A Trip to Sendai, Matsushima and Yamadera
At the end of January, I had the opportunity to visit the Tohoku region of Japan, because I went to the conference of the Japan Society of Health Evaluation and Promotion which took place in Sendai. The conference wasn’t very interesting, but it was a nice short trip to a region of Japan I hadn’t been to and I used it to the fullest.
Sendai itself is just a typical modern city like many in Japan. Life seemed to be concentrated around the shopping streets in the city center. And yet, it was really astonishing how normal this city was. Nothing would indicate that it was hit by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Unless you looked to the sea…
It has already been a strange feeling landing at Sendai airport which had been flooded but didn’t show a trace of that. But looking over Sendai from Westin Hotel showed a different picture.
In the evening of the second in Sendai, it began to snow and by the next day, the city was covered by a thin layer of snow. People were cleaning up streets in the morning, even these OLs in their pumps:
Living in Osaka, which rarely sees any snow, I am used to people not wearing winter clothes, but in Tohoku I expected the people to adapt a bit more to the cold climate. Obviously, this wasn’t he case. It seems like the Japanese pride in their four seasons doesn’t lead to distinct clothes fit to each. Also cleaning your car before you drive wasn’t very common and so the sight of people driving with snow on top and undetectable lights was the norm. Even the buses were no exception.
After the conference was over I had just enough time to go to nearby Matsushima. My colleague joined me and we caught the last ship going around the many tiny islands of Matsushima Bay. Here, too, the tsunami didn’t have much of an impact because the islands had stopped the water, but the influence was still there. In fact, the train wouldn’t go any further than Matsushima Bay. If you wanted to continue your way north you had to take a bus. I can only imagine how it would look like there. Probably like the empty area in Sendai, but much bigger…
Anyways, it was snowing in Matsushima, too, but I enjoyed the tour around the islands nevertheless. It truly is a beautiful place. In fact, it is so beautiful the haiku poet Matsuo Bashou dedicated more words in his famous “Oku no hosomichi” (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) to Matsushima than to any other place.
On the last day, I went to Yamadera in Yamagata prefecture on my own. It takes almost an hour by train to get there and the more the train got into the mountains the more snow there was. Even in Sendai the snow had accumulated to around 10 cm but at Yamadera it must have been at least 40 cm. I was very lucky that the snow had already stopped falling but was still fresh enough to lay on the trees.
Yamadera is a temple built on top of a hill so you have to climb many stairs to get there. It isn’t a very long or difficult way though. Under normal conditions that is… It was said on the temple’s website that it could be visited anytime, even in winter, because the path would be cleaned. Well, the snow was piled up on one side of the path but there was still enough snow to make it super slippery. So I struggled with every step, especially when the snow was piled up on the side that would have provided a handrail… I should have listened to the woman where I paid the entrance fee of 300 Yen and borrow boots for the hike. But the first stairs were easy to walk and so I thought I could go on in my own boots. What a big mistake!
Going up was easy compared to the way down. Only the last stairs to the hall on top weren’t cleaned at all and I couldn’t have reached it if not some kind Japanese would have reached out their hands for me. There was a couple from Nagano prefecture who helped me a lot. The husband first talked to me in English but we switched to Japanese later. His wife was faster and had already seen all the temple buildings (which were closed that day) when we arrived at the top. On the way, I took some pictures of the amazing, snowy landscape:
Then we had to go down, which was much more difficult. It was already difficult for those wearing hiking boots but for me in my no-profile-at-all-city-boots it proved to be impossible. If I hadn’t had that much help I would have had to slide down on my bottoms. But the man from Nagano lent me a hand and another man gave me a stick he had borrowed near the station and so I could make it down. It was still not easy though. Most of the way, I held the handrail and moved my hands forward step by step while my feet just followed slipping down. It was like going down a slide made of ice. I had sore muscles for the following three days. It felt like after hiking Mt. Fuji but this time my arms also hurt as hell and I couldn’t lift them above my shoulders… I swear, next time I get an offer to borrow boots I’ll take it! On the other hand, what would life be without such small adventures?
Remember the oysters I ate at Matsushima? Two of them were raw and must have been carrying the norovirus. The next day after I returned to Osaka, my stomach got terribly sick. I couldn’t even sit upright and slept the whole day. I was feeling better the following day but couldn’t eat anything for three days without upsetting my stomach. Of course, my colleague wasn’t any better… But how lucky we were that the virus takes a day until it causes symptoms so we could enjoy the last day of our journey