compassion, optimism and salvation for the living and the dead, particularly children. Sadly, the tiny Jizo statues represent miscarried children. Along with the children’s toys, the altars are decorated with red (the colour for healing and fertility) hats, bibs and capes to ask Jizo to ‘cloth’ their lost children in protection.

Wheel Jizo

These long stakes are placed at altars throughout, and when a wish is made, you turn the wheel down if it is for the afterlife, or up if for the present life.

Sacred rocks and trees

Coins of 100 Yen are placed into the crevices of the rocks and into the bark of the sacred trees. A beautiful shiny sight from a distance.


Typical for Shinto tradition, the Shimenawa braided rope and Shime strips of white paper are often hung at entrances to shrines. You can also see the devotional practice on the handy (if you read Japanese) placard- donate, ring bell or pull beads around pulleys (if applicable), bow twice, clap twice, pray, bow again.

Shinto Shrines vs. Buddhist Temples

This is a tricky when there isn’t a good way to verify your guess, but the defining feature between the two is the entrance. Shinto shrines are famous for the red¬†torii gates, but I have yet to see one quite so obvious. Buddhist temples tend to be much more ornate and have sturdy looking gates (also called -mon). The one below is definitely a Buddhist gate.

Shinto shrines also are defined by their use of the swastika. No reference to the Natzis who made the symbol famous, but an historically sacred symbol representing luck. So here below is a Shinto shrine, with a more simple gate structure as well.

So quiz time: can you spot the rather weathered shimenawa hanging from the gate and the omi kuji tied onto the wood lattice of the door? Even a few old senjya fuda still holding on as well.

Hope this helps and that you are now ready to venture a little deeper into the beautiful traditions of Buddhism and Shintoism!

warm fireplaces, old stories, and other essentials of a German Christmas

I celebrated Christmas this year for the first time in Southern Germany with Tilmann’s family.

A long 10 days of sleeping in until noon (I didn’t even know I had that skill), walking the happy dog in the misty hills, frequent coffee and cake breaks shortly followed by dinner, wine, stories, and games in the evening.

10 adults in total. Full-on German immersion. Thank goodness I was in wine country.

It was just my luck that Tilmann’s family is particularly traditional at Christmas. I was swept into the festivities, and here are a few of the highlights from that part of the world:

– Tree lights are often still delicate little candles in special holders.
My instincts tell me that wood is a common fuel for fire, but my ‘danger danger!’ face was told to trust in tradition…. and that only ‘a few’ accidents happen every year. Hold onto your cats and small children.

We went to Christmas Mass on the 24th. Immediately on coming home, we had to wait (im)patiently outside the living room for the tree candles to be lit for the first time (the tree is also only set up on the 24th). Upon the ringing of a bell we were allowed to enter and be absorbed into the warmth of the candle light. Carols were sung, presents were exchanged and then Christmas dinner was happily eaten.

– No traditional Christmas meal.
Believe it or not, North America has a long-standing tradition that doesn’t exist and (possibly) didn’t originate in Europe. 1 point North Am! We got 2 raclette ovens going and had an amazing session of grilling, melting, seasoning, and stuffing (ourselves that is). We heart cheese. Typical additions to the melted cheese: potatoes, mushrooms, onions, corn, pickles, beets. And of course meat, if you are into that sort of thing (see below on the effects of Christmas drinks).

– A few Christmas Carols that I know are also sung in German. Oh Holy Night, and Oh Christmas Tree, of course (Tannenbaum!)
Unbeknownst to us beforehand, this provided some nice bonding moments as I sang in English and tried to compete with the 3 singing sisters in German. No chance.

– Christmas markets never get old, unless they are of the medieval kind!
We went to a nearby town to check out the traditional market, as well as the completely authentic middle age market. I was already high on the beautiful style of the buildings surrounding the market. And then we stepped into the medieval market full of fire torches, wood stove baking, traditional leather and metal workers, and even a wood-heated hot tub wherein you could watch the crowds as they passed through. We got to try out archery, egg tossing, and plenty of mead as well, to keep the spirits high.

The mead might make you do crazy things though…. the 1-metre long sausages become very tempting for a vegetarian. Tilmann’s sister couldn’t resist.

The time in Germany passed easily, as we enjoyed a deeper sense of gratitude for having each other together that year.

And the dog appreciated a dance partner for his waltz to, of course, the Nutcracker Suite!

December distractions

Checking back through the pictures from December and finding some gems to share. Lots of cool things that pulled me forward into the holiday spirit.

(Yah, a month too late, but who doesn’t want to revisit warm candles, rainy markets, fluffy snowflakes, and decorating a Christmas tree with Nora!)

So December was a particularly rainy month. I visited no less than 4 lovely Christmas markets and was rained on through all of them. Here I visited Schaffhausen, near the border to Germany where the famous Rhine Falls tumble down. The famous Munot fortification at the top of the village has beautiful light pouring through into an open circular stone room. I can only imagine that it used to be filled with activity – people, arms, horses, fire. However, now the room is filled with an eerie green light and the walls echo with every group that walks through.

Looking for oncoming attacks, or checking up on my grapes
Within Munot

Back in Zurich, a few flakes of snow did fall and one last party in our rented room kept us dancing in the warm glow.

And for the first time (that I noticed) the Nutcracker Ballet was playing in Zurich! An old family tradition that I was able to keep up even here. The performance was lovely, and the Opera House was outstanding, just as I would imagine an old European theatre.

Opera House Zurich

And, as always, December was filled with new and touching music. The artists as young men¬†presented ‘the mermaid’. They had previously written 6 songs specifically for the story of the Little Mermaid, and presented with professional sign language translators to perform a concert for the deaf.

Visuals and artistic translation to bring the musical soundscape into the eyes of the deaf

Benji, singer of artists as young men, also played a special Christmas concert with our friend Chregi, of the fridge, at a local organic grocery store. Amazing music in front of organic wine. Yum.

Shortly after I made a quick trip to Schluein to see Lisa, drop off gifts, and decorate the tree. I left dry, grey Zurich and entered into a strikingly white wonderland of peaceful falling snow.

I was free to be a 3-year old with Nora as we chose our favourite decorations for the tree, danced to the Nutcracker Suite, and ate Christmas cookies while watching the snow pile up. I secretly wished the snow would pile so high I would be stuck there until Spring…

But Christmas was within days, and more lights, singing and traditions were to follow…. this year in Germany!

Straddling the Atlantic: baking a Canadian pie in Europe

The humourous stereotypes are not lost on me, in fact I relish in them. Since I’ve moved to ‘Europe’ I’ve started hanging my laundry outside to dry, zipping around the city on my bike, baking my own bread, and, some report, have picked up an accent… in English. Interesting.

I suppose these are all normal reactions to living in a new environment, we adapt, we hike up our leiderhosen and dive right into the cheese fondue.

Though not for everything. I’m still stuck on the ridiculous Canadian ‘metric’ system. Not quite American, not quite like Euroland, I still appreciate my pounds, cups, and feet. So needless to say, baking here is always a bit of magic.

There are no expectations since anything that results in a manageable (rather close to mangeable, n’est pas?) consistency becomes a bread, cookie or cake. So far many positive reviews from very dedicated taste-testers.

Last week I crossed a new hurdle. Yes indeed, I am baking pies in Switzerland (well 2 so far, but that counts for plural). Not only that, I am shocking their tongues with the pie that never made it back across the Atlantic: Pumpkin Pie!

But before I show off the buttery crumby details, let’s talk about my ‘enabling environment’. I personally own no baking equipment, except for maybe a mixing spoon (thanks Mom), so whatever I use is graciously available from the apartment that I am living in. The last place was heaven (I was living with a crazy foodie…), mixers, whizzers, smashers and scales, even a creme brulee torch. I’m a little less equipped at the new place having to be a little creative to follow the North American recipes online. Some examples of my ‘genius’:

– Measuring out ‘cups’: I use our drinking glasses, looks like about 250 g for water et al. Oh wait, engineering school taught me that not everything weighing 250 g will fill the same volume. Hmm, let’s pretend it does.

– Teaspoons, tablespoons, pinches and sticks: Well this used to be good guessing game as no one seems to own measuring spoons nor does butter come in sticks. But Ellen caught this problem early on and gifted me a dashingly red set of measuring spoons which are now in high rotation (you rock, E!). Sticks have to be improvised, and I get by with some good carving out of the butter block, but I sure like saying that I wish I had a few sticks to add to this recipe, hehe.

– Gas stove in C: Yikes, was I also supposed to know all the¬†Fahrenheit¬†(which is a German word, now who has it backwards?) temperatures in Celsius? Well even after conversion, I can’t exactly do much for precision on my gas stove.

325F = 162.8C

– Missing ingredients: Some things you just can’t find, unless you go to one of those foreign grocery stores, importing wild things from abroad like mint extract and sushi rice. So when I get a craving for pumpkin pie, especially around this time of year, I just gotta make it happen. No canned pumpkin, no allspice? Bring it on!

For a fun bonus, I had my mind set on using the chestnut flour I brought back from Corsica to make the pie crust. Ahem, my first pie crust. That made it just a little more special, but once you smell that heavenly nutty delicate chestnut flour, you’d be right there with me. Promise.

So let me present my proud creation: chestnut crusted pumpkin pie

Fresh pumpkin ready to roast
Post-roast to filling
Chestnut crust prep and fill

And the finished product…

Light and fluffy, spicy and sweet

It was dreamy. Like pumpkin fluff with a tickle of chestnut. It was quickly finished.

And for the second, slightly more creative: chestnut crusted apple pear pie

Frozen butter shredded and vanilla pod for crust
Boskoop apples and Conference pears for a soft jammy filling, plus lemon and ginger
Out of the oven, deep dish goodness

And some fun with the top crust. Roasted almonds and lots of love

This one was for a boy I’m particularly proud of, recently finished a Master’s degree and rather brilliant if I do say so myself.
Pie was heartily devoured in the midst of the beautiful autumn. Happy November!

Autumn sights in Zurich

After a few last attempts to hold onto summer (see: Saturday afternoons by the lake), the bright oranges, reds and yellows around Zurich started to tell the story of cooler nights, foggy mornings, and the crisp breeze causing people to get cozy and bring out the winter comforter. It is definitely autumn!

Late summer sun at the lake

With the fog lifting up by the afternoon, the bright blue sky has been an exquisite complement to the symbols of the season: late harvest plants, lingering flowers, plump pumpkins, and the changing of the leaves. I’ve been walking around the ‘m0untain’ near my apartment and marveling at the final stages of summer blending seamlessly into one of my favourite times of year. As a self-declared jacket addict, this is a great time of year since I’m assured of the need for a great long spy trench coat and a cozy wool scarf before venturing out.

pursuing sun

gardening yoga

And as the growing season wraps up, the plot farmers are hard at work preparing their garden for the winter crops and bringing in the last of the summer’s. This, of course, means pumpkins are ready!¬†To fully embrace this I biked out of Zurich to a nearby you-pick farm called Jucker Farmart. Here they not only display the winning pumpkins in the annual ‘biggest’ competition, there are also pumpkin-made displays with a new theme every year. It just so happened that I decided to visit the farm when the theme was particularly original: Switzerland. Yep, we are talking about displays complete with a gigantic cow, Heidi, the Matterhorn, an alp horn and more made from various shapes, colours and sizes of pumpkin. You couldn’t help but smile at the fun displays, the history and symbols they chose, and the faces of the kids who were totally entranced by the pure quantity of pumpkins and all their alien forms.

700 kg winner and contenders

The three-canton vote to unite Switzerland... in pumpkin form
Pumpkin carver

And along with pumpkins, also comes apples. And in Switzerland they make a fresh pressed apple juice, mixed with pear as well, called Most (pronounced Moescht)

pouring fresh Most into bottles

And one final impression from another ‘mountain’ above Zurich (they are really more like hills but have the name of -berg, meaning mountain. Hmm… they don’t quite look like the mountains I know) looking out towards the Alps and the surrounding towns. The sun was setting and casting a glow that lit the oranges of the hill and the purple of the horizon.

3 C’s

Cassia, Christmas and Cake!

A few weeks ago, one of my oldest friends from Canada, Cassia, came to visit from London for the weekend. What a treat to be freshly back from Africa, in the depths of Scorpio month, preparing for Christmas, and sharing it all with, what has often been, my other half of the last 20 years.

Thinking back, the highlight of the weekend was just being with Cass- being enveloped for a weekend in her wise perspective, Calgarian enthusiasm, and hilarious stories. As we wandered around Zurich together, we could have been in any cute old Euro city as we poked into antique book stores, sniffed out chocolate shops and gazed at church stained-glass. But seeing as it was Zurich, my cute old Euro city, it felt even better to be back from Burkina, in a place where I feel so comfortable, showing it to my blonde half. It all added up to a lovely weekend.

We were able to take advantage of a christmas market in a mountain town called Einsiedeln. Not only did we have an adorable market to wander through, it even ended at the famous monastery at the edge of the village. 

Einsiedeln monastery and market stands

Two of my friends also came with us, Andrea and Maja, and we determined that there are 3 things that compose a Swiss Christmas market:

1. The stands will offer, at minimum: candles of all shapes and sizes, the standard delicious swiss¬†christmas cookies, mulled wine and other warm beverages…. at every corner, hats gloves socks etc. required for the unacclimated tourists, things carved in wood, and just enough kitsch.

2. The lighting will be twinkling, possibly in forms ranging from cheesy (santa and elves) to sweet (stars and icicles)

3. Snow will be prevalent: real or fake

Andrea reviewing the cookie selection
Snow, warm drinks, better gloves- check

That evening, we gathered at a friend’s house¬†for a tasty dinner, mulled wine and a special birthday surprise for Cass and I! Such sweet friends-¬†a professionally decorated chocolate zucchini cake!

Cass checking out the mulled wine supply. Paco checking for a slice of cake.

We concluded with a bottle of pear champagne from the market. There exists an endearing video of me trying to get the cork off…. for 8 minutes… with plenty of commentary concerning leverage, strength of a thumb, and my potential targets in my friend Nico’s new apartment (no permanent damage¬†done). ¬†

Thanks for the wonderful visit!

What is black and white and red all over?

As we stepped into the court of the traditional village of Tiebélé we were instantly taken in by the labyrinth of smooth hand-molded houses, and the repetitive patterns ornamenting each wall.

Our guide, Herman, explained the intense process involved in building the houses- the continuous addition of different mixtures of sand cement, painted with a coating of red soil as a seal, and finally the natural black (or sometimes red or white) designs coming from the concentration of different seeds and minerals. It is a battle against the rain and sun to keep the structure standing,  and each year demands constant maintenance, but all part of their traditional day-to-day life.

We were fortunate to visit one of the most famous houses in the court belonging to a old women of the village. She has reportedly travelled the globe learning and teaching the design process and decoration of the houses. The outside of her house was incredibly detailed, and as Herman explained, very meaningful. Each pattern, no matter how intricate, related to an aspect of traditional life, animistic beliefs, the harvest or the family history. The low curved archway is the door into her house, and you’ be amazed how she can scoot in and out of there, no yoga needed for her.

Since she is a widow she lives in a house shaped like a figure-8. Single people have round houses, couples move into square houses- makes the census process pretty quick! and gives an interesting layout to the village. We were instantly lost as we walked through narrow passageways, up and down steps, and through courtyards filled with corn or millet or children.

In the widow’s house, one half of the 8 is the kitchen, the other half the bedroom. Millet and corn are staple products, so every house has its own grinding stone. The one in her house was particularly magical with the interior paintings and the one beam of sunlight for the room directed over the stones. She also had a stack of traditional clay pots used to pound yams and potatoes into various consistencies, the base for many dishes here. The perforated pot is used to make a yam-based couscous.

After the tour of her two rooms, we went up onto the terrace to get a feel for the maze we walked through to get there. And we finished the visit by sharing the local fermented drink made from millet, called dolo- tastes sort of like cider, though a little too warm, and is served in a gourd which is subsequently passed around to everyone in sight as a sign of generosity. Everyone is your family when there is dolo around!

A very beautiful glimpse into another way of  life here in Burkina.

Walking km's between the wood and the fire
Unpaved roads are tough on the bicyclists
Coming to see the visitors
Into the maze
Cauldrons for making dolo
The old women's house and entrance
The grinding stones in the elder's kitchen
Clay pots
The village demographics
Dolo time!