Inspiration and Resources


“Why do you always research the backstory, never the practical details?” R., my wife and travel companion, asks when I show her my latest finds: a documentary about strongmen in Iceland, say, or a catalogue page from the website of Iceland’s homegrown outdoor gear brand (links to both included below).

How else to appreciate the spirit of place, the Genius loci, “the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; the invisible weave of culture” and “the tangible physical aspects?” I think.

Until recently, at least, and despite a penchant for bleak landscapes, Iceland has been a blank space on my mental map of the world (admittedly, there are many), a place too unreal to exist. Volcanoes; Norse gods; magic; trolls; fairies. Ultima thule,* more legend than fact. Other than stories from childhood — that Iceland was misleadingly named by the Vikings who settled there to scare others from its rich volcanic soil; the setting for Jules Verne’s fantastical Journey to the Center of the Earth — “the land of fire and ice’’ fell onto that edge of the imaginary map which warns “Here be Dragons.” An impression which only deepened in university from reading Njal’s Saga, and music video dispatches from a parallel universe sent by The Sugarcubes and sylph-like Bjork.

Then came Cameron Crowe’s 2001 science fiction/ romance Vanilla Sky and Jónsi Birgisson’s falsetto and bowed guitar on the song Njósnavélin, “The Nothing Song,” in the final scene. Mind. Blown. I listened to all the Sigur Ros I could get my hands on, and even today – 14 years later – Sigur Ros and Jónsi’s solo work are on my ITouch’s Most-Played list. Sigur Ros is my and R.’s favourite band. Ever.

Around the same time, I discovered Michael Reichmann’s landscape photography on Luminous Landscape. Iceland quickly rose to our shortlist of “Must Visit” places – a position only re-enforced by scenes in Prometheus, Noah, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Batman Begins, and “north of the wall” in Game of Thrones.

Of course, life happens, and for one reason and another we weren’t able to make the trip. Until this spring.

However, this year I’m still settling into my new position at a new school, and I don’t have much time to prepare for our trip. So the resources listed below are more the result of casual browsing online rather than any kind of serious research. I’ve already  tweeted many of these, but here they all are in one place…




Iceland on Lonely Planet and LP’s Thorn Tree discussion forum

Iceland Travel Guide from Insight Guides   great pictures!

Iceland: The Land of Ice and Fire, Local expert’s guide from virtualtourist’s Regina 1965

Iceland Adventure Map from National Geographic

Land of Fire and Ice, documentary by National Geographic

A “What’s On” visitor’s guide

on Quora

Useful Phrases:

Jon Krakauer and David Roberts, Iceland: Land of the Sagas   from the publisher (I’m still waiting for to deliver this one…)

Karen Oslund, Iceland Imagined: Nature, Culture, and Storytelling in the North Atlantic (available as audiobook on – I’m listening to it as I write this…)

… and, because it’s always interesting to see how the locals live, Bjork’s House in Iceland (probably not a typical abode!).

The Vice documentary Giants of Iceland grants insight into Iceland’s strongman subculture; highly recommended!



Reykjavik: UNESCO “City of Literature”

Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier   excerpt

Sjon, The Blue Fox   excerpt

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites   excerpt   (Jennifer Lawrence will star in the upcoming movie adaptation)

Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth text on Project Gutenberg


Music from Iceland

Ásgeir – In The Silence

Bjork – Joga

Sigur Ros – Heima   music and documentary film trailer

Sigur Ros – Valtari Mystery Film Experiment   (not all these videos are filmed in Iceland, but still a great compilation of music and collaboration between the band and video artists!)

The Sugarcubes – Birthday    shot in Rejkyavik

Music videos shot in Iceland   a playlist on IMVDb



On Luminous Landscape:

Iceland 2003   by Michael Reichmann

Iceland Locations by Ben Hattenbach

Iceland: A Photographer’s Paradise   by Michael Reichmann

Hans Strand, Iceland Above and Below   book review, including great pics

Burial Rites: a photo essay by Hannah Kent, author of the novel Burial Rites

Iceland map from International Photographer   (haven’t ordered this, as it wouldn’t arrive in time, but it looks very useful)

 Why Iceland? A Photographic Tour by Randy Hoover   Kindle ebook

Outdoor Clothing Brand

66 Degrees North   “Keeping Iceland warm since 1926”   (I want that hat!)


* The Roman poet Virgil used the term Ultima thule to describe a far-off place or unattainable goal


Excerpt from Project Gutenberg’s A Journey to the Interior of the Earth, by Jules Verne: “a land of supernatural horrors”

We had started under a sky overcast but calm. There was no fear of heat, none of disastrous rain. It was just the weather for tourists. …

Here we are travelling all through a most interesting country! We are about to climb a very remarkable mountain; at the worst we are going to scramble down an extinct crater. …

This reasoning having settled my mind, we got out of Rejkiavik. …

Iceland is one of the largest islands in Europe. Its surface is 14,000 square miles, and it contains but 16,000 inhabitants.[Verne was writing in the 1870s] Geographers have divided it into four quarters, and we were crossing diagonally the south-west quarter, called the ‘Sudvester Fjordungr.’ …

We passed lean pastures which were trying very hard, but in vain, to look green; yellow came out best. The rugged peaks of the trachyte rocks presented faint outlines on the eastern horizon; at times a few patches of snow, concentrating the vague light, glittered upon the slopes of the distant mountains; certain peaks, boldly uprising, passed through the grey clouds, and reappeared above the moving mists, like breakers emerging in the heavens. Often these chains of barren rocks made a dip towards the sea, and encroached upon the scanty pasturage: but there was always enough room to pass. …

We were advancing at a rapid pace. The country was already almost a desert. Here and there was a lonely farm, called a boër built either of wood, or of sods, or of pieces of lava, looking like a poor beggar by the wayside….

In this country there were no roads and paths, and the poor vegetation, however slow, would soon efface the rare travellers’ footsteps. Yet this part of the province, at a very small distance from the capital, is reckoned among the inhabited and cultivated portions of Iceland. What, then, must other tracts be, more desert than this desert? In the first half mile we had not seen one farmer standing before his cabin door, nor one shepherd tending a flock less wild than himself, nothing but a few cows and sheep left to themselves. What then would be those convulsed regions upon which we were advancing, regions subject to the dire phenomena of eruptions, the offspring of volcanic explosions and subterranean convulsions? …

the great plutonic action is confined to the central portion of the island; there, rocks of the trappean and volcanic class, including trachyte, basalt, and tuffs and agglomerates associated with streams of lava, have made this a land of supernatural horrors. I had no idea of the spectacle which was awaiting us in the peninsula of Snæfell, where these ruins of a fiery nature have formed a frightful chaos. In two hours from Rejkiavik we arrived at the burgh of Gufunes, called Aolkirkja, or principal church. There was nothing remarkable here but a few houses, scarcely enough for a German hamlet. …

In that place the fiord was at least three English miles wide; the waves rolled with a rushing din upon the sharp-pointed rocks; this inlet was confined between walls of rock, precipices crowned by sharp peaks 2,000 feet high, and remarkable for the brown strata which separated the beds of reddish tuff. …

It ought to have been night-time, but under the 65th parallel there was nothing surprising in the nocturnal polar light. In Iceland during the months of June and July the sun does not set. But the temperature was much lower. I was cold and more hungry than cold. Welcome was the sight of the boër which was hospitably opened to receive us. …

At a hundred yards from Gardär the soil began to change its aspect; it became boggy and less favourable to progress. On our right the chain of mountains was indefinitely prolonged like an immense system of natural fortifications, of which we were following the counter-scarp or lesser steep; often we were met by streams, which we had to ford with great care, not to wet our packages. The desert became wider and more hideous…

On the 19th of June, for about a mile, that is an Icelandic mile, we walked upon hardened lava; this ground is called in the country ‘hraun'; the writhen surface presented the appearance of distorted, twisted cables, sometimes stretched in length, sometimes contorted together; an immense torrent, once liquid, now solid, ran from the nearest mountains, now extinct volcanoes, but the ruins around revealed the violence of the past eruptions. Yet here and there were a few jets of steam from hot springs. We had no time to watch these phenomena; we had to proceed on our way. Soon at the foot of the mountains the boggy land reappeared, intersected by little lakes. Our route now lay westward; we had turned the great bay of Faxa, and the twin peaks of Snæfell rose white into the cloudy sky at the distance of at least five miles. …

The soil told of the neighbourhood of the mountain, whose granite foundations rose from the earth like the knotted roots of some huge oak. We were rounding the immense base of the volcano. …

“There stands the giant that I shall conquer.” …

Stapi is a village consisting of about thirty huts, built of lava, at the south side of the base of the volcano. It extends along the inner edge of a small fiord, inclosed between basaltic walls of the strangest construction. Basalt is a brownish rock of igneous origin. It assumes regular forms, the arrangement of which is often very surprising. Here nature had done her work geometrically, with square and compass and plummet. Everywhere else her art consists alone in throwing down huge masses together in disorder. You see cones imperfectly formed, irregular pyramids, with a fantastic disarrangement of lines; but here, as if to exhibit an example of regularity, though in advance of the very earliest architects, she has created a severely simple order of architecture, never surpassed either by the splendours of Babylon or the wonders of Greece.

I had heard of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and Fingal’s Cave in Staffa, one of the Hebrides; but I had never yet seen a basaltic formation. At Stapi I beheld this phenomenon in all its beauty. The wall that confined the fiord, like all the coast of the peninsula, was composed of a series of vertical columns thirty feet high. These straight shafts, of fair proportions, supported an architrave of horizontal slabs, the overhanging portion of which formed a semi-arch over the sea. At intervals, under this natural shelter, there spread out vaulted entrances in beautiful curves, into which the waves came dashing with foam and spray. A few shafts of basalt, torn from their hold by the fury of tempests, lay along the soil like remains of an ancient temple, in ruins for ever fresh, and over which centuries passed without leaving a trace of age upon them. This was our last stage upon the earth. …

Snæfell is 5,000 feet high. Its double cone forms the limit of a trachytic belt which stands out distinctly in the mountain system of the island. From our starting point we could see the two peaks boldly projected against the dark grey sky; I could see an enormous cap of snow coming low down upon the giant’s brow. …

The way was growing more and more arduous, the ascent steeper and steeper; the loose fragments of rock trembled beneath us, and the utmost care was needed to avoid dangerous falls. …

We were now beginning to scale the steep sides of Snæfell. Its snowy summit, by an optical illusion not unfrequent in mountains, seemed close to us, and yet how many weary hours it took to reach it! The stones, adhering by no soil or fibrous roots of vegetation, rolled away from under our feet, and rushed down the precipice below with the swiftness of an avalanche. At some places the flanks of the mountain formed an angle with the horizon of at least 36 degrees; it was impossible to climb them, and these stony cliffs had to be tacked round, not without great difficulty…

To judge by the distant appearance of the summit of Snæfell, it would have seemed too steep to ascend on our side. Fortunately, after an hour of fatigue and athletic exercises, in the midst of the vast surface of snow presented by the hollow between the two peaks, a kind of staircase appeared unexpectedly which greatly facilitated our ascent. It was formed by one of those torrents of stones flung up by the eruptions, called ‘sting’ by the Icelanders….

Three thousand two hundred feet below us stretched the sea. We had passed the limit of perpetual snow, which, on account of the moisture of the climate, is at a greater elevation in Iceland than the high latitude would give reason to suppose. The cold was excessively keen. The wind was blowing violently. I was exhausted. …

I looked down upon the plain. An immense column of pulverized pumice, sand and dust was rising with a whirling circular motion like a waterspout; the wind was lashing it on to that side of Snæfell where we were holding on; this dense veil, hung across the sun, threw a deep shadow over the mountain. … This phenomenon, which is not unfrequent when the wind blows from the glaciers, is called in Icelandic ‘mistour.’ …

At last, at eleven in the sunlight night, the summit of Snæfell was reached, and before going in for shelter into the crater I had time to observe the midnight sun, at his lowest point, gilding with his pale rays the island that slept at my feet….

Next morning we awoke half frozen by the sharp keen air, but with the light of a splendid sun. I rose from my granite bed and went out to enjoy the magnificent spectacle that lay unrolled before me. I stood on the very summit of the southernmost of Snæfell’s peaks. The range of the eye extended over the whole island. By an optical law which obtains at all great heights, the shores seemed raised and the centre depressed. It seemed as if one of Helbesmer’s raised maps lay at my feet. I could see deep valleys intersecting each other in every direction, precipices like low walls, lakes reduced to ponds, rivers abbreviated into streams. On my right were numberless glaciers and innumerable peaks, some plumed with feathery clouds of smoke. The undulating surface of these endless mountains, crested with sheets of snow, reminded one of a stormy sea. If I looked westward, there the ocean lay spread out in all its magnificence, like a mere continuation of those flock-like summits. The eye could hardly tell where the snowy ridges ended and the foaming waves began. I was thus steeped in the marvellous ecstasy which all high summits develop in the mind; and now without giddiness, for I was beginning to be accustomed to these sublime aspects of nature. My dazzled eyes were bathed in the bright flood of the solar rays. I was forgetting where and who I was, to live the life of elves and sylphs, the fanciful creation of Scandinavian superstitions.

What to Do, What to Do (Itinerary, continued)

Which begs the question, what to do on our free day in Iceland?

The third week of March, our short stint in Iceland, Bjork gigs in NYC. Jonsi and the rest of Sigur Ros have no tour dates set for 2015…  (reading this, guys? Disappointed fanboy and fangirl here!). Maybe we’ll run into them on Reykjavik’s streets, or in Starbucks (if Iceland had a Starbucks, which it doesn’t)?!?

Still, it’s “The Land of Fire and Ice” we want, and we should get plenty of it on the first three days of our trip (you can check our itinerary on the previous post, if you’re curious), if mostly from a bus window. So it’d be nice to actually get out and do something our last day in-country, especially since all we’ll have to look forward to at the end of our four-day trip is an eleven-hour return flight, Reykjavik to Tokyo via Copenhagen in economy-class seats.

Sea kayaking is one option. We looked into a daytrip on the calm waters — suitable for beginners — of Ísafjörður on the west coast, but that involves yet another flight – too much travel! There might also be a chance of a day trip on the water near Reykjavik, so I haven’t given up hope of dipping a paddle in the Greenland Sea… Inland, there’s glacier hiking to be had, but from what I’ve seen so far summer is the season for that.

Apparently, you can take tours of TV and film locations around the island. The “north-of-the-Wall” scenes from Game of Thrones were shot at northern Iceland’s Lake Myvatn. Likewise, Life of Walter Mitty locations to the west, south, and east of Reykjavik are now on the tourist map.

I dunno… A “super-jeep” off-road tour across the troll and faerie lands? Iceland horse rides? A trip to the Tolkienesque coastline around Vik?

Too much too much for four days! We’re already talking about a second trip…

Originally posted on tokyoaaron's blog:

Sigur Ros, Varuo (from Valtari Mystery Film Experiment (This is kinda how I expect Iceland to look in mid-March…)

Get with the Group: Iceland as a Package Tour

This trip to Iceland will be the first time I travel as part of a tour. I gotta say, the idea of travelling in a group doesn’t really appeal to me. Maybe that’s just a knee-jerk reaction, coming out of some pretensions on my part, but I’ve traveled a lot and always independently, and the other travellers I’ve met that way are often interesting people. Since un-interesting people must also travel, I just assume they must be the ones who travel on tours. And cruises. Besides, I’ve found that the few times I have taken a day-long bus tour, that I tend to wander off and do my own thing; I get wrapped up in thoughts or focused on taking pictures of…

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Sigur Ros, Glosoli Official Music Video

Iceland Pre-Departure Part One

Each spring, R. and I take a long weekend trip to some photogenic part of Japan. To hike the ancient cedar rain forests of Yakushima, for example, or tour the rural island/open-concept art gallery of Naoshima Island in the Inland Sea. This year, since our Christmas had a winter theme (a Patagonia Nano Air jacket for me; base layers and an Outdoor Research Primaloft jacket for her), we were leaning towards a weekend in snow country: to the powder-filled river valleys of Niseko, perhaps, or Yuzawa (setting for Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country) or the Japan Alps. After all, parts of Hokkaido and the Sea of Japan side of Honshu are among the snowiest places on earth…

So I was a little surprised when R. told me the other day, at 4am, where she wants to go this March: Iceland.

Iceland! “Land of Fire and Ice,” they call it. A place so beautiful that Gunnarr – one of the heroes of the Icelandic tale Njal’s Saga – faces death rather than leave his homeland. Birthplace of Bjork. And home base to the post-rock band Sigur Ros. WHO. ARE. GODS. Just saying…

Iceland is also a beautiful, if photogenic in an understated way, place. Check out the landscapes by Michael Reichmann, who calls it “a photographer’s paradise.”

In fact, Iceland has been on our short-list of adventures for the past few years – especially since Sigur Ros hasn’t played a gig in Tokyo recently (are you reading this, Jonsi?). And I was planning to surprise R. with a trip next summer when, for my 50th birthday, we would take a five hour, 44 minute flight to Rejkyavik after visiting friends and family in Toronto.

But, R. does her homework, and among other things she told me that March is prime aurora spotting season. And the tour she found is considerably cheaper than others to this most expensive of destinations. Plus, she assured me, despite the name, Iceland is not really that cold in winter (I remember something like this from when I was a kid; the Vikings put the “ice” in Iceland to scare away other settlers; the “green” in Greenland was, I guess, a practical joke.).

Cool. We’re Iceland bound!


Lauterbrunnen, Bernese Oberland Switzerland

Recently I’ve been posting images from a trip I made in 2010 to the Swiss (and French) Alps. Temperamental weather (snow! in July!) in Murren, a village at 1,650 meters (5,413 feet) elevation on the green flank of the Schilthorn,   brought on a bad case of hotel-room fever. When I couldn’t take being cooped up inside any more, I would ride the cable car down to Lauterbrunnen, a village on the valley floor. As you can see, the houses and valley walls were just as photogenic as Murren itself…

I’d love to go back, and take R. with me. Between the recent yen devaluation, however, and the spike in the value of the Swiss franc, the chances of a return trip are looking less and less likely…

Read the rest of this entry »

The Trail to Rotstockhutte

Murren and Gimmelwald from the trail to Rotstockhutte, Switzerland

(Part of an ongoing series of galleries created from photos taken in and around Murren and Gimmelwald in the Lauterbrunnen Velley of the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. Follow these links to visit Gallery OneGallery Two, and Gallery Three).

As I’ve written previously, in the summer of 2010 I returned to the most memorable spot from my first trip to Europe more than twenty years earlier: the villages of Murren and Gimmelwald above Lauterbrunnen Valley. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it very well with the weather: it rained most of the week I was there, and one morning I walked to the post office through falling  snow. This was early August. On the plus side, a young alpaca watched me pass, eyeing my Gore-Tex longingly. Or hungrily…

On fair weather days I did manage to get out for a few hikes in and around town, including the trail (most of the way) to Rotstockhuette. This gallery, Gallery Four, is mostly pictures from that day trip. I made it most of the way to Rotstockhutte, through alpine meadows and a small herd of cows, but a late afternoon thunderstorm was rolling up the valley from the direction of the hut, and I decided to turn back rather than risk a lightening storm on an exposed mountainside.

I carried two cameras on this trip: The Canon G9 and the original Olympus E-P1. The first PEN model was slow to clear the buffer, had no optional viewfinder and dim LCD, and the settings were easily changed with a bump of the various rear controls. As a consequence, I lost a lot of good pictures. Here are the survivors. For lenses I carried the Lumix 20mm 1.7, and the coveted Lumix 7-14 4.0 wide-angle zoom. Note that the images in this gallery have been processed in DxO Pro X using the HDR Realistic setting and a touch of ClearView to remove haze. The effects look stunning – especially on the screen of my new iMac Retina! Just saying…

The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte The Trail to Rotstockhutte


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