Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summing Up Iceland

Serene is not first word that would come to mind when talking about Iceland, but after a week there it is one of the most sufficient words that comes to my mind. The looming volcanoes, North Atlantic and harsh winds can easily rebut my claim, but not a day went by when I just gazed at the patina of a moss-covered lava field, a basalt formation, or a stretch of land to the ocean and then ocean to sky to just sit in wonder or empty my mind completely.

My own experience in the Canadian Arctic, where I lived at the outset of my career as a teacher, rid me of any impulse to describe the Icelandic landscape as barren, desolate, or otherworldly. The exposure to Iceland’s remote, uninhabitable landscape was at once humbling and easing. Visiting volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls and geysers in such proximity to one another satisfied my appetite for adventure and created a sense of wonder that makes it hard for Iceland to escape my imagination, albeit a scant few days after returning home. It is not a place or a nation that, neatly wrapped up in a package of confirmed preconception, I can dispose of it with a dismissive “been there, done that.”

Iceland was very much what I expected: spacious, illuminating, stimulating, daunting and compellingly scenic, probably a close match to what comes to anyone’s mind when the nation is mentioned. One day trip was threatened by volcanic activity that wiped out the main road to a spectacular glacial lagoon three weeks before our trip. To my surprise a new road was quickly built and I was afforded a view of the three stretches of the old road that now stretched out into the ocean, perpendicular to their former location. Despite confirming my expectations or preconceptions the way it did, my interest and fascination with Iceland is only deeper and there is a strong desire to go back sooner rather than later to contemplate the landscape or the possibility of being in an exceptionally remote and silent place with my thoughts.

A distinct difference between Iceland and the Canadian Arctic is that urban life is not quite as far away. Throughout the week, I made day trips from Reykjavik to the more remote parts of the country and returned by evening. Reykjavik is an intriguing harbour city that teemed with tourists from Europe for the most part with ample representation from North America and Asia. It is hard to discern the effects of their economic difficulties since 2008 without a before and after to compare but despite the evident missing teeth from the city’s harbour front and the stark evidence of papered over businesses, there is not much evident sign of decay or hardship in the city. There were not any indications of homelessness. There were stories of large numbers of families having to turn over their homes because their foreign currency mortgages were too onerous for them to maintain and there was a substantial residential development in the suburbs of Reykjavik that now stands abandoned. If there is any evidence that I could pick up on during my time in the city it was a certain youthful defiance and will to get through the economic difficulties

With just 320,000 people it is puzzling to determine how Iceland has the human capital to do things that other nations do. Perusing a bookstore, I was in wonder at the number of people the country would have at its disposal to translate literature into and out of a language shared on this remote island alone. Beyond that, there were questions along the lines of how Iceland staffed its diplomatic corps or what nuances and obstacles there are to the import and sale of cars for such a small, remote population.

Iceland is advertised or conceived, for myself at least. The time I spent there, though brief, left a lingering imprint of a unique place of compelling sights and humbling change and a people characterized and strengthened by an intimate understanding of its realities and a resilience that likely typifies and surpasses its Scandinavian brethren.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Random Thoughts on Iceland

Surprisingly, Iceland has 150!! golf courses. One for every 2000 people.

There was a moment Tuesday when I wanted to tell myself, "This is great, I really have to come back in the summ...-er. Hmmm."

Seriously though, I really would love to get back.

Iceland is a very easy place to lose track of time. Not one day went by where we didn't look at our watches to tell ourselves, "It's 9:30 already?"

Reykjavik is a very compact walkable city. The suburbs that are beyond the city, however, may be in for a short lifespan given the economic problems that emerged in 2008.

Speaking of 2008, about 4500 families lost their homes because of mortgage issues. The problems there seem to be relatively hard to notice but their currency has plummeted two about 2/3 of its pre-collapse value.

Apart from that there is a feeling that there is a rather unhurried pace of life. It might be a matter of getting 99% of their energy by green means - geothermal and wind primarily - and essentially a passive method when compared to oil and gas.

It was remarkable at times to realize how transient the land itself actually is. We drove on one road that had been whipped together in the space of a week to replace a road that had been washed away by flooding caused by volcanic activity.

The water in Iceland is so pure that they have had some problems with their sewage systems. Matter just doesn't get broken down by any bacteria or minerals in the water. To ensure that the water systems don't corrode, sulfer is actually added to the water. The purity is a consequence of glacial water filtering through the lava into ground water.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Serene and exotic need to be applied to Iceland. Serene might be a harder sell if you have had to fend off the harsh winds that buffet the place on a regular basis, and if you are preoccupied with the volcanoes that are far less active than the media have made them out to be over the last year or so.

It is quite easy to find a place to hide yourself away somewhere of the beat trail. The fact is that the beaten trail - if you are talking about the single lane highway that rings the country, for instance - is that it doesn't take too much to get away from civilization and contemplate the calming patina of a moss covered lava field an ash desert or the lapping of the waves on the shores of the island.

Much of what I've seen here reminds me of the granite shores of Nova Scotia or the Canadian Arctic. The geology is different of course, but the solitude with the elements that you can so easily find here is so easy a place to find some peace and let your mind wander to greater questions or greater throbs in the passage of time than the ticking of your watching or the turning of the day (something that seems almost optional here at the moment.) When the resilient layer of moss envelopes everything from where you are to the horizon and beneath it and the hardened lava notions of what lives and routines existed below it a mere 200-odd years before and to be reminded that on geological terms this is all so young and to wonder what archaeologists might find if they ever find away or reason to dig below to find out what people did on this same spot once upon a time... It is a small miracle that our thoughts can find such contemplation and caught up in the space.

The bus tours were sufficient during our time here, but it doesn't take much to conclude that the next trip ought to be done by car. The bus tours still insist on stopping at the obvious landmarks that are eye catching anywhere: waterfalls, volcanoes, glacial lagoons. (Okay two out of three.) Even as it was it is a little hard to engage the interest of sullen teenagers. I'm sure that they would rather have the house and a supply of frozen pizzas for the two weeks or would sell it as a much more exciting or seismically unstable locale if they had the opportunity.

My trip has been too short and too quick. There is much more that I'd like to take in next time around.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

First Thoughts in Iceland

I don't think I'll be able to structure my first posting in Iceland around a destination at this point. We've been in the country for three days and for all of the promises that are beyond the limits of Reykjavik, the capital still holds a strong allure.

Saturday was spent out on a tour of the so-called Golden Circle and visiting the waterfalls at Gullfoss, geisers beyond there and being completely rapt with the landscape. The first temptation is to throw the word barren into the mix and talk about moonscapes but there is an undeniable life out on the land beyond Reykjavik. There is a grey-green moss that covers places for huge stretches at a time, but there are plants of several varieties to choose from. It is certainly not of the variety that your would find further south in either Europe or North America but there is enough variety of those hardy breeds to dispel notions of the place as barren. There is always a flower finding root in a stone to illustrate a metaphor but things never flourish too far. As our tour guide said on Saturday, "If you are lost in the woods in Iceland, just stand up."

At this point I am completely preoccupied with how a country of 300,000 people finds the people to get all of the things done that nations need to do for themselves. How big is their diplomatic corps? Their civil service? How many translators and interpreters do they have and how good are they at what they do? There have to be countless other examples of fields of endeavour, or national needs that there are so very few people to choose from. A look at the corrugated walls or the minimal lines of the buildings here and I wonder how the architect or architects of this country encapsulate and communicate the desires and needs of this country into the function and form that a nation desires. Whether this expertise is something that comes from one of Iceland's nordic brethren would be a satisfactory answer but I'm still wondering how a nation finds the means to define itself in terms other than the most cliched. A thousand years of history and an environment that is so unique and assertive certainly help.

Another thing that has certainly stood out is the sense of design and the visual that is here. I'm not sure if it is specific to Iceland and has its own distinct look and style or if it has happened to be outsourced from their Scandinavian neighbours. There are several small niches of Reykjavik where there is a vibrant splash of colour - usually from graffiti artist. The first few times I've seen it I've wanted to proceed with caution, not sure if I was heading into a dodgy neighbourhood or some realm of protest in the aftermath of the financial collapse here. I've gotten the feeling, however, that it is more a matter of exercise a particular desire to express for expression sake.

At this point, I still don't feel like I have the grasp of Reykjavik that I'd like. It may remain beyond my grasp well beyond the end of this trip but it has been an entrancing host thus far.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


One of my musts of this trip to Japan has been tea. It is quite tempting to use tea as a verb to give the full range of applications or identifications with the word but it has been a part of our routine and a priority for shopping, whether for ourselves or for souvenirs.

At a temple market a few days ago we splashed out on a bit of tea, buying just over a kilogram. On Friday, however, we did ourselves one better by going to the city of Uji, just 25 minutes outside of Kyoto. I don't know if it was a coincidence or not that the train was that soft green of matcha, but throughout the city there was the crisp waft of matcha in the streets. Nadine made a point of tasting the local version of the matcha ice cream and we wandered around from tea shop to tea shop to see what varieties of blends and uses they had come up with for the stuff. There were chocolates made with the matcha (including matcha flavoured Kitkats), a variety of wafers, cookies and confections to choose from, not to mention the delicate, pretty sugar candies that are made to compliment the bitter taste of the matcha.

While in Uji, we also attended a quick sado or tea ceremony, a reminder of the attention to detail that is such a part of Japanese routine. Watching the discipline and grace of the ceremony made me even more curious about the ceremony and left me wondering what nuances there would be to different people's execution of the ceremony. If nothing else, it was a quiet moment of our day and a chance to sit and absorb things at a more leisurely pace. It was very easy to forget everything that was beyond that bare room.

After the ceremony we meandered back through the city, also known as the place where The Tales of Genji - one of the earlier examples of the novel - was written and the home to the ancient temple that is featured on the Japanese 10-yen coin. It was a great respite from the crowds and bustle that had been so common at the popular sites in Kyoto. At our unhurried pace, we probably could have passed even more of the day in one of the more sedate and contemplative quarters of Kyoto.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rapture in Higashiyama

It was a good day to meander and one to be thankful not to be on the group tour and trundled along from place to place because of some tour guide's unknown motivations.

We took the subway across town and stepped off at Keage Station and headed north to Nanzen-ji, Eikan-do and the Path of Philosophy. Any one of these three places could have preoccupied as for the whole day and as it was we ended up crossing two other destinations off our to-do list for the day.

At Nanzen-ji we were first presented with the sight of a group of students all attired in traditional clothing. They straddled the age between high school and university and it was easy to assume the shots were commemorating a graduation but I still could not pin down their age. Through the trip we have seen a large number of people in traditional clothing. Part of it is the 7-5-3 Festival where families bring their children of those three ages to the temples to celebrate the occasion. There have been a number of times to dote on the sight of a 3 year old girl in a kimono still wanting and managing to bust out the toddler enthusiasm despite the formal attire she is packaged in. The juxtapositions have always been amusing and charming. Apart from the children though, there have been people of all ages. Mostly women in simpler kimonos but today there were a few male classmates in the group who were comfortable roaming the temple grounds.

The turning leaves continued to draw my focus and just when I was convinced that I had run out of ideas for what to shoot and how, I still found another nuance or background to photograph in. At Nanzen-ji there was a brick aquaduct that passed through to the south of the temple grounds. At Eiken-do there was a pond that reflected a deep blood red in the afternoon and was the refuge of a group of ducks that took great pleasure and splashing around and throwing themselves at one another. At the Path of Philosophy there was a mix of shadows and reflection on the water. All told, as I said earlier, each place enchanted and could have preoccupied us for the entire day. The one thing that has become true about this trip is that it is very easy to want to return to some of these places day after day and embrace that contemplation that sets in after a few minutes of staring at the space you are in.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Shopping, Food and Random Notes

Today was spent in Osaka basically to pass a rainy day with a bit of pre-planned shopping to satisfy our fetishes for Japanese pottery and stationery. Osaka is nothing even closely resembling a respite from Kyoto. The opposite has always been true. Back when I lived in Osaka it was easy to lose touch with nature or even the passage of the seasons amidst all of the concrete. There are few of the character buildings and charming boutiques that we discovered in most parts of Kyoto that we have visited so far. In fact there was one occasion when I was reminded that fall was coming when I saw a banner outside a restaurant announcing a "fall harvest rice fair" - so easy it is to lose track of time in the concrete bowels of the subway system and the sheltered arcades of Osaka. For a bit of grit, however, and a feel for urban life without getting overwhelmed by the megagopolis beast that is Tokyo, Osaka can fill the bill.

One of the goals of the trip was to load up on Japanese pottery and the opportunities ranged in about the same way that hotel accommodations can. Comparable to the wide range of options that - for hotels, run the gamut from capsule hotels to 5-star luxury in Ginza - there is the comparable opportunity to range from the 100 yen stores to the masterpieces that are made either by local living potters or classic Japanese pieces (and prices) that would take your breath away. We have seen the masterpieces in the little boutiques and we'll stop regularly at whatever boutiques we chance upon next.

For our purchases, we focused our attention on two streets that specialize in supplying local restaurants. One is in the south part of Osaka and the other is in Tokyo near Asakusa. Apart from the dishes, there are countless shops selling banners, signage, chopsticks, cooking utensils, aprons, and plastic food. The shops were each an experience in themselves. Some were crammed with single samples of their inventory and every little pile that we sorted through provided a new treasure or a nuance on the presentation of a dish. Others had their entire inventories out on the shop floor, making browsers tread the aisles with the uncertainty and the quest for balance that is reserved for tightrope walkers in a circus. Some of these more crowded shops made me wonder aloud if they made more money on breakage than on sales that got out the door. In the end we hit (wrong word?) two shops for dishes and we will probably add a bit more that we will rationalize as serving dishes. We will let you know when we get over looking at the stuff and decide to break it in.

Food (for the non-fish eater)
We have managed to minimize our exposure to fish throughout the trip. Not that it is my goal but Nadine is not a big fan of fish and we have been steering clear. Our trip has made me recall an anecdote I heard from tourists who came to Japan during the 2002 and either complained or boasted that the ate McDonald's for their entire trip. We've eaten cheaply and enjoyed a lot of the food we've had.

On our way through Osaka we noticed a street that was closed for an imminent festival. We wandered the street and there were food vendors of all sorts on hand. In our wandering we scooped up yakitori, which is basically a chicken kabob, some karaage, fried chicken which is not to be confused with kurage which is jellyfish and okanomiyaki, Nadine's favorite. Okanomiyaki is hard to describe and the comparisons to pizza or omelets don't quite suffice. We have had it twice so far and the best place to have it is Hiroshima which has its own version of it that includes soba noodles in the recipe.

Other items:
Ton-katsu at Katsu Kura: Ton Katsu is a breaded pork cutlet and Katsu Kura is a chain of restaurants, mostly in Kyoto. There other chains that do a good job of it but the Katsu Kura experience offers a bit more ambience with their nouveau Japanese decor, all you can eat salad, rice and miso soup and the simplest little exercise in grinding your own sesame seeds to add to your dipping sauce.

Chicken Karaage at Saganoya in Arashiyama: My favorite mom 'n pop in Kyoto. It is just outside of JR Saga Arashiyama Station. It is a bit removed from the crowds and they do a pretty good job of everything. Since I was last there on a weekly basis many moons ago, they've come up with an English menu and the chicken karaage is better than anything I've had at Japanese restaurants in Canada who attempt it and they beat the street vendor stuff hands down.

There are all sorts of places that specialize in cheap meals under even $4 in Japan now. A lot of them are kind of a workman's kind of place with a meal so cheap and quick that it would make you wonder if you could do it more cheaply at home. Some just specialize in gyuu-don, a bowl of rice covered with a layer of shaved beef. There are countless other "dons" too that are served with chicken, tempera, yaki-tori, the aforementioned pork cutlet and more. Be careful considering how much you want to scrimp on these things. Ultimately quality is being sacrificed but more importantly in the Japanese diet you would be moving away from the ideal of a daily menu that features 50 different ingredients. Rather than trying to break things into 4 food groups and proceeding from there, they basically push variety and consequently moderation of each of those ingredients.
Random thoughts:
I have told Nadine that there are targets on the urinals in the men's room to help with aim. In response, she told me there were urinals in the women's rooms. (She will look for targets next time.)

I have managed to refrain from buying books on this trip. I ogle the three-volume Japanese version of my favorite Japanese author's current book which won't be translated into English until fall 2011.

Hiking seems to be the reserve of the older crowd in Japan. There are very few people out on the trails who were younger than us.

I'm not sure if Japan's technological wonders are in as much abundance as they used to be 10-15 years ago. I've yet to see that must-have device or gadget that would compare with mini-disc players of the 1990s. They didn't really cross the pond to North America in the end anyhow.

Using the bullet train as much as I have this trip has made me wonder about how the train has altered everyone's sense of space or Japan's size.