Dream World III: Around darkness

While Zurich remains grey all day, at least up in the mountains the endless depth of the blue sky can be found. But the sun sinks early, and the darkness consumes the mountains and surrounding villages- just a few points of light, of life, remind that there is someone out there (or at least some flowing electrons) on the other side of the river.

Mia and I brought paper bags and candles out into the field. The little lights carved out a tiny sphere in the darkness, though we could still barely see each other or where we were walking. The lit bags were floating over the land as we tried out how we could light up these mountains.

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The barn and trough, waiting for the ponies to come over the winter, added some depth, texture and boundaries.

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But some boundaries are better left open.

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Oh these two… they fill my heart indeed.

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‘Darkness is your candle. Boundaries are your quest’ – Rumi

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Blue/White

Delicate yellow and pink blossoms are popping up around Zurich. Piercing through the crisp air, grey fog and the dark concrete, I am reminded of the changing season in a most gentle yet impatient sort of way. It is definitely not yet Spring here. But those tiny early flowers are definitely gracefully impatient to show their selves.

However, my heart is still in a winter sleep. Patient, it demands little of colour and form. Luxurious round piles of sparkling snow, the sun reflecting diamonds on the surface. An ever shifting sky of blue and grey, and maybe even glorious and surprising gold from a low sun. Nights spent indoors, around a table, with a candle and wine glasses, simple darks and lights. And of course, a little chocolate to make it through the cold.

Swiss mountains:

Schächental (translated, ~ shadow valley)

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Weissberg (translated, white mountain)

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Zurich

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Finland:

Lapland

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…well we didn’t always stay inside at night, when the lights and darks were happening outside in the sky.

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Side trips from Sendai, Part 2

** Second post on tourism in the Sendai area. Chock full of pictures and interesting facts beyond the tourist pamphlets**

Second weekend out of Sendai, I took the train to Yamadera- an hour west by train into the mountains.

The weather, as usual, was grey and chilly, but I was thrilled with the thought of temples tucked into mountains. Mmm glorious.

Yamadera is a special town (perhaps one might say village) that sits at the confluence of several valleys, and one particular mountain (though perhaps one might say rocky hill) was deemed, by the monks of the Tendai Buddhist sect, to be the sacred passage between this life and the next.

A little background on the Tendai Buddhist. As various traditions of Buddhism were making their way east from India, in around 600 AD Buddhism crossed over into the traditionally Shinto land of Japan. There was certainly a fair share of competition between the Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, likely enhanced by the feudal lord system of the time, but each influenced the other in the end. Japanese Buddhism is unique in itself, honouring the Buddha Amida (briefly, the Lord of the afterlife, or infinite light). And Tendai Buddhism resulted from a sort of merger between Buddhism and Shintoism. It is often simplified that Shintoism is for this life, and Buddhism for after.

Knowing this is key to visiting Yamadera, without the knowledge that this Tendai site is a mix of Shinto and Buddhism, the scattering of the two styles of shrines and temples would lead you to belief that there were different real estate agents selling land here.

So what did the monks see in Yamadera? The answer to this can still be felt today.
The magnificent sculptures of nature demonstrated through secretive caves punctuated by patterns of erosion in the rocks. The amazing forest of cedar trees leading up the mountain quickly pulls you out of this world. The small peaks and lookout that bring your gaze up the various valleys in the surrounding area.

I still get shivers thinking about the feeling at the top lookout… but let’s start at the beginning.

The monks felt that this was a place to lead into the infinite light, the place on the other side, and established over 20 buildings here to seamlessly merge with nature for that passage. At the beginning of the over 1000 steps up to the top (though don’t be scared, the route is nicely spaced between many buildings and monuments to enjoy) is the main hall, the Konponchudo temple.

Konponchudo
Inside Konponchudo, where the endless flame burns

The typical place for the main objects of worship (i.e. any building named -chudo), here a flame from Mt. Hieizan, location of the head temple of Tendai Buddhism, has been burning since 860! Infinite light- ah, it all comes together.

At the entrance to the temple is a lovely laughing Buddha, Hotei. Not actually accurate for a buddha to worship, many people still come to rub parts of his body for healing, abundance and happiness.

Throughout the path, there are many devotional places. In the moment, I gazed at them thoughtfully, wondering about all the paper, cloth, wood, etc. Thus I did some research and figured it out a posteriori.

The path winds it’s way silently up through the Cedar trees and streams. Small statues, stone lanterns, and graves discretely find their place  among the dried needles on the floor.

Walking out of the forest, I came upon the high temples, perched on the edges of the rock.

 Some of the main buildings are still in use by the monks who live there. The building below, Kaizando, has a beautiful entrance protected by a Shinto dragon and is used for copying scriptures. It is the oldest building on the entire site so they say.

Another beautiful piece near the final hall is the Kanatoro, the metal lantern. About 2 metres high, it is full of great details with each section having its own meaning. So from the top…

The very top ball is the houju, the sacred gem, which expels evil and grants wishes. Nice start.

The next section holding the bells is an umbrella to protect the flame of the lantern.

Then of course comes the lantern housing itself, the hibukuro.

Supporting the hibukuro is a lotus flower, and here further protected by an amazing dragon.

And at the base, the kiso, often times only lotus petals,
but here it appears that children support the flame and various objects are shown, possibly for good luck.

 There are many more buildings and stories to uncover, but this is all I share for now. The rest is left to discover…

 Finally turning around, away from the mountain and the shadow of another world, I contemplated the snow lightly grazing the nearby mountains and reveled in the solitude and peace of life devoted to the mountain temple.

Before the last snowflake melts

I thought I should share a few last impressions before spring comes sweeping in.

And you know what spring can bring… and if the past is any indication at all of what the future entails, it’s about to get pretty seriously crazy.

We let loose over New Year’s in Lenzerheide Switzerland, where the snow was fresh, deep and still falling. Snow angels, snow fights, snow rolling, sledding, digging, building, musing, watching, listening. It was pure joy. We even stuck our heads in to try some headstands. On New Year’s eve we sent up paper lanterns to bring us good luck in 2012.

I am wishing for peace and meaning this year, and starting off the year with close friends and family was a good, although intense, place to begin. As I work on searching for some of my basic feelings, those sticky disruptive ones, that bring me deep within myself to feel the rhythm and energy, I am learning to let go and trust that they will lead me in the right direction even when they seem in contradiction to the personality that I imagine myself to be.

It’s a new road with, what feels like, a whole lot of snow. Good thing I have a strong Aunt who is good with a shovel!

More snow fell up in Schluein than I have ever experienced in my whole long Canadian life. It was wet and thick and presented such a tempting challenge just to walk through… even though the clear intention was to get stuck and have to roll around even more in it. Mia, Nora, Tilmann, the dog Ruby and I spent an afternoon playing and digging to our heart’s delight, until we had a 3-part tunnel and a serious snowball fight completed.

Note that the tree behind Lisa and Tilmann in the above pictures is the same one… just a few hours later in the second picture after the sun came out and the snow plow also came to clear the driveway.

pure mischief preceding the 3 tongues

Back in Zurich, there were a few crystals of frost that would briefly change the light of the city, creating a sparkle in the mornings where the shade would linger while the green would strive hard to fight back.

The warm sun has certainly arrived in Zurich, but I’ll still be dreaming of the winter wonderland in the mountains for a while still.

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.

Top 5 from a top latitude

Before most* trips, especially on my own, I attempt to form some sort of plan- buy a map or two, get out last year’s edition of the guidebook from the library (cheap student trick), read up on how frequent the buses come, note if there is any particularly great cultural event during my time there, unpack and repack every various synthetic and natural clothing layer I have until I get fed up and hope that I don’t get hit by a random Calgary-esque Chinook warm wind that would make me strip off my 4 layers of merino wool, for example. All this and a strong dose of spontaneity and flexibility and so far, this tactic has worked well.

So here’s how it came together. I had time, a little bit of money, and a strong urge to go somewhere breathtaking. My blog sphere provided me with plenty of inspiration (be careful, it’s addictive) and I finally succumbed to my old western Canadian heart- Give me mountains! Give me sun! Oh, you can offer the sea as well?! Where do I sign up? And just like that, as those that were around in the moment can attest to, I was booked on my way above the Arctic Circle to Bodo, Norway, to take a ferry over to the Lofoten islands.

My friend Andy, living in England, joined me for some of the trip, and many emails flew back and forth with some semblance of planning before we left. But in the end, we did our ‘planned’ trip backwards (which sounds far sloppier than just saying in reverse) which turned out to be a very wise decision. And we encountered many more unexpected surprises building up to a very spectacular trip.

So I’d like to present the top 5 unplanned joys from my 10 days near the top of the world (in no particular order, and perhaps to be expanded upon when I have more time)

1) Exuberant museum tourism: In my opinion, the Lofotens are rather under-developed in terms of tourism, even if the brochures are still jammed with information. There are a few hotels, only 2 hostels, lots of fishing huts to rent and a handful of restaurants specializing, of course, in locally caught sea food. A couple of local companies will bring you out whale watching or kayaking as well. All in all, there are a few things to do on the great expanse of islands, but many of the other tourists we met were just driving through for the views from one end to the other. The simplicity of it all adds to the idyllic nature (literally and figuratively) of the area, and you quickly settle in to the quiet island life.

However, there is one exception to this basic amenities type infrastructure, and that is the privately developed museums throughout the islands. With a whole gamut of topics from whaling, to dolls, telecommunications and fish production, one can enjoy the history of the islands while diving into a bit of its local eccentricities. If you go, be sure to stop at a few of these museums, the guides are enthusiastic and the individualism of the concept is refreshing.

Museums along the Lofoten highway

2) Waffles and jam: Beyond the variations on fish (boiled, buried, dried or decomposed) there are few tasteful delicacies in Norway except for waffles. Thin, doughy and clover-shaped, my ferry trips were marked with a celebratory waffle slathered with bright red strawberry jam, foregoing the addition of what I deemed cream butter (like a thick yogurt tasting of butter, undoubtedly produced with large quantities of cream). You could get them in most cafes and convenience stores as well, lifting one-off a pre-made pile (they were never really served hot and fresh) lying next to the till, accoutrements also at hand.

Vafler + Jordbaer

2) Ferry travel: Or better known as the ‘high speed passenger catamaran’ for those sans voiture. Of all the ways I was travelling around, the ferry was my favourite. It was the best place to clean up and get water (crucial activities while on foot with a tent), as well as people watch or stare out at the passing islands. The coastline varies so greatly, showing off deep fjords, stark mountain cliffs, or even a glacier, that it is never a boring ride and certainly saved my stomach from having to drive down the winding coastline.

I learned a lot about Norwegian culture from the ferry rides. It all started at the port, often in the early morning. As I waited for the boat to arrive, the locals would also make their way down to the docks: preparing to greet family members (whom always returned to these small communities, for the love of their island or fjord runs deep), drop off packages to be sent away or wait to pick up a load of groceries arriving from the mainland, or just to catch up on the latest happenings in the area as the latest news travelled by word of mouth hopping from port to port.

On the ferry, people would settle in to the comfortable seats in the large seating area and promptly get themselves breakfast: coffee (black!), hotdog or waffle (see below), and ice cream. I met an older man on one ferry who was heading back home to his fishing village after visiting the dentist on the mainland. He was a sailor, now retired, and had visited over 90 countries in his life through the fishing and cruising industry. This was a story I heard many times from the people living up there- world travelled, returned home. His name was Fred, which means ‘Peace’ in Norwegian. How lovely.

Early morning ferry to Bodo
Navigating the islands
Svartisen glacier on the mainland

4) ‘Seeing is believeing’ scales: We read about it in the guidebook but didn’t understand how it could be true. Fata Morgana is the effect of the ultra clear air in the North which throws off your eye as it allows you to see easily more than 75 km, when normally the range would be 20 km. The mainland islands were often within sight, and the distance across fjords seemed within an arm’s reach. We were often getting confused by just how clear the mountains appeared with no haze to filter the view or creating fuzz around the edges, only clear crisp silhouettes.

What a joy it was to take photos there, as they really turned out as stunning and intense as what we were seeing.

5) Wild blueberries and raspberries: A forager’s delight. Even though it was late summer, and much of the tourism had died down since the midnight sun was long over, the flora was still bursting, almost vibrating, with life as the 20 hours of sunlight still beat down above the Arctic Circle. The variety of colour on the ground we walked over reminded me of the streets of Zurich after Faschnacht (a religious holiday somehow mixing Easter and Halloween), seeing evidence of the festivities from the array of colourful confetti in every corner.

Blueberries and raspberries I confidently recognized and picked with vigour. The blueberries were small, similar to the mountain ones I know in Alberta. But the raspberries were sweeter and more intense than any I knew previously. I devoured them up, bending down and straining through the prickles with my huge backpack on, probably to the amusement of the locals on their regular dog route. Everyone has equal access to the land, and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste.

Breakfast blueberries
Andy in a sea of red confetti berries

So if you are ever up in that part of the world, the most important piece of advice I could give is to just take a deep breath of the clear air. From this you’ll begin to know the scent of the fishing history, of fresh sunlit ferns and junipers, and the pureness of an untouched mountain dreamland.

* some trips are more spontatneous, see: Barbados, Jura crest, Iceland…

Naomi non-visit

Or, alternatively: French train failures

Or, in the end: Solo mission along the Jura Crest

The setting: Canada day weekend, though not as strongly celebrated on this side of the pond, go figure. Two old Canadian friends on different sides of the Alps. Mad email/ skype conversations to plan a weekend getaway to the French Pyrenees. Plans made approximately 48 hours before the adventure is set to begin.

Insert unforeseen French holidays, and the result is an attempt to squash all North American style spontaneity. Sigh, all the trains were booked, and thus Naomi and I were unable to continue our tour of the world’s mountains together.

Undeterred, though terribly sad that I would miss Naomi, I set about preparing for a different weekend getaway- a 5 day hike along the Jura Crest. This ridge runs along the north of Switzerland from Zurich to Geneva. National hiking trail # 5, an area I always wanted to visit even though it is only a ridge within the flat ‘upper land’ of Switzerland. No dramatic mountain valleys, but an impressive expanse of uplifted rock providing gorgeous rolling hills, lake views, and quiet high altitude pastures. I was intrigued.

On the map, I planned to do the stretch from Weissenstein (translated: white stone) to Ste.Croix, along the section of the ridge to the north of Bielersee and Lac de Neuchatel (note the language change!) in 5 days. My final destination being a rather famous cliff pictured on all of the Swiss hiking websites. So I had to see it, which was a good enough reason to keep on walking. This was key, as indeed the motivation all had to come from within…. this was going to be a solo mission.

So with a full backpack- tent, sleeping bag, mattress, plenty of food, and what seemed like a handful on unnecessary ‘warm’ clothes, I started out early Thursday morning. The train runs along the ridge, more or less, all the way to Geneva, so I had my first impression early on of the uniqueness of the ridge jutting out from the yellow and orange patchwork of agricultural fields and dark green forests in the country-side.

To get up onto the ridge, I faced a grueling but beautiful ascent up the Weissenstein. The trail dates back to 1664, so I’m told, and the stairs are carved into the rock. To add an ounce of safety, steel wire has been added as a railing. Even without a backpack, the trail is demanding as it heads rather straight up, but is cheek-to-cheek with the white quartz-limestone and provides a magnificent backdrop for the fluorescent summer leaves.

Hiking up the 'white stone' cliff

Once on the ridge, I made my way West, over a few summits now and again, walking through many many cow pastures and glancing down to see the Aare river, and eventually the Bielersee and Lac de Neuchatel. And about the language change- this is the area known as the Roestigraben between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland (here is a map from an older post). I didn’t see any noticeable ditch to mark the change, but my greetings along the trail switched from ‘Gruetzi’ to ‘Bonjour’.

blue white green- crest colours
Looking along the ridge
Typical ridge pasture

The walking was my favourite part. If my feet could have gone longer (or my back, hips or knees) I would have walked until sunset. The weather was perfect, the brilliant blue skies, the scent of the blossoming flowers, the clanging of the cow bells. It was a fully absorbing experience. And meditative as I slowly made my way along, up and down, checking the map every so often, and seeing almost no one on the trail.

On Friday it was Canada day, and the evening weather was fine! Lazing around on the grass, drawing, writing, reading- what a lovely way to spend it. I was lucky enough to pass through a little tourist spot earlier in the day and picked up freshly baked bread and some of the biggest cherries I have ever seen. So in honour of my country birthday, I made a typical German cake. Happy Canada Day!

Black Forest Cake- chocolate, marshmallow, and cherry

Each night I spent in the tent. Heading off the trail some distance, out of the way, and preferably with a plentiful supply of strawberries. But with the lovely open blue skies, the nights were shivering cold, down to 7C. Even with 2 pairs of pants (one merino wool!), 2 shirts, a scarf and toque, I couldn’t keep warm enough and often woke up to shake myself warm or cover myself with more layers. Because of this I cut the tour down one night, and skipped a section by train to be able to still make it to my destination. A bit of a disappointment but none the less part of the challenge of going it alone I suppose.

My home in the hills
Breakfast buffet
Sweet pick-me-up

Well I don’t often end up with pictures of myself on this blog, usually I’m on the other side of the camera, but I took quite a few photos this whole trip, and a few even with camera pointed back at me. This one I particularly liked for the way the eyes are framed by the shadow and hat (note! and scarf). I also don’t look exceedingly tired like I do in the later ones 🙂

Into the sun

Finally on the Sunday I made it to the end- Creux de Van! After 3 days of walking along lovely hills and pastures, I was craving something a little more dramatic, a little more Alp-like, and look what I got.

Creux de Van

This canyon is essentially on its own within the crest, and is a huge attraction as on one side you have a magnificent cliff dropping into forests, and on the other an incredible few back of the crest, the lakes… and maybe even some of those Alps off in the distance.

Looking back to the beginning

Even with the lovely weather, the far distant Alps were also covered in cloudy haze, until Sunday when they appeared the entire stretch of the horizon. With Mont Blanc being the most impressive, I could almost see Naomi on the other side 🙂

Alps peaking up

Though it did have to end on this high note. I descended back down to the Lac de Neuchatel to catch a train back to Zurich, passing through the fields that I had looked onto for the last 4 days. Taking a last deep breath of the Jura air, enjoying the sun on my face, and the weight of the pack, I was left with a lovely contentment of a mission complete and an amazing experience.

Final road home

Next time, Naomi will come too!