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.

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.

Side trips from Sendai, Part 1

**A few long posts to catch up on the latest travels. Also some additionally detailed information for other travelers as I’ve found that the information online and in guide books is patchy, and not always the most interesting information on the area.**

The first ten days of my Japan ‘work stay’ have been in Sendai, in northern Honshu. A safe distance north of Fukushima (winds blow south), a bigger town for this part of the country (close to 1M people) and far quieter than Tokyo (so I hear). I’ve enjoyed living right in the downtown with all the action of the train station, the business men, and the road construction, but have not been inspired to scope out the town.

(Well I did on my very first Saturday, but then it started to blizzard and somehow my interest was quenched…)

I am working in an engineering lab at Tohoku University, a 30 min bus ride from my hotel, up the ‘mountain’ overlooking the city. Considering it’s still sort of winter, just edging on spring, I can’t say how nice it must be on top of the mountain when the trees and the grass are not grey and yellow. But up there in the forest is the Sendai museum, temple and Castle, former residence of the infamous Date Masamune, the warrior who developed Sendai and the entire Miyagi prefecture during the Edo period (1600-1868). He is still the mascot for all things Miyagi, and you see his particular helmet depicted throughout the prefecture. Other fun facts: he was blind in one eye, and his symbolic helmet inspired the Darth Vader helmet.

Anime Date! A possibly unrealistic depiction

However, that first weekend I was more interested in seeing what this place was all about beyond the concrete towers, so I took a local train north along the coast to Matsushima. This town is situated in a small bay freckled with karst islands each growing a handful of lone pine trees. Again, in summer, it must be a total joy in the glorious sun, but I made the best of being on the beach in 10C and the sun peaked out every once in a while to boot.

The Japanese love to define and count their national treasures. So Matsushima is one of the ‘3 Most Scenic Spots in Japan’ and there are 4 hikes around the area to get up higher and enjoy views of the bay and the islands (distinctly called the Beautiful view, the Dynamic view, the Gorgeous view and the Mysterious view). With such selection I didn’t even know what adventure I felt like taking and being a little concerned about time, I chose a short option taking about 30 minutes of walking south along the coast to come out onto a point of land that gave a few of the bay just south of Matsushima as well.

After heading back into town and to the historic Kanrantei tea house (which had been transported as is from Tokyo in 1645 because it had been a gift for Data Masamune and he sure loved the views onto the bay) for a cup of matcha and sugar cookie, I walked out onto the connected islands.

Godaido is the closest island and it is a short bridge crossing to the worship hall. However, the bridge is built with beams of wood purposely leaving gaps in between leading straight down into the bay. The intention was to have visitors focus their awareness as they crossed so that they were truly ready to worship once they were on the island. If you tripped on the way, you weren’t quite ready to be on the island. Sorry!

The building was fantastically intricate as they did not use nails or glue of any kind for the construction (as far as I know) and dates back to 1604.

Following this I headed across the 250m footbridge to Fukuurajima Island which is a considerably larger island with many paths twisting around the interior. A beautiful variety of trees and new views of the bay are to be found.

I went inland from here towards the temples and mausoleums of the Masamune family. But first I stopped for some sushi (!). I’m veering from vegetarianism while I’m here. I try to keep it up but don’t get too crazy if there are some seafood squirmers that make it into the dish. Considering I can’t read anything on any menus anywhere, I’ve got to be a little flexible.

I was fortunate enough to know this was a sushi restaurant before I went in (thanks tourist office!) which was already a good start. But Miyagi is fish territory and of course I was faced with various nigri (sushi of rice on bottom, fish on top) of unknown species. Ok fishes, let’s do this.

For the record I made it through 4.5 of these sushi and half of my clam miso soup. I was pumped! And feeling a little sea sick…

Off to the Tuiganji, the zen temple from 1609 (original construction in 828). Probably really great, if not for the current construction. Still highly recommended for all the other buildings in the area.

I’m finding all of my experiences with temples and shrines to be deeply touching. Incorporating various natural elements, they are interwoven with places of devotion, rich ceremony, and preservation to the point of allowing only a few people to every see these places. As examples of this last point,  the temple doors of Godaido are only opened every 33 years, and the mausoleum of Masamune’s wife, a beautifully decorated black and gold structure situated back in the forests behind the main buildings (no photos were allowed), is never open to the public. Currently, there is construction going on at the main temple, and this special mausoleum has been opened as a replacement exhibit, but I find the idea of such an incredible structure being kept from most eyes to be a stirring commitment to the peace and respect of the dead.

Further mausoleum’s can be entered, for a fee, so I continued to poke around the open areas finding the cave grave sites within the cedar forest of the temple entrance. The natural erosion of this igneous rock created caves which truly invoke a feeling of the supernatural- I can certainly understand how deities were placed and worshiped here.

A life story carved into a grave stone

On the way to the train, I stopped at one of the sea-side grills. Specializing in oyster from the bay… I chose the corn cob. My sea food quota was full for the day. But this lady couldn’t be more sweet.

A welcome escape from Sendai, this little sea-side town has as much nature, tourism, and history as you want to take in. Lots of English pamphlets as well.

On the road… paved in phosphorus

A few stories to tell but I’m limiting myself to two pictures each (for now) from my latest locales. Hopefully this short taste also passes as an explanation for my brevity.

Fes, Morocco. A welcome immersion back into reality after a 4 day conference on phosphorus (i.e. my thesis topic) at an over-the-top beach resort on the Moroccan coast. The off-season calmness drew my travel pal, Desiree, and I right into the depths of the old market, the Medina. We wove our way through the smallest pathways, around donkeys carrying amazing loads, dodging school children and the tourist hounds, sipping freshly pressed orange juice (the one and only medicine in my opinion), and saturating ourselves with the scents of their world. I can still close my eyes and feel it.

Recovering from the flu (hence my love for the OJ), frequent breaks were needed. Upon arrival in a breath-taking Koran school in the middle of the Medina, we took a sweet seat to gaze at the Arabic scriptures forming patterns upon patterns of beautiful symbolism. The colorful tiles also playing their part in reminding about different aspects of Islam, you find the 8 pointed stars in blue and green all over Fes.

Late flights leading to missed flights leading to layovers and a whole lot of ‘airport appreciation’ time- needless to say my trip to Japan was a little bumpy. Safely arrived and fighting the fuzz of jetlag, I am finding myself enjoying the extreme foreign-ness and also the incredible closeness of Japan. The people are so kind and accommodating, even if it is a forced sincerity, I will never complain of someone who constantly smiles to complete strangers. On the other hand, I’m not in a majorly touristy city. A few things are written in ‘English’ letters, however mostly not. I’m at a loss as I walk through the streets and in restaurants- what is that store even selling? can I eat this thing? Yestarday I went to a restaurant that looked beautiful, and it was. I somehow mimed a vegetable and got a delicious salad. A British guy and Japanese girl started up a conversation and I found out I was actually at a French restaurant. I would never have guessed. I’m on my toes now, trying to catch non-language signs. We’ll see how it goes. My airplane food was a fun introduction- who doesn’t love flower-shaped vegetables?

And if all else fails, food-wise, I can always turn to the trusty vending machines on every corner.

Oh yeah, I’m also here for more phosphorus research. I swear!


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…

Another memorable Spring

Looking back over the last few years, I notice that each Spring is highlighted by an abnormally high level of chaos and challenge. Whether it was spending hundreds of hours designing a water treatment plant for my final year design project at McGill, or deciding to quit a great job and pack up 20 years of my life to move away to a new ‘old’ world in Zurich, or survive through my hardest academic semester yet as I work towards a Master’s in Environmental Science; the Summer, Autumn and Winter do not seem to be marked with such extreme or unexpected changes to my regularly scheduled life.

This spring was no exception as I wandered my way through an academic/professional/personal interest semester which is just finishing up, of course, with a (bagpipe) toot and bang.

Due to my impeccable ability to plan or possibly a subconscious will to explode, during the final week of the semester and while preparing for a final wrap-up workshop for another research course, both my parents and two friends from Canada, Tina and Julian, came over to visit. For me it was a whole new level of management as I coordinated people in and out of my apartment, juggled clean sheets and fresh bread, hopped on trains up and down the mountains, and pointed people off in the most beautiful/tasty/relaxing directions. (Oh perhaps I know how my Aunt feels!) Despite the chaos, it was a wonderfully fun few weeks and it is now starting to wind down as Tina and Julian just left today, and my parents head back to the other side of the world next week.

And finally, for those who were witness to this saga, I have a new camera! The acquisition of this one is another story, but in short I made a new friend and saved a pretty Swiss penny, and am now the happy owner of a Panasonic LX-5. I’m still getting a feel for it and the increased sophistication as I move into more manual controls and effects, but I captured some moments from these past weeks in order to, once again, file another intense Spring into the history books.

The first part of the visits were up in the mountains, where we could have all the family together- cousins, sisters, aunts, nieces, nephews, dog! There were 8 of us at one point, and sometimes it got a little tiring. But my Mom always kept everyone entertained with endless projects- helping young Mia with a freshly picked cherry compote, keeping the dogs back from a newly painted red wall on the terrace, and endless cooking. But there was some spare time to visit and take in the beautiful panoramas of Zurich and the mountain valley where my Aunt lives.

big city, big valley

But sometimes it did get a little exhausting as well.

Catching a few
Pa and Ma

My Dad and I have a notorious sweet tooth, essentially non-existent in my Mom, so after being solely with her for the first few days I needed to get my fix! Luckily I have been following a local food blogger ( who adores sweets and has created a tour around some of Zurich’s finest sugar havens. So for a lovely drizzling afternoon, my Dad and I had our palettes sweetened with artisanal chocolates from Switzerland, followed by American-style cupcakes, and ending at one of the oldest bakeries of Zurich- cafe Schober- full of french pastries, secret sitting nooks, and deeply rich hot chocolate. It was a delightful tour and we left with a glimpse into the family history of chocolate making in Switzerland by some of the big names such as Lindt, Sprungli, Tobler, and Nestle, to name a few.

French frills and petite perfection at Cafe Schober
Newly (and greatly) welcomed to Zurich- cupcakes!

And Tina and Julian also got into the sweet fun when I introduced them to the famous Luxemburgli of Zurich. Little cream fillings squished between two meringues in an array of colours and flavours like white peach, champagne, lemon, and caramel salt.

The Zurich specialty

Energized from the combination of crispy meringue and fresh fruit cream, we criss-crossed the old town of Zurich, checking out the fish of the Limmat and the cobble stones of the winding streets.

1 fish, 2 fish
Inspired by the Luxemburgli?
Over the rooftops

For many reasons, including the presence of all these Canadians, we held a surprise party for Tilmann. I can’t remember ever being so nervous with anticipation- for the food, the people and, of course, the element of surprise! I had a few indispensable helpers whipping up hummus and roasted vegetables, opening bottles of wine and entertaining the crowd, as we all patiently waited until the last guest, Tilmann, unknowingly walked through the door to a room full of friends and bagpipe tunes. No photos of that moment unfortunately, but you’ll just have to imagine the shock and excitement of everyone there.

A few photos below of the waiting game and the final relaxed conversations later into the night.

As everyone slowly trickles out and the hum of activity in my apartment becomes quieter and my schedule doesn’t include such details like airport trips, fondue making, or afternoon beers, I realize the wonder that visitors add to the regular schedule of life. It wouldn’t have been Spring without them!


A brief weekend adventure to Amsterdam. No real plans except to wander around the canals, eat pancakes, avoid herring, drink hot chocolate, and soak up some Van Gogh inspiration. At the end of the weekend, all these goals were fulfilled and more. A few of the quaint sights below

Flower market, still colorful even in December
Bicycle city! Dedicated lanes, routes, and traffic signals
Beautiful architecture squeezing in between the canals
It's all about being beside, against, with, over, or under the water
Did I mention everything is done by bike?
Famous wooden shutters

All these little houses are 30 feet wide, and 200 deep! Makes for an interesting composition as each aims to stand out against the rest but with similar elements throughout.

Van Gogh museum

On the only sunny day all weekend, we went inside and spent longer than expected listening and seeing the story of Van Gogh’s life. Well worth the visit for the timeless colour and expression of his paintings.

Cake art

After the museum, and our last stop in Amsterdam: colour and expression through cake at a fun little cafe.

The marketing theme for the city is iamAmsterdam. Can’t say I felt Dutch after the visit, but for a few brief days I was swept away in the style and magic of this city built in some senses ‘with’ and in another ‘against’ nature. I’ll leave it to you to decide on which side their recreational drug laws fall…