Peru

I’m not sure how many trip reports I’ve started with, “I’ve wanted to go to X place for ages…” It’s just a fact of having a penchant for travel and adventure, a bent for research and planning, and a desk job with access to the internet. I have planned literally hundreds of trips that may or may not ever make it onto these pages. But, I really have been planning a trip to South America since I was 19..almost since I started planning trips!

Here’s a map I drew in my journal planning my route:

South America

But after years of research and planning and saving and stalling, I never made it farther south than Costa Rica. My problem was that I was trying to see it all at once, everything from Cartagena to Tierra del Fuego in on trip – preferably on a motorcycle – taking my time to explore all the small towns. Even on a budget that was going to take months and thousands of dollars. So it got put off year after year and finally, last year, I decided to just bite the bullet and visit one place: Machu Picchu.

Peru

LIMA

Machu Picchu was top of my list for South America and it got us to Peru but I’m just not going to go all that way and only see one thing. So we landed in Lima and got ready to eat – Peruvian cuisine has become world-renowned in recent years (much more than Pisco and ceviche now!) and so we planned to feast at Central, Astrid y Gaston and Maido – the 4th, 14th and 44th best restaurants in the world, according to some.

Maido

We booked the restaurants before we booked our flights and somehow I didn’t go back and check the dates – meaning that I scheduled our meal at Central a week too far in advance. The Horror! But the host found us a spot in the lounge and disaster was averted. It was absolutely incredible and we’ll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to eat there. Maido was even more amazing, if that’s possible, but Astrid y Gaston was a bit of a disappointment. Very luxurious with some excellent dishes but unfortunately not consistent.

Maido

Because we were staying in Miraflores (an upscale, safe suburb of Lima), and because we had travelled so long to get there (left the house at 5:30 AM and got to out hotel at 2:30 AM the next day) we didn’t go to as many museums as I would have liked but we did visit the Plaza de Armas and went on a monastery tour of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad with its mouldering library of books from antiquity – untouched since WWII, beautiful courtyard and a depiction of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) for dinner and Pizarro as Judas. It was beautiful but the all the stray dogs, some of them dead, were just heartbreaking.

And the traffic was incredible – 30 minutes by cab to get across town – so we spent some time lazing around the hotel and exploring the Barranco district nearby. Bohemian and busy, we were reminded of Madrid; everyone out on a Saturday night, taking wedding photos, strolling with babies, recording music videos, practicing guitar on a bench and of course eating and drinking. We stuffed ourselves with ceviche and Pisco sours and then it was time to hop on the plane.

Peruvian textiles

CUSCO

I was terribly worried that Cusco was going to be a tourist trap and almost regretted how much time we had to spend in the city but on arrival we found it to be a gorgeous city, full of history and culture and warm people. Before we noticed any of that, however, we noticed the altitude. As soon as we came out of the airport we swooned, and I wondered if that was the Hawthorne Effect or a combination of our fatigue and being out of shape. After some coca candy, a nap and some altitude pills we were feeling alright but still trying to remember to breathe deeply, walk slowly, etc.

Cusco

Cusco was the Inca heartland and the stone walls still form the foundations of the city but everything else has been taken over or topped by the Spanish. Qurikancha, the sun temple was the most important site in the Inca empire. Dedicated to the sun god, it was filled with life-sized gold statues but now not much of it is left –  only a few rows of stones topped with the Santo Domingo convent. It’s sort of is a miniature model for Cusco itself, full of beautiful Spanish colonial art and architecture with Andean flavor. Our hotel was a retro-fitted Spanish mansion with meandering hallways, surprise courtyards and fountains and the walls were covered with with religious oil paintings. It felt a lot like Granada.

Cusco

Our first night we wandered around the historic centre, saw the incredible Inca stonework and the famous 12-sided stone as well as the Plaza de Armas, then ended up on the patio at Papacho’s (a burger place owned by Gaston Acurio) on the square. It was a bit chilly but watching all the people and dogs and Andean woman with bundles of weaving and alpaca rugs was just the thing we needed. I had a drink with tumbo (banana passionfruit) that was too tropical for the Andes but really delicious and Matt had his first coca tea – not realizing that although it is much weaker than cocaine it is still definitely in the stimulant category and he was going to have trouble sleeping.

Peru

I could have spent days longer in Cusco, climbing up the hills to the Sacsayhuaman ruins and the San Blas neighbourhood (I saw them later) but once we had acclimatized to the altitude, we were off in search of motorbikes.

Dirtbiking

MARAS 

So many people told us that we needed to explore the Sacred Valley but the options we had were all by bus; wake up at 5 AM, see all the sites and get back to Cusco by dark. I am always conflicted by bus tours; you get to see the sites but you pay in advance for a set itinerary and if you want to stay longer you’re hurried on to the bus and if you want to skip something, you can’t. Eventually I found a place that rented dirt bikes for super cheap and we made our own plans.

Maras

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. First we had to explain that we wanted two motorcycles – that I would not be riding on the back of a 250cc dirt bike at altitude – and then we had to go and pick up the second bike – in the back room of the proprietor’s house, up the stairs, on a street dug up for construction. But eventually we were on the road and heading out to explore the Sacred Valley. First stop, Maras, the ancient Inca salt flats that are still being worked today.

Getting out on the bikes was amazing! It was Matt’s first time on a dirt bike and the altitude affected the speed quite a bit but travelling through small towns, walls painted with slogans from various political parties, llamas grazing all over the place, women selling textiles at high altitude markets….and of course the backdrop of the Andes. It was thrilling. When we got to the salt evaporation ponds, we walked down and took a look around, then got back on the bikes and went on to explore more of the valley. We ended the day by signing some house purchasing documents at the hotel and celebrating with a round of pisco sours, our new tradition.

INCA TRAIL

We had brought our backpacks as luggage with us to South America, but as the time arrived for us to set out on foot, we stashed books, shoes, our nice clothes and whatever else we thought we could do without into a bag that we left at the hotel, then filled up our water bladders and got the weight adjusted on our backs. We had wanted to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu rather than taking the train and once that decision was made it hadn’t occurred to us that we wouldn’t carry our own gear. We found out later that most people opted to carry day packs and have a porter take the rest.

After being on the bus for hours getting to breakfast and the trailhead, the pack weight felt good and we bounded along the rolling “Inca flats,” stopping to learn about the cochineal beetle on the prickly pear cactus from which carmine dye comes, the angel trumpet that is used by shamans in a hallucinogenic tea or to visit with the Andean families (and their dogs) at the rest stops. It was hot but not very strenuous and we were both delighted and annoyed to find our porters setting up the tent for a hot lunch. It seemed unnecessary to be stopping for so long, so soon, but not even a few hours later we were glad of the pace.

Glacier

Our guide was excellent and we learned that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, as well as an important crossroads for trade and Inca trails criss-cross the Sacred Valley (and the Inca empire, from Santiago to Quito) but the one we were following was meant for royalty. The Inca venerated nature and stone – mountains were objects of worship – so they chose the path that went the highest into the mountains to be close to the sky and one that followed the valley without destroying anything. Lucky for us that meant straight up.

The Urubamba river follows the same path as the milky way and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu starts at 82 km close to Ollantaytambo, passes the Patallaqta ruins, and then climbs up through the high jungle to Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmi Wañusqa) at 13,700ft. Day 2 was spent almost entirely gaining altitude. When we got to the pass after climbing all morning we could still see the campsite where we had started out that day.

Matt

We were exhausted and moving so slowly, dragging ourselves up on our hiking poles, chewing on coca leaves and gasping for air as we got closer to the pass but having only gained a space of about 30ft at the summit, we almost immediately started the trail down. Up 3000ft in one day and then back down another 1000 before making camp.

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu was fairly remote, even in Inca days, but a series of relay runners were set up to deliver a message from Cusco in only 6 hours. On special occasion, fish could be brought fresh from the sea in about 16! Because of the distance and the speed of the runners, the Spanish never found out about Machu Picchu. They only got to about Ollantaytambo (where we started our hike) and from there, bridges were destroyed, the trail was covered and the Inca royalty escaped to the jungle.

Our third day of hiking was the “scenic” day where we stopped at the site of several ruins but at times it seemed only to alleviate the constant descent. My toenails! My ankles! My knees! In many ways it was worse than the ascent but maybe only because I hadn’t accounted for the difficulty. The experience of hiking the trail was so worth doing but Matt and I agreed that without a doubt it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

Machu Picchu

MACHU PICCHU

On the last day we got up at 3:30 AM – not to see the sunrise from the Sun Gate, as we had originally believed, nor to be the first at Machu Picchu, but because the train for the porters leaves before 5 AM and they had to run down the mountain to meet it. I cannot believe that with 500 people on the day every day that a better arrangement can’t be made, but maybe the tourists are just too tired when they get home to advocate. We were able to walk to the end of the campsite but couldn’t go further because the checkpoint doesn’t open until 5:30 AM. Standing there in the dark, someone joked that we waiting in line in the dark on Black Friday but otherwise we were pretty quiet, waiting for the last stretch.

Machu Picchu

This was the last, “easiest” day and we were buoyed up by the fact that Machu Picchu was only a few hours away but we were beat and before we got to the Sun Gate we needed to climb on hands and knees up the Inca “staircase” and try to keep from falling into the valley (some 6000ft) below while hikers jostled past. But we made it and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the mist was still magical in spite of all the photographs that exist.

We were awed and wowed by this city in the clouds. Watching the mist cover and reveal the city it seemed as special as it has ever been – to the Incas and to Hiram Bingham when he ‘discovered’ it and every morning with every new batch of visitors. That the Incas build such a monument to stone and sky so beautiful and so remote is incredible, but that it has survived virtually unharmed after more than 500 years is astounding.

The city has about 200 buildings, with a quarry and farming terraces to support it, high above the Urubamba river, although archeologists still say that there would not be enough infrastructure to sustain a completed and populated city there. But in one hundred years there was a quarry built on top of the citadel (to bring the granite slabs down to where they were needed, instead of up), terraces, houses, and several temples. The most special parts of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and the Room of the Three Windows.

The Inti Watana translates as a place to “tie up the sun” and on a certain day it is a marker for the sun. Similarly, the Sun Gate lines up with the Temple of the Sun with mathematical precision. For our part, it was just neat to look back on it and see how far we’d come only that morning, never mind that week.

Our amazement at the ruined city was tempered by our fatigue, hunger, pain and stench and hopped on the bus that would take us down the hill to our hotel in Aguas Calientes. Cruel joke that Matt had booked us into a room without an elevator and we groaned as we climbed up to our room on the third floor, quads aching.

Cusco

The rest of the trip was spent recovering; thermal baths, reading, wandering around Cusco and drinking pisco sours. My mom asked me today if I would go back and I would without hesitation. I’d love to see some of the other ruins and to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. I’d even do the hike again, although maybe a different path.

Andean family

See all the photos here.

Also, check out the story I wrote for Steller stories:


100 Books I Love

books

David Bowie (RIP) 100 favourite books are making the round of the internet and when I read it my first thought (after admiration for a fellow voracious reader with excellent taste) was that I wasn’t sure I could name 100 of my favourites, at least not without help. I adore books and reading and completely agree with Bowie when he says that his library “is his one treasured possession he would take to a deserted island” but ‘favourite’ is tricky. Favourite right now? Or favourite when I read it? Does it include excellent, important books that I’m glad exist and that I enjoyed reading for their quality of prose and thinking or just books I love? Does it include my favourite reference books? My most loved cookbooks?

Anyways, this is what I came up with:

1. The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
2. Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
3. Like, Ali Smith
4. On the Road, Keroac
5. Euphoria, Lily King
6. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
7. Ulysses, Joyce
8. The Waves, Woolf
9. Missed Connections, Sophie Blackall
10. Orlando, Woolf
11. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
12. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
13. The Lacuna, Kingsolver
14. The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver
15. The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot
18. Fall on your Knees, Anne Marie MacDonald
19. Hotel World, Ali Smith
20. Alligator, Lisa Moore
21. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
22. Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy
23. Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut
24. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
25. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking but that was as far as I got before consulting Goodreads.
28. Poetry of Blake
29. Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
30. The Way the Crow Flies, Anne Marie MacDonald
31. Picasso, Stein
33. Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky
35. The Odyssey, Homer
36. Island, Huxley (yes, I liked it better than Brave New World)
38. The Hours, Michael Cunningham
39. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
41. Poetry of Neruda
42. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
43. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
44. Gut Symmetries, Jeannette Winterson
45. The Accidental, Ali Smith (this is my dream book – the one I wish I had written)
46. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
47. Waiting for the Man, Arjun Basu
49. Little Women, Louisa May Alcot
50. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin
51. The Sandman Series, Neil Gaiman
52. Howl, Ginsberg
53. Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam
54. Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
55. Three Views of Crystal Water, Katherine Govier
56. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
57. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
58. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullogh (this was one of the first ‘adult’ books I read)
59. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
61. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
62. Othello, Shakespeare
64. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
65. The Apothecary, Maile Malloy
66. The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh
67. Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
68. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
69. A Softer World, Joey Comeau
70. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
71. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
72. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
73. The World According to Garp, John Irving
74. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
75. My Favorite Things, Maira Kalman
76. Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich
77. Poetry of Maya Angelou
78. The Sound of the Waves, Yukio Mishima
80. The Tempest, Shakespeare
81.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbary
84. Original Bliss, A.L. Kennedy
85. Clouded Leopard, Wade Davis
86. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
87. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Johnathan Safran Foer
Now it’s getting hard…
88. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
89. Poetry of Basho
90. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
91. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
92. Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
93. The Man who Planted Trees, Jean Giono
94. Paradise, A.L. Kennedy
95. The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
96. The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare
97. Love in the Time of the Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
98. The House of Spirits, Isabelle Allende
99. Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
100. A Moveable Feast, Hemmingway

 

In a lot of ways the list is skewed because I love some authors so much that everything they’ve written I like better than most books but I didn’t want the list to be comprised only of Vonnegut, Meg Wolitzer, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Ann Patchett, Virginia Woolf and Barbara Kingsolver so there you go.

 

Books I haven’t read yet that I think will probably make it:
Books I would have added at other points in my life:
And a few that I just can’t stand:
  • Moby Dick
  • Heart of Darkness
  • DaVinci Code
  • Blindness
  • Infinite Jest
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

2015 in Pictures

This has been an ongoing problem since I started blogging in 2001 – I generally have more adventures than time to write about them. But last year was spectacular so I don’t want to forget it. I saw the northern lights for the first time – hanging out on top of a mountain all night in the Yukon – and I narrowly missed seeing the Southern Cross while we were hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. I drove on an ice road and did two speedy drift dives through narrows in BC and Washington. I made it (barely) up to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,700′ and down to about 130′ underwater to see Gorgonian corals, but most of the summer was spent on the road – either on my motorcycle or camped on the ground beside it. Between commuting, camping with the Rainier Ravens and going on a couple of trips with Matt, I put a lot more miles on my bike than I have in a while (plus met some amazing people) and ventured down the Oregon Coast, near to Mt. Adams, around Crater Lake, over to the Olympic Peninsula and through Joshua Tree National Park.

I also got a job I loved, hit publish on my 500th blog post, made a coffee table, and cooked up an incredible amount of delicious food. I had set a goal for myself of eating less meat last year and inadvertently became a vegetarian again – except for a handful of meals I found I just didn’t want meat. In addition, I’ve been trying to cook as much gluten-free food for Matt so our tastes and dining habits have changed pretty significantly but we still had fun reviewing a lot of cookbooks last year. We ate some truly incredible meals in Lima then closed out the year by buying a home in Seattle and moving into our lovely blue house in the last few weeks of December. Phew! I crossed so many things off my life list that I’m tempted to sit back and take it easy for a while but knowing me that won’t last long.

Here are my favourite photos from 2015:

Dive boat

Egmont

Early in the year (so early I almost forgot), I went on my yearly dive trip to Skookumchuck Narrows – one of my favourite places – with Porpoise Bay Charters and my Vancouver dive crew -some of my favourite people. We revisited all of our favourite sites and had a bit of a more exciting time than we intending surfacing at night in the middle of the channel. Skookumchuck means ‘strong water’ and it’s not a place you want to be too far from shore or the boat. Afterwards we warmed up with port and cheese and the telling of tales.

Yukon

Northern Lights 2

Northern Lights

Yukon

Yukon

I am only beginning to understand the nuances of night photography but what I experienced in Dawson City couldn’t have been captured on film anyways – bright colours streaking and dancing across the sky, then dipping below the horizon only to come back around and surprise you. Most Inuit have some folklore around the northern lights being spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull and it was not hard to imagine this at all. One of the most profound experiences of my life.

More photos from the Yukon

Red Irish Lord

Boat Street Cafe

Vegetarian

Austin

Sisters

My sister and I are slowly exploring the US on little city breaks – for my birthday it was Austin and we had an absolute blast. Between cocktails, food trucks, cocktails, live music and more cocktails, there was maybe more laughing than remembering but that’s just fine with me. Next year we’ll go to Memphis, Nashville and Chicago.

Austin

More on Austin

Jellies

Jellies

Riley

Ever since my sister and I went to the Oregon Coast last year, I’ve wanted to take Riley down to play on the beach. Oregon is so civilized that dogs are allowed off leash on all the beaches and there are just no sad dogs to be seen anywhere. Riley literally played until she couldn’t stand up anymore – she looks drunk in this photo! – while Matt and I celebrated our anniversary drinking Champagne on the sand.

More on the Oregon Coast

Oregon Coast

A few weeks later I was back down on two wheels although I didn’t actually get down to the beach.

More on the Oregon Coast

Field table

Outstanding in the Field

It has been a life dream of mine to go to Outstanding in the Field but I have always put it off because of the expense. Matt surprised me with tickets for my birthday and I can’t say it’s a great deal in terms of value but the food was excellent and we had a lot of fun wandering around the farm and meeting new people.

More on Outstanding in the Field

School of Rock

Matt joined a band program with another friend with ours so for the first time I had the opportunity to see him perform on stage instead of on our couch!

Ravens' campout

Hurricane Ridge

Hot tub

Summer really ramped up in August where I felt like I was on a motorcycle trip every weekend. Lucky me! The Ravens (my motorcycle group) put on a spectacular camp out event where we had about 50 women join overnight to Port Townsend on their bikes. I’ve done some camping on a bike before but certainly not on the Ducati so it was a fun project to get it all loaded up with gear. We camped out in the trees, road up to Hurricane Ridge, went to a drive-in movie, had a hot tub and basically the best time ever. These women are incredible. I can’t wait until next year.

More photos from the Ravens’ Camp Out

the Dream Roll

Dream Roll

Another, larger camp out was happening the following weekend so some friends and I headed down for that and luckily brought our rain gear because that was some of the wettest riding I’ve done in a while. The countryside was beautiful and the roads were amazing but I had to keep reminding myself that it was August and not October. That’s summer in the Pacific Northwest, I suppose!

More photos from the Dream Roll

Painted Hills

Crater Lake

In September some friends and I had planned to ride to Glacier National Park but sections were closed due to snow so we headed south and went to Crater Lake in Oregon instead. It was still incredibly cold on some of the mountain roads and as the roads got dark and full of deer we pulled over earlier than we had intended. The views didn’t disappoint though – the lake is deeply blue and serene and the ring road needs to be done (despite crappy pavement and an abundance of RV’s).

More photos from Crater Lake

Nevada

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Desert

I thought I might have had enough of women’s motorcycle camp outs but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ride through the desert to Babes Ride Out in Joshua Tree (now in its third year, it is one of the inaugural events that are inspiring all the others). Some friends and I flew to Vegas and rented Harley’s – well, I rented a Bonneville but that’s another story – rode down to the campground, pitched tents and then got up and road almost all the way to L.A. on some very sweet roads. In the morning we got up early to ride through the park and take a look at the strange looking Joshua Trees. Amazing trip. Next year Matt and I will go to a co-ed camp out in Moab, Utah.

More photos of Babes Ride Out

Lima

Lima

Lima

Maido

Lima

Cusco

Peru

Sacred Valley

Cusco

Inca Trail

Macchu Pichu

There’s not much I can say about Peru yet…I’m still processing it (and Matt’s still processing photos). We went to Lima to eat and we ate exceptionally well at the 4th, 14th and 44th best restaurants in the world – Astrid y Gaston, Central and Maido – then flew to Cusco to acclimatize to the altitude before hiking over the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Despite all the photos you’ve ever seen, being there is absolutely magical with the clouds coming in and out and hiking for four days to get there made it a prize well deserved.

More photos of Peru

Degan

Finally sitting still, on the stoop of our new home. This winter is going to be a quiet one but here’s to 2016!

 

 

 

Never Say Die! Oregon on 2 Wheels

Goonies Ride 9
Not long after the last trip to the Oregon coast with my pack of lovely moto-babes, the Rainier Ravens.  It was roughly-themed as a Goonies ride because – though I had neglected to recognize the landmarks or remember this fact on any of my prior trips down – large parts of it are filmed there. The ‘Goon Docks’ home that the kids were trying to save is in Astoria, as well as many of the street scenes, and I don’t know how I didn’t recognize Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach from the end of the film. There aren’t many like it.

Goonies Ride 8
But as much as I loved the film as a kid (second only to Gremlins), I wasn’t there for nostalgia but rather for the road and spectacular scenery, to be enjoyed by motorcycle. It’s long been a dream of mine to travel down the coast to California by bike (having done it, and parts of it several times in a car) but with so few vacation days in the America I jumped at the chance to take a trip at least part of the way down the coast.

Ducati
The first group met at Dick’s Drive-in and after a series of communication debacles, got on the ferry at Fauntleroy and filled up with some of their awful coffee in Styrofoam cups, then headed off towards the sea.

The first sight of the water always take my breath away, even though I haven’t lived or worked more than a few blocks from the sea in quite some time. Coming around the corner before Astoria and seeing the white caps on the water, then the monstrous bridge is just amazing. We stopped for some photos and to rest our butts before continuing on to Oregon! For a few of the new girls it was the longest they had ridden so it was a long day but we pressed on to Manzanita where we were rewarded with gorgeous sweeping vistas of the sea, a dip in the pool, and dinner and drinks at the local watering hole, canvasing the one open shop for more wine and then retiring to our rooms.

Manzanita
The next day we were meant to meet the rest of the Ravens at a roadside restaurant but we had some time to kill so we rode along the beach and then up through Astoria where we could hear the sea lions!), through all the beautiful long curves and seaside vistas until we reached our turnoff and just as I, bringing up the read of our group, made the turn I caught sight of a group of women coming down the hill towards us – more Ravens! It was an amazing experience as we all joined rank together then piled into the restaurant parking lot, giddy and excited at the timing. It could not have been more perfect.

Goonies Ride 7
I’ve been riding motorcycles for a long time…15 years or so, and so I’ve gotten quite used to riding with guys, or by myself or at best with a small pack of lesbians but to be a part of such an rad group of women out on a long ride (nevermind all the shorter rides and beers at the Fuse Box and general love and support) was just amazing.

Cannon Beach
We were all amped up on the ride back, cruising through the forest-flanked twisties, up into the mountains and then as we approached Seattle it was like any of the 80’s cult movies – Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, Karate Kid, Goonies –  where an epic summer adventure ends and each individual peels off with a wave towards home.

Manzanita

Far Rockaway (Oregon)

Rockaway Beach

Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ~Roger Caras

When we started this process of closing up our company and moving to Seattle, there were so many setbacks and so much starting and stopping that I said to Matt we either needed to get me a dog or I was going to take off and go traveling for a while. In many ways, I think I should have done that – made my way slowly down the spine of the Andes or across India because now that we have a dog (and jobs, and soon a house) those kinds of trips have become even harder to fathom. But we did get a dog and there aren’t many days that go by where I don’t think that she is the absolute best thing ever.

Riley

She is never very far away from me, from love and an innate need to protect me; she is always happy to see me whether I’ve been away for a weekend or just to take out the trash; she curls up on my feet when we’re at home and we have been on so many adventures together. It’s gotten to the point where her joy is so infectious that I want to get up early and spend my Saturdays taking her hiking, or camping or swimming or for ice cream because I have so much fun by proxy.

Oregon Coast

So when Matt and I were deciding where we should go for an anniversary weekend away, I suggested we go to the Oregon Coast so that Riley could run around on the beach. Because the beaches in Oregon are massive and they are all dog friendly. How cool is that?

Rockaway Beach

We armed ourselves with audiobooks and crossword puzzles for the drive to Rockaway, and Riley entertained herself by sticking her head out the window and letting her jowls flap around like laundry on a line and soon enough we were pulling into one of the hundreds of bare-bones seaside motels that PNW road-trippers, parents, motorcyclists and dog-owners adore.

Riley

The rest of the day was spent running up and down the beach, inspecting the bottle-blue jellies strewn across the coastline, finding all the best sticks and drinking Sofia Coppola minis until the sun set and our dog was drunk on adventure. Best. I can’t wait to go back.

Rockaway Beach

Austin

Austin
One of the great things I love about our temporary US home is how diverse it is. Last fall we went on a road trip through pelting rain and evergreens, forests of yellow and green Aspens, geothermic landscapes, the view from 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, red sandstone for days, ancient Pueblos, more than one amazing canyon (and one Grand one), the suburbs of Las Vegas, from 230 feet below sea water to the hot desert heights of Death Valley, the cool granite and forested landscapes of Yosemite and finally back to the rain and evergreens. We saw moose, a Grizzly, a herd of Pronghorn antelope, a whole lot of Elk, deer, chipmunks, Bison, and met a lot of cool people. And that was only in the west. With my birthday coming up I wanted to do a quick city break with my sister and we narrowed it down to Savannah, Denver again, or Austin.

Since Savannah was a bit too far for a weekend and I had just been to Denver, we were soon on our way to Texas (which you already know, based on the title of this post).

Austin
Austin is adorable and so fun. I knew it from Slacker and SXSW and from my friend Mel who lives there now, but America has a thing that Canada does not, which is a relatively even spread of people and culture across the country, and inhabitants that move around between cities. So even a college town can seem larger than life when in fact it is about the same size as Ottawa. In a matter of hours we had seen the lake (actually a river), the grassy knoll that rises above the town, the party district and well, I don’t really remember anything after that.

If someone asked me what there was to do in Austin, I would have to be honest and say “drink” with maybe some eating thrown in for good measure. We did walk up to the Capitol building one day and Mel suggested stand up paddle-boarding on the lake but from the time we got in to the time we left, we were basically going from dinner to cocktail bar to another cocktail bar to jazz club to late night food truck to bed to boozy brunch… If Austin had a theme it would be “cocktails and music” which are basically two of my favourite things and it kind of blows my mind that what I consider real jobs seem like an afterthought here. We had an AMAZING time but this was definitely a case of needing home for a rest.

Austin
Our weekend started off in East Austin with dinner at Qui. We were late because our taxi driver didn’t speak French and so took us to Key Bar, a raucous divey looking thing on the party street. My sister looked alarmed and the taxi driver asked me if I was sure when I said we weren’t in the right place but soon we were speeding off in the other direction and sitting down to an amazing dinner. I would go back to Austin just to go to Qui but from there we walked back to the hotel through cocktail bars and food trucks, ended up at the East Side Show Lounge where a trio featuring an incredible vocalist was playing. I adore live music and I know that Seattle has a lot of it but there is something about just stumbling upon it happening that makes it even greater.

Food trucks
The next day we went for brunch and I tried to untangle the local vernacular for bodies of water (lake, river, swimming holes, etc.) over a Caesar and then a series of patio bars for the afternoon. Our dinner plans at Wink turned into a whole evening affair when the sky opened up and a thunderstorm took out the power. We were one or two tiny courses into a tasting menu so we finished our wine…and then a second bottle and I don’t remember much about the rest of the evening except that it involved dessert I didn’t like, hanging out with a staggette party at Peche, dancing at the Handlebar and giving my number to someone who was going to invite us to a party at the power plant. This is why it’s important to eat a good dinner, kids.

Austin
Sunday we spent on Rainey Street at the recommendation of one of the barmen. It’s a street of converted houses where each house has a different theme – one is a sports bar, one is a cocktail bar, one has a crazy amount of sausages, one has hammocks to chill out in…many have live music. It’s a great place to spend a day and Austin was a great place to spend a weekend – especially as I don’t get to see my sister nearly enough these days and spending days listening to music and drinking cocktails was the perfect way to catch up.

Degan and Stacie
Next trip we’re talking about going to Nashville. I can’t wait.

Yukon adventure

Dawson City

I have wanted to go to the Arctic for practically my entire life. When I was a kid my aunt and uncle went to Tuktoyaktuk (in the Northwest Territories) for a year to work with Inuit artists and they came back with two huskies, a cool nickname for my cousin and a pack of stories – I’ve been hooked on the north ever since. It’s not a travel destination that many share, however. When I suggested that I wanted to spend my 40th birthday ice diving in the arctic, Matt just laughed his ass off. So instead I went to the Yukon.

ice road

It’s practically the Arctic…parts of it are. A few good friends had taken serial trips to Dawson City to photograph the Northern Lights and I figured that my penchant for taking photos (mostly with my iPhone), combined with my fondness for adventure plus my obvious expertise as a Nat Geo explorer wannabe made me an obvious candidate for the trip. I packed my DSLR, my tripod, my warmest toque and the Pacific Northwest equivalent of a parka but fast forward a few months and I found myself on top of a mountain at 4 AM, jumping up and down with my fists jammed into my armpits trying to keep warm.

It occurred to me – not for the first time – that I am not cut out to be a landscape or wildlife photographer. Too much sitting around. I am more the type of photographer that takes a selfie out of a train window on a mountain switchback and hope it works out.

Yukon wallpaper

But let’s back up to a few weeks previous. I went down to the beach by our house to try and glean as much photographic knowledge from my husband as possible. He made a valiant effort but per usual I was more interested in the nighttime beach happenings than the dials on the camera. I knew that my eye for detail was not going to help one whit with nighttime pics but eventually I decided to wing it anyways and set off for a little-visited part of the YVR airport.

Dawson City

When my friends and I arrived in Whitehorse I was surprised by the desolateness and big-town-in-the-outback feel. Instead of advertising the usual spas and kiddie attractions, the brochure in the hotel room was a mining directory. There was also a Tim Hortons, a CIBC bank, lots of government buildings and monuments and, of course, a bar. It’s called the Dirty Northern Bastard and we spent the majority of our time in the city there – all of us keeping watch on the cloud cover and refreshing the NOAA forecast for the Aurora Borealis in the hopes that we would get lucky.

Yukon

The first time I went to Las Vegas I drove from Phoenix and the city appeared in the desert like a lit-up oasis. To compare Dawson City to Vegas would be ridiculous but the surprise reveal was similar; after driving for hour through a bleak and desolate landscape, we turned a corner and entered a gold rush town, revived. I roused myself from the nest I’d made in the back seat and started oohing and ahhing at all the old buildings.

The top 10 things to do in Dawson include drinking at Diamond Tooth Gerties’, looking at Robert Service’s log cabin, visiting the Jack London museum, walking by the S.S. Keno (an historic steamboat displayed beside the river), walking by the dilapidated St. Paul’s Anglican Church partially sunk into the ground due to the permafrost, and eating at the Greek restaurant (one of the only places open through the winter. we went there twice). Aside from eating and drinking, this doesn’t take very long so we added in a drive across the ice road to take photos from a bluff and hanging out with some sled dogs that were in town for a race. There’s not much open over the winter in Dawson.

Northern Lights

But after a short rest we bundled up and headed out to a mountain top outside of town. Notable for its height, lack of streetlights and relative proximity to the sky show, it was also seriously cold. I set up my camera on the tripod, hopped up and down a few times, and then stared at the sky. I didn’t have to wait long – a green glow appeared on the horizon, stretched out into a curtain and then hung there shimmering. It was utterly magical.

Northern Lights

Words like ‘awesome’, ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘extraordinary’ were invented for wonders like the Northern Lights but have become dull and common with overuse. So we have no words for what happens when the sky comes alive and dances with color. Aliens have been mentioned and most Inuit have some folklore around the lights being spirits of the dead kicking a ball / walrus skull around the sky…staring skyward for the better part of the night with my friends, it all seems believable. One of the most profound experiences of my life.

Northern Lights

The next day we ate at the only restaurant that was open, explored the dredge and then took a nap so we could do it all again.

Yukon

Check out the story I wrote for Steller stories:

Seoul, Korea

Korea
Travelling is a bit of a perspective trick sometimes. For my fellow travel mates, mostly coming from South East Asia, Korea was neat and orderly but I, just off the plane from Japan, found it dirty, grey and grim. Not in terms of litter – there are no garbage cans here either – but industrial dirt. It was incredibly overcast when I was there and I could barely make out the ships in the distance, but at least part of that must be smog. As we approached Seoul, evidence of industry was everywhere – all kinds of industrial plants, huge ports filled with massive ships and filling mechanisms. And you can see how much land they’re trying to reclaim. It’s not beautiful at all but it is impressive. Korea has been working away, trying to become a force to behold on the world markets, and this is clear everywhere you look.

Korea
In the airport, throngs of women and children in traditional Korean dress welcome the guests of more than one conference while Korean military and police walk through the airport in bullet proof vests, red mirrored sunglasses and uzis. In town we passed a grey swimming pool and a girl waterskiing on the grey waterfront before we pulled up in front of the impressively grey Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). It’s a gorgeous, modern architectural marvel with not one straight line or angle on the whole building and it is massive – it sits in the place where the stadium used to be. But it is also entirely grey and appears to have no windows, traits that only contribute to the feeling of emotionless futurama. I wasn’t sad to move on.

Korea
Finally at Gyeongbokgung Palace we saw some colour. Intricately decorated wood buildings and gates date from 1405. This was the second palace after the first one, built in 13-something, was destroyed. Every surface of the wooden structures were painted in bright colours and I couldn’t help thinking how long it must have taken, not only to do the painting in the first place, but to do the restoration. There wasn’t much to see at the palace grounds other than the walls and buildings but it was my favourite thing in Seoul. Our guide taught us that the Korean language was invented in 1410 by the last king at this palace. It’s a phonetic language, has 27 characters and they are stacked in groupings of 2 or 3. Neat.

Korea
For lunch we went to the market area of Insadong. It’s an important cultural district with a network of galleries and tea shops, and I was looking forward to exploring it thoroughly but it turned out to be a tourist trap with almost no merit. I had a nice lunch of bulgolgi with all the assorted kimchi and condiments and found a couple of interesting antique shops in amongst the crappy souvenirs but not much to warrant exploring further.

Korea
Our guide spent a lot of time talking about how so much of the country was destroyed after the war and now they are trying to rebuild. His pride was evident when he spoke about the Unesco national treasures and it’s how much money Korea is putting into technology and tourism and construction and industry. That stoicism and determination was something that I saw a lot of in Japan as well… so many temples and shrines that have burned down or been destroyed by an earthquake or a tidal wave or the war (or all of those) and they just rebuild it again and again. There’s no wallowing or thinking about giving up, just getting on with it. My airline magazine had a feature on an historic Korea village in the mountains called Seobaek-dong whose name means “writing the kanji for ‘endure’ one hundred times a day”. That’s not something that we really have the memory or the stomach for in the west, with our quest for newness, but think we can take a lesson from it. Food for thought on my journey back to the new world.

 

Osaka (Japan)

Osaka

Cross-posted from SmokySweet.com

The Dōtonbori District is like a theme park for food. Enormous LCDs in the style of Times Square play consumer brand logos and music videos while giant 3-D animatronic signs hover over storefronts, indicating the delicacies to be had inside. Some of them seem clear enough – an enormous crab with moving arms, a squid that puffs steam, an inflatable octopus or a plastic Kobe cow – but I’m not sure what the angry chef or creepy looking clown are trying to sell. It doesn’t seem to matter though, the place is packed and there is no minimum height to go on these “rides” – despite the late hour, parents walked around carrying small babies, teenagers leaned against takoyaki counters and the businessman army paraded through in their identical suits.

Osaka 3

Osakans love food and this is the place to get it. Both takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savory pancake) were invented here so there is lots to choose from as well as other favourites; kitsune udon (udon with fried tofu), tecchiri (blowfish hot pot), kushikatsu (deep fried skewers),sushi and crab. The city has been affectionately called, the city of “Kuidaore,” meaning roughly “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” It comes from a proverb comparing Osaka to nearby Kyoto – the fashion centre: “Dress (in kimonos) till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka.” Well, I didn’t try on any kimonos in Kyoto but I had come to Osaka ready to eat.

Osaka

I arrived in the afternoon and walked – lost, hot and sweaty, sore, tired, hungry – to the capsule hotel that I had selected online that allowed women. When I got there there was a sign on the door that said No tattoos! which the clerk said confirmed, adding that it was also men-only. WTF! In hindsight I was way too tired to stay in a capsule but I wasn’t super keen about wandering around Osaka with my bags either. I was still kind of in shock. I had come down off the tranquil monastery mountain of Koya-san only that morning and after wandering the area around the station, I wrote in my journal:

“Osaka is not at all just like Tokyo so I’m surprised that people kept telling me that (in Canada). Guys occasionally loom sketchy, women look everything from slutty to skater-ish, people wear colours and shorts (women particularly, with suede thigh-highs). There are many blonde dye-jobs on both men and women and much more make up on women. In short, they seem much more embracing of style and originality than the monochrome salarymen uniforms of Tokyo. Also, they push. And there are bad smells. It’s like a any big city, which is obvious but already kind of strange. The area close to the station is about the size of Yaletown, covered and just completely crazy. There are dozens of pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be glammed / tarted up, arcades full of toys, nurse cafes, and all kinds of restaurants; Korean, Indian, tonkatsu, curry, noodles, fugu restaurants with tanks in the windows, conveyor-belt sushi and of course takoyaki. It’s a hedonistic pleasure dome.”

But that was small potatoes (or should I say octopus balls?) compared to Dōtonbori. Scanning the options lining the canal, I came up with a plan. I would start with the takoyaki shop right in front of me, circle around through the streets snacking on anything else that looked good, and end with a big okonomiyaki finish.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki literally means “fried octopus” and the snack is simple enough but requires a special grill to make. Bits of octopus, scallions, pickled ginger and batter are poured onto the grill and fried then served with mayonnaise, scallions and shaved katsuoboshi (bonito flakes). They are not the perfect street food – although they come in a Styrofoam container and the grill is pretty portable (I bought some out of the back of a van in Tokyo) they are messy to eat. There is so much dough and mayonnaise and the fork is so tiny that one wrong move could be disastrous for clothing. Takoyaki has been eaten in Osaka since the 1930’s and so all over Dōtonbori you see people hunched over their takoyaki, trying to minimize the gap between their mouths and the container.

I am not in the habit of regularly eating octopus but these were amazing – much better than anything I’ve had in Vancouver or Tokyo – so I was really glad I tried them in their home region. They were also pretty filling so I passed on the giant dragon (ramen) and the crab and the fugu but I did sample some gyoza and some pressed sushi before getting in line for okonomiyaki at Mizuno.

Osaka

Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki and Mizuno has been in business in Dōtonbori for 65 years! Passed down through the family, and setting themselves apart by only using local ingredients. Okonomiyaki is sometimes called Japanese pizza, Japanese omelet or Japanese pancake because it is made with a batter of grated yam (nagaimo), flour, dashi broth, eggs and shredded cabbage then topped with an assortment of ingredients. Okonomi, means “what you like” (and yaki of course means “grilled” or “cooked” like in yakitori) so the customer gets to choose what toppings they want, usually green onion, grilled onions, pork, seafood, shrimp, vegetables, mochi or cheese. At Mizuno the specialty is roast pork and scallops and the most popular is octopus, scallop, squid, shrimp and bacon. I also saw one being made with a layer of ramen noodles.

I was in line for a while so I had time to peruse the menu but ultimately I went with the most popular and was ushered into a tiny shop where I got a seat at the grill. In front of me the cooks danced through the process, whisking batter, pouring it onto the grill, adding the desired toppings, moving them around to make sure that they are evenly cooked, and then adding the finishing touches (nori powder, bonito flakes, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise) and serving the guest.  I’ve been to establishments that are cook your own but it was neat to see all of the different variations on the grill.

Okonomiyaki

My okonomyaki was perfect – crispy bits on the outside and softly gooey inside with all kinds of different flavours coming up against each other. And it was so filling! After all I had eaten it was all I could do to finish my pancake and beer, although I noticed some of my neighbours going back for seconds. As I wandered back out into the neon jungle, there was still quite a line up but it’s easy to see how this dish has become insanely around here, especially late-night.

Koyasan (Japan)

Koya (10)

The slow train out of Kyoto chugged into the suburbs and then out into a patchwork of rice paddies and bamboo groves. That dappled green blur turned to a darker hue as farms gave way to forest and at the end of the line I traded the train car for a funicular that took me 800 metres up the side of Mount Koya in about 5 minutes. Exciting the cable car, I lurched a bit, whether from the uneven sidewalk or the sudden change in altitude, and found my way onto a bus for the next phase of my journey up a winding mountain road. The mountain, called Kōya-san in Japanese, is a sacred Buddhist site started in 805 by the monk Kobo Daishi. It has been an important pilgrimage destination for many years but now it is also a UNESCO-designated area with 120 temples, a small town, a university, the largest rock garden in Japan and Okunoin – an enormous cemetery that has been growing up around Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. I’m not a Buddhist and I wasn’t in Japan on an Eat, Pray, Love type tour but I was interested in staying in shukubō (temple lodgings) and eating shōjin ryōri (vegetarian food intended for and prepared by monks) after my kaiseki ryōri meal at Yuzuya Ryokan.

The road was so narrow that we had to pull off the road and come to a stop so that the oncoming bus could make it past, and even then the road jack-knifed so severely that one miscalculation would have sent a vehicle right down to the train station, but soon we were at the gates to Kōya-san. A large stone Buddha stood guard in a red robe and a promotional banner advertising the site’s 1200th anniversary next year. 1200 years! For the several minutes I was agog at the sheer age of the place but but also the determination of the early pilgrims. This was decidedly not an easy place to get to even in the modern age so their journeys would have been long and treacherous. I learned later that women were banned from the town’s temples for a significant part of history so in order to pray at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum they had to take an even more dangerous and remote back route through the mountains.

Once we were inside the gates the town lost its aura of remoteness. It both bigger and busier than I expected and we picked up people from bus stops, saw shopkeepers closing up for the evening and dragging in shelves of prettily wrapped products, noted several cars parked behind the buildings…which in fairness were mostly temples. There was a large pagoda-shaped temple looming over the road and demanding attention with its red beams, blue kanji and gold-painted wooden lanterns lining the entrance, but others were small and humble, set back a ways from the road. Most had some kind of gate with paper lanterns to welcome guests and as we drove past I tried to catch a glimpse of the gardens and temples inside. In the driveway of one, I saw a monk sweeping leaves into a circle with s straw broom – a Zen exercise.

Koya (9)

ARRIVAL

At Ekoin, the monastery I had chosen to stay at, I arrived at an ornate wooden gate carved with swirls and accented with copper pieces. Through it I could see a pond in the garden surrounded with stone sculpture, stubby trees and rocky outcrops rising up to the main temple up above as well as a row of potted lotus plants lining the driveway.  A young monk ran out to greet me and took me to my on the first floor. As at Yuzuya Ryokan, I stored my shoes in a cubby and put on borrowed slippers to enter the room which was sparsely decorated with tatami mat flooring, a low table with a tea set, cushions, an alcove with a scroll and sadly, another television. A blue and white cotton yukata (pyjama robe) was hanging in the corner for me to wear to the bath and paper screens opened onto a small patio with a wicker chair and a serene scene; fragrant cedar trees, rocks with scrub trees and mosses, and a fountain bubbling in the pond. I sighed happily. It had felt like quite a journey but I had the satisfaction of one who has reached their destination and was looking forward to dinner and a bath.

Koyasan

DINNER

Shōjin ryōri is vegetarian but the Shingon Buddhism sect also prohibits eating root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, etc. – and dairy is not frequently consumed in Japan so I was intrigued about what my “sumptuous feast” would be like. But not in the least concerned – at this point in my journey I was well aware of the culinary reach that was possible and had eaten all manner of things I never knew existed. At the monastery dinner is served in your room, so at the appointed hour, a trio of young monks arrived at my door carrying lacquer boxes that were unpacked to showcase an incredible meal – three trays each containing smaller containers and beautiful ceramic plates laden with delicacies, as well as the staples; rice, tea, soy sauce and a special fall harvest beer that I had ordered. I didn’t know where to start!

On the main tray in front of me was steamed rice, pickles and clear soup with radish cakes floating in it, and some unidentified assorted vegetables which my menu suggested might consist of: Japanese radish, perilla leaf, wakame seaweed, Chinese yam, sword bean flowers, bayberry, raw konjac and vinegared miso sauce. Having eaten very few of these prior to my trip to Japan (I didn’t even know what konjac was), I was out of luck, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, being a little bit salty and having some tang from the vinegar and miso. The next dish was a simmered dish with snow peas, chestnut, young corn, shiitake mushroom and yuba (dried soy-milk skin) which I devoured, feeling grateful for all of the variety but also for the small portions. The final dish held tofu in sesame oil. This is something I eat fairly often at home but here I really relished the texture of the tofu and the nuttiness of the oil as I marvelled at all of the different types of food and methods of food preparation in front of me.

Koya (1)

I tried to pace myself but I as swapped the main tray with the second tray (allowing myself a few minutes to get out of the kneeling position and hopefully regain some feeling in my feet) I realized that I was already starting to feel full. But quitting wasn’t an option. The tray in front of me now held hassun – a delicious fried dumpling with Chinese yam and candied Japanese plum, assorted tempura with sweet potato, shishitō pepper, laver seaweed, pumpkin and eggplant. Again there was a simmered dish which contained Kōya-dōfu, a local delicacy of freeze-dried and reconstituted tofu with rolled kelp, wheat gluten, and more snow peas. The next day I saw some kōya-dōfu for sale in one of the shops and was tempted to buy some but in the end I realized I had already bought too many treats and still needed some room in my case for presents.

My feet had completely fallen asleep by this point in the meal and I was starting to groan under the weight of all that food but I saw that the third tray held delicate soba noodles with soba sauce in a beautiful ceramic container, a bowl of dark brown hijiki seaweed, and a couple of pieces of fruit and I realized that of course the order of the trays held a perfect pacing. The third tray was cool and cleansing and not that difficult to finish, especially with some tea and the last of my beer, so swapped trays again, ate up and then laid myself on my tatami mat, relieving my aching legs. In Japan, children are taught to sit on their knees from an early age so they are quite used to this treatment but I was only able to do about 5 minutes at a time. I could have easily had a little nap on the floor there but I didn’t have much time to rest – the monks were coming back to pick up the trays and I still wanted to visit the graveyard.

Koya (6)

OKUNOIN

To call Okunoin a graveyard is the most grievous kind of understatement but that’s what I thought I was going to see when I set out in the dark after dinner. I knew that the sun had set and that the moon was still nearly full (I’d been at the full moon ceremony the night before in Kyoto) but I hadn’t really counted on it being so incredibly dark. There were some streetlights and a couple of lights on in the town but as I walked and walked and walked and wondered when I was going to get to the main gates, and then wondered if I had taken a wrong turn out of town, I couldn’t help being a little uneasy. But finally I found the gates and the ubiquitous washing station with its stone fountain and bamboo ladles.

I’d been walking for about half an hour at this point and didn’t have a map with me. I had no idea where the  mausoleum was but I figured I’d walk along the path for a while and see what I could see. Which turned out to be not very much. There was a promenade that seemed to be relatively new as all of the tiles were level and no weeds growing through the cracks. Along the sides were some stone lanterns typical of the but several were burned out and a few inches behind them all I could make out was shaggy undergrowth and the occasional outline of a statue in the moonlight. I kept walking but the farther I got into the cemetery, the more scared I got but I couldn’t figure out why. Because I was in a graveyard? Ridiculous. At night? No. Did I hear drums in the distance? Certainly not. The possibility of dengue fever? Maybe that one…a couple of tourists had gotten it at a temple in Tokyo a few weeks before my trip. But no. The two men who fell in behind me? Ordinarily this would have put me on my guard, especially combined with the cemetery, remote mountain top, darkness and my incredibly poor footwear but come on, this was Japan! One of the safest countries in the world and not only that but a MONASTERY in Japan. I kept walking. Eventually I did give up and turn around because I was an hour away from my bed and hadn’t really seen anything.

Koya (5)

The next day I learned that I had taken the wrong fork in the road and walked almost to the far end of the Okunoin, unknowingly passing hundreds and hundreds of of graves as I pressed on in the dark, and also that while an incredibly holy and serene place, Okunoin is still a little bit creepy in the daytime. I probably wouldn’t have come in the dark if I had seen it first but in the fresh light of morning I could hear woodpeckers hammering away and calling to each other and the smell of cedar and moss was lovely. From the main path I had walked the night before were all kinds of trails and dirt paths leading off into family complexes (marked by mossy Torii gates) and forest. Some of the cedars must have been big when the site was created because they are ancient now. I found one huge statue almost knocked on its side simply because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had kept growing. Inscription markers were everywhere I found one statue almost knocked on its side because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had grown into that space.

Koya (8)

The site is sacred because Kobo Daishi is believed to be in eternal meditation in the temple but throughout history people have buried their families and loved ones close by (or set up a monument) so that when he wakes up, he will be able to revive them as well. But the oldest monument in the cemetery was constructed in the year 997 and there are hundreds more that covered in moss and crumbling. This place is OLD and it feels as though the stone has in some way started to return to the earth. In places where new marble has been used its newness feels jarring, like to be polished is an affront somehow.

But in spite of its age, it’s evident that this is a busy place. Some of the newer monuments have been erected by corporations – a sure sign of the times – and pinwheels are stuck in the ground close to monuments for children, turning slightly in the cool air but never getting up enough movement to rid themselves of moss. Small statues of the Jizo Buddha (a protector of children, pregnant women and travelers) are everywhere, dressed in knitted toques and aprons with offerings of coins and flowers. I had seen these Jizo Buddha at Hase-dera temple in Kamakura and a fox variation at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto but there was something unsettling about seeing hundreds of these statues at Okunoin, tucked into the nook of a tree or piled up to cover all the sides of a huge pyramid and all in various stages of decay. Later I read here that “In ancient times it was thought that children who died could not go to Heaven because they had caused great sorrow for their parents. Therefore grieving parents would wrap articles of their children’s clothing around Jizo statues and ask the Jizo to find their children and guide them to Heaven. Over the years this evolved into a tradition of wrapping a red bib around the Jizo when asking for any sort of favor.”

The Kobo Daishi Gobyo mausoleum is very serene and obviously very sacred. To get to it, I crossed a little moat to an area where no photos are talking is allowed. Monks in saffron robes are sweeping the ground around the Great Hall and inside several people were sitting in silent meditation. It was so far in that I never would have found it in the dark and I realized the next day that it wouldn’t have been open anyways. So I’m glad I made two trips.

Koya (3)

MORNING SERVICE & FIRE CEREMONY

When I got back to my room at night, the monks had cleared away my trays and set up my futon on the floor with a pillow stuffed with buckwheat. I’d slept on this setup a few times by this point on my trip and it was always very comfortable so I keep wondering why it need to be more complicated than that. I’d been sleeping pretty lightly because of all the strange noises and walls made of paper but I’d forgotten that I was at a working monastery. Soft chimes called the monks to prayer at 4 AM, then again to call everyone else to morning service is 6:30 AM. In case anyone manages to sleep in, Muzak is blared out the speakers all over town at 8.

The morning service was at the temple on the hill behind my room but as I’d arrived too late for afternoon meditation the day before, I hadn’t seen it yet. After exchanging my sandals for slippers at the cubby, I came around to the main hall where we were greeted by two monks in black robes and purple overlay with a pattern of circles with vertical crosses on them. We knelt in front of a shrine with candles and an incense burner and a small statue of Buddha and the monks started chanting. Behind the shrine was a deep hall with many more altars and candles and banners of red silk hanging from the ceiling.  Then the monks added gongs and cymbals to their chanting and a priest in black robes with a gold overlay came out to stand in front of the altar. He gave a short sermon in Japanese that sounded as though it was rattled off rather quickly but the only people still kneeling nodded appreciatively (thus confirming my theory about Westerners sitting on the floor) and we were invited to add a pinch of incense to the burner. When it was time to leave we followed the monks around the hall, bowing to the Buddha and then heading back out into the courtyard where we would attend the fire ceremony.

The Goma fire ritual also happens every morning as part of the monks’ service. In the evening guests are invited to write a prayer on a piece of wood and bring it to the office to be burned in the morning. As we filed into the smaller temple after the morning service one of the monks was seated at the shrine carefully setting up the materials for the fire. He had put on a saffron overlay for this part. While he built the fire in the brazier another monk started steadily drumming. The flames got higher and higher the drumming became faster and faster and then the prayers were added which caused the flames to lick up a bit higher but then piece de resistance was when the monk added a bit of oil to the fire and the flames reached almost to the ceiling. It’s quite close quarters in the fire temple and the drumming, chanting and flames are quite sensational. Here’s a short video clip:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/15271729481

Koya (2)

BREAKFAST

After that breakfast was going to have to try pretty hard but when the monks brought in the trays I found steamed rice, pickles, tea, miso soup (made with wakame seaweed, wheat gluten and Japanese honeywort), crispy dried laver seaweed to wrap around pinches of rice, deep-fried soybean curd with vegetables, marinated vegetables, grated Chinese yam, and wheat gluten boiled in soy sauce. It was perfect.

On my way back to the funicular, I tried to taste as many traditional Kōya-san delicacies as I could find. One specialty was a green paste filled with adzuki bean and wrapped in a banana leaf which was a bit slimy and not overly sweet but my favourite was yakimochi – a rice dumpling filled with black bean paste then fried on a griddle. I had heard that pressed sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves was a specialty of the mountains (because the persimmon leaves help preserve the fish) but I couldn’t find it at any of the shops. Sad, but I little did I know I was going to need to save room for Osaka. I was sad to leave Kōya-san because with all the ancient history, culture, religion and natural beauty that come together here it was one of my favourite places in Japan. Hard not to get a serious case of Stendhal syndrome there.