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!


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…

Out and about, humming a few tunes

Been travelling a lot lately. More than my usual wanderings, and to some relatively far flung locations. Typically I travel without listening to much music, thanks to the first generation Ipod cum brick that I stole from my mom before she advanced on in the technology stream. Due to this, I like to wait and see what music pops into my head while on the road. What rhythm from the city or my footsteps triggers a remembered melody in my head, or whether words or an experience pull me towards a string of lyrics wherein I spend the rest of the day trying to bring together the rest of the song as well.

Hum of the trees in Switzerland
Spiraling ascent in Toronto

I’ve been listening to Ben Howard ever since I saw him open for Xavier Rudd in Zurich in 2010. A talented young singer and songwriter from the UK, I was instantly drawn into his songs. Now, at long last, he is releasing his debut album, though there are others floating out there, with the newly released track ‘Keep your head up’. After the first listen or two, I wasn’t hooked as the song gradually builds up, and I was thoroughly distracted by the build up, as well, of the storyline in the music video. However, in the last weeks this song has come into my head, accompanying me on my last trip and providing a joyful soundtrack for the day-to-day experience seeking.

The tropical beaches of Norway

People often tell me that I routinely start humming or quietly singing when I’m working or just off on my own. I rarely notice that it even happens, but I have just become aware of where it takes root.

Just a few days ago, I was walking happily in the afternoon sun in Toronto after being mentally stimulated with the incredible collections at the Art Gallery of Ontario. And with my wonderful mommy beside me as we made our way through the busy city centre, we both settled pleasantly into the moment and began to hum our respective soundtracks for the moment. Hers was something upbeat and complex, typical considering the range of music she collects for her yoga class. I lilted along the lines of ‘all I was searching for was me/ keep your head up, keep your heart strong/ … to feel the warmth of his smile/ saying I’m happy to have you home/ I’m happy to have you home/… I’ll always remember you the same/ eyes like wildflowers with your demons of change’.

A few days prior to that sunny afternoon, I celebrated my good friend Rebecca’s wedding in Hamilton, near Toronto. Even with all the clapping, dancing, singing and love in the air, there was a sense of transition. Knowing that while Rebecca had chosen an amazing partner to spend her  life with, us her close friends had a changing role in her life as well. I was honoured to be with her throughout the many days of her Jewish wedding (some may call it a marathon) and saw for myself how strong she has truly become (needless to say this wedding required courage, stamina, persistence, and a few painkillers!)

Strong hearts in Hamilton, Ontario

A few weeks earlier I was walking in a most magical and powerful landscape in Northern Norway. Steep cliffs dropped into the murky blue Norwegian Sea, but not before flattening out just enough to allow for a few small bright red fisherman’s cabins to make a stand against the water and wind. The people who called this place home are those of the water and the mountains. These folks I met while hitch-hiking or on ferries between islands, and their precise and respectful demeanour convinced me that this combination of solid and liquid was an addictive landscape that drew the residents back. I could feel why.

Another dose of spectacular around every corner in Lofoten, Norway

Somewhere along the long walks with Andy around the islands and mountains of Lofoten, another ‘northerner’ popped into my head. Paolo Nutini recalls his homeland of Northern Scotland as he struggles with finding place.  ‘I have returned to the Northern skies/… with great sense of passing through’, and a few words on bird songs and dark greens and blues. As the sun sank into the sea late every evening, we were treated to a sense of the darkness that settles throughout the winter up there.

Still evening in Traena, Norway

And finally, one to take home and dance to- ‘Home’ by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It’s a new one to me, but apparently it is old news in North America, but I haven’t found anyone over on this side that has heard of them. Point for me for being oh so slightly ahead of the crowd (good thing everything from North Am comes about 6 months to a year later here, except for the fashion trends clearly)

Time for the show, eh?

Back in Zurich but still thinking fondly of the snow, and mountains, and trees and friends back in Canada.

The first 3 weeks of the trip were spent in Victoria and exploring Vancouver Island. It was wonderful to spend time fully relaxing with my parents- eating pancakes, drinking tea, watching for the sea otters, and playing cards. We all fit nicely into each other’s schedules as the yoga and golf and choir continued on smoothly. Fortunately for us ‘foreign’ types, there were plenty of great experiences to be had, even in January. Robbie Burns night, for one, where my Dad and his pipe band were the main act, filling our ears and eyes with their melodies and foot high feathered caps, respectively. We even got to dress the part. Very appropriate after the Scotland adventure.

The clan
Bonnie laddie

A meal of Neeps, Tatties and Haggis, as well as the history of the scoundrel, Robbie, completed the evening.

As well, we had to see some of Victoria, including the breakwater, Government street, the Royal BC museum with its collection of themed exhibits, and a good number of beaches.

Canadian wildlife
breakwater at dusk

Tilmann and I also made it North of Victoria to ski at Mount Washington, hug some amazingly big trees, and collect our thoughts at some desolate beaches.

From the top of the island at Mt. Washington, ocean beneath the clouds
9m around, 76 m high, 700 years old- the magnificient Douglas Fir
Brilliant green, even in January
living beard
Hidden waterfall
Back to the roots

And of course, some family time. A late Christmas meal with old friends, and a short day trip over to Saltspring Island. We took the ferry over to Saltspring, on an unfortunately grey and misty day. We missed the views of the other islands, but did find some tasty sea food, an eclectic hardware store, plenty of sea gulls and island dwellers (of the cheese producing and raw chocolate type!)

Ferry to Saltspring

And of course, my twin spent the weekend for Robbie Burns too! Claire and mom below.

At ‘Christmas’, looking festive

From the island, the trip continued to Vancouver for a few days of mountains, parks, ocean, and even a bald eagle! Calgary was the next stop for a visit with many old friends. Such great conversations, a super bowl party, and even caught the end of a chinook! One highlight- dressing up with the girls for the texas themed party.

Calgary- tatooed on my heart

Onto Toronto and Montreal. More friends to discuss about the world, life after school, love, quinoa and where we are all heading next. Amazing how a year and a half doesn’t really create much space between these old friends.

Thank you to all who housed me, drank tea with me, shared in the experiences and inspired me for the upcoming year! You are all in my heart, even on this side of the ocean! To those I missed, there is always room to visit in Zurich!

Canada Teaser

From mountains to beaches, on bikes and ferries. Victoria & Vancouver- Check

Calgary, Toronto and Montreal still to come…

A few mysterious views from the Pacific coast in the meantime

Island destination
Coming home
Long beach longings fulfilled
Misty time
Found new and old roots
Nothing like it...

 A warm hug to all the wonderful people I met in Victoria- you made for such a warm reception, even in cool January. I’m honoured to have heard your stories, singing, laughing, yoga groaning, and wishes for the rest of my trip. Until next time…