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.


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 🙂


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!

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!