We are excited to announce the introduction of a new service – unique ‘Meet Your Insider’ sessions, facilitated via Zoom for a our clients. These individual sessions may help you to decide if a trip is for you and is an opportunity for you to get to know your insider guide.
We will publish a time once a month starting in April for anyone wishing to take a trip to India, Japan or a bespoke experience in Australia please let us know if you want to join us so we can send you the link (it will be early evening in Australia).
Your Insider in India – Vikas Kumar
You will get to meet Vikas, our insider in India. Vikas is our Tour Manager in India and has been guiding tours since 2011. He starting as a trekking porter then guide whilst he was at school, leading people in the Indian Himalayas and he is passionate and knowledgable about the area. Since then he has lead many tours throughout India including women’s and photographic groups, Buddhist Pilgrimages and specialist trekking groups. Vikas grew up in Dharamsala and still lives and works there with his family.
Your Insider in Australia and Japan – Sharon Thrupp
Sharon’s life has been consumed by travel. She got her first insider experience travelling in her home country of Australia, and after this taste of life on the road she set off further afield and spent many years living and working in New Zealand, England and Scotland.
Sharon then spent several years volunteering in the Himalayas – both in a rural village in Nepal and in Dharamsala, India; the home of the Dalai Lama. It was in Dharamsala that Sharon started her travel business – she was an insider in India and wanted to share her knowledge and passion with others.
Nowadays Sharon splits her time between India and Australia, and continues to share her vision of life as an insider as the business manager of Ekno Travels. Sharon leads tours in India, Australia and Japan; with a unique focus on Buddhist pilgrimages and walking tours. Sharon currently enjoys volunteering at Chenrezig Buddhist Institute doing what she loves best, facilitating creative writing courses with a unique Buddhist perspective.
‘One of the things about being an Insider is that it creates lifelong memories of the people you meet along the way and the places you bond with. These are the experiences that help you delve deeper into another destination and create the memories that will last for a lifetime.’
Pilgrimages are a part of nearly every religion. When followers set out there is the hope of finding virtue and gaining merit. Buddhistsvisit places where a spiritual master once spent time, taught or meditated – and this presence is felt often by those who visit that very place.
I have been on and lead many pilgrimages, mainly in India, and I find them to be particularly powerful events. I especially felt this way in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree and found enlightenment 2500 years ago. This is the most sacred place in the world for Buddhists and you can feel it is a very special place, with Buddhists from all over the world walking around in the Mahabodi Stupa in a clockwise manner. It is a truly mesmerisingand rewarding experience, especially as Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take undertake a pilgrimage.
So, when the idea of undertaking a pilgrimage to Japan came up I jumped at the opportunity. Japan is well known as the home of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism and I was delighted to be asked to lead a pilgrimage to this fascinating country. I asked my good friend and co leader in many pilgrimages, Venerable Kartson from the Chenrezig Institute.
The dates were decided and before we knew it we were all meeting in Osaka – Rob, Pam, Phil, Lesley, Paula, Yaki and I. After arriving at our hotel, we found a small restaurant in the downtown area and got to know each other.
We got down to business on the second day, heading to Nara by train with our guide. Nara is the old capital and is
the most sacred place in Japan for Buddhists. I was blown away as soon as I walked through the gates and marvelled at all the moss covered tōrōs (traditional lanterns made of stone) that line the walkway up to the main temple of Todai –ji. The Daibutsu-den (temple) is the largest wooden building in the world, housing a spectacular 16-metre tall image of the Rushana Buddha in bronze and gold.
The main attractions however were the many deer that roam around the park. They were very friendly and cute, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from being the ‘patting the deer’ tourists. We were also lucky enough to witness a wedding in one of main Shinto temples. It seemed very special to be a quiet observer.
Returning to Osaka we had time to take in the beautiful Osaka Castle. As we arrived late we got to witness the beautiful evening shadows on the surrounding grounds, what a picture it was.
Our next destination was Koyasan. The journey to get there was full of anticipation as we had to get a train from Osaka, a cable car and finally a bus. We then reached our destination, a Shuboko (temple)where we wouldbe spending 2 nights. We were fascinated by the cable car, run very efficiently and safely as most things are in Japan. It was thrilling heading straight up the mountain almost vertically.
The town of Koyasan turned out to be a beautiful little town sitting high in the mountains amongst many large trees. The town itself felt old, very old. Our accommodation at the temple were large tatami rooms with beautiful bedding folded in the corner. A yakata (robe) and jacket were folded up in the other corner, complete with a round tray with cup and a pot of green tea. Dinner turned out to be equally fastidiously prepared, with around 10 different dishes on our trays (all of which we wanted to eat mindfully as it was so beautifully presented). Japan has its own temple cuisine known as Shojin Ryori,which is the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks. It grew in popularity with the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century as the cuisine is made without meat, fish or other animal products.
The founder of Mt Koya was Kobo Daishi Kukai (774-835) a Japanese monk, and the son of a regional aristocratic family in the southern island of Shikoku. In 815 Kobo Dashi was granted the area of Koyasan by the Emperor at the time to build a monastery. The monastery still flourishes 1200 years later, and we had the good fortune of visiting the monastery whilst staying in Koyasan. It was a beautiful old monastery and one got the sense that it was significant not only for the historical perspective it offers but also for care paid to the raked stone garden by the volunteers who took loving care of the place.
Kobo Dashi is buried in a large mausoleum at the cemetery close to town along with 200,000 other monks and feudal lords. The cemetery is full of tombstones which are a mixture of stone statues with faces and others without. Some statues have had their faces painted and wear red hats and bibs and appear very life like. It is one of the main attractions of Mt Koyasan and no visit is complete without a walk through this large area of dead souls.
We were invited to the fire ceremony early the next morning which consisted of monks and nuns chanting and praying while feeding a small fire with wood. An English-speaking monk came and welcomed us, explaining the ceremony before inviting us to breakfast. Breakfast turned out to be as elaborate as dinner the night before.
Heading back down the hill, our cable car journey was just as thrilling as the one on the way up. We were on our way to Kyoto where more adventures were in store. As we were travelling the whole journey by train, we were on and off local trains before getting on a fastintercitytrain to Kyoto. After living in Australia where everything is so far away, and in India where everything is so slow, the speed and lack of distance is a delight. It felt a bit like being in a time capsule.
There is so much to see in Kyoto, where to start? Our wonderful guide Tomokolead us toHigashiyama, Kyoto’s most
popular sightseeing district, so that we could take in some of the city’s most famous highlights. We started near Sanjo-dori Street, before visiting Shoren-in Temple. We were also lucky enough to visit the vast Pure Land temple and garden of Chion-in, which few tourists visit. Bringing back memories of Mt Koyasan, we headed through the graveyard before heading up to the awe-inspiring bell of the temple. We then headed to thepicturesque Maruyama-koen Park, full of young women dressing up in Kimonos taking selfies. It was a very colourful sight and of course I couldn’t resist my own selfie, with them.
Next, we explored the beautifully kept narrow lanes of the Gion district, secretly on the lookout for Geishas (who usually go around in pairs). I was reading an article recently which said that Geishas have become a target of tourists mobbing them wanting selfies, which has made them more reluctant to move around as freely as they have done in the past.
Our second day in Kyoto starts with a train ride then a walk to Tofuku-ji, a little visited temple complex, before heading to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were fortunate to witness a magical ceremony with monks of all ages dressed in their robes of many different colours. We watched as they marched into a courtyard one by one as local women sand in the background. It felt surreal as all the monks, in perfect lines, walkedsombrely from the entrance to another temple.
Tomoko then lead us through the narrow streets and alleys before started to climb the northern slope of Mt. Inari, home to Fushimi-Inari Taisha. Here we entered a world of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates), hidden shrines, strange stone figures and according to some, legions of ghosts and spirits. The endless red torii gates weaved up and down the slopes and it was a beautiful thing to walk through them on the cobbled stones. This was something that I had always wanted to do ever since living and teaching English in the northern part of Honshu Island back in 2003.
After all that walking we found a little artists café to rest in. We were led into a tatami room with low tables and cushions to sit on. The room overlooked the garden which was very green and overgrown but seemed to match the whole place. It was the perfect natural picture to frame the perfect room, or was it the other way around? The coffee turned out to be equally as good and the matcha (green) tea cake was to die for. I can now see why Kyoto gets 50 million visitors per year.
Next morning, it was time to head south to our next destination, Kii Tanabe, the first point of call for our Kumano Kudo pilgrimage walk. The ancient pilgrimage trail is of the emperor’s and is UNESCO World Heritage protected.
We arrived and immediately headed to the office to get our last minute instructions for the walk. It is well organised for tourists, with locals speaking English and handing out extensive maps and bus timetables to get us around. We also received our Dual Pilgrim books to collect stamps along the Kumano Kudo. The Kumano Kudo and the Way of St James in Spain (also known as the Camino de Santiago) are both UNESCO World Heritage pilgrim networks and came together to share knowledge and to respect each other’s unique spiritual and cultural heritage.
That evening we decided to head into town for a bit of local cuisine and ended up in a tiny restaurant/bar. Our waitress had limited English, but she didn’t need any as she was the most outgoing person we came across on our travels. She ordered food for us, bought us beers and oolong tea and generally entertained us, only for us to meet her at the train station the next morning. She was very excited to see us again. Ven Kartson gave her a small koala bear souvenir and she screamed and clapped her hands in delight.
We left by bus for the start of the walk, having left our bags back at the hotel to be delivered to the next destination. One of the great advantages of travelling in Japan is having Takkyubin or luggage delivery services which we took full advantage of.
Our plan was to get the bus and start walking at Takijiri. We arrived and headed up the mountain, our map telling us we had a 300-metre climb but only 4kms till our next destination, Takahara. The route was made of stones and steps and was straight up. We grunted and groaned most of the way, stopping to catch our breath and admire the tall trees in the ancient forests as we went. It was welcome relief to get to Takahara so that we could stop, catch our breath and admire the scenery. We also found an outdoor café that served the most delicious homemade cakes, which bought smiles to our faces. Onwards we pressed, though equally beautiful old growth forests, up and more up then down and more down, arriving at Chikatsuyu by around 5pm. Our brochure told us that we had walked 13kms, but our fit bits and phones told us we had actually walked double that!
We decided the next day to do a shorter walk, given that some of us had a few blisters and sore legs from that mammoth first day. We caught an early bus to Hosshinmon-oji and the plan was to walk to the main temple of Kumano Hongu Taisha. We started in an old growth forest which eventually gave way to open fields and houses. People were selling their wares on covered tables outside their homes, the goods ranging from salted plums, mulberries and knick knacks.Most of the produce was sold on an honesty system where we put our money in a box. It was a very enjoyable way to spend the day in the fresh air with easy walking. We reached the very old temple of Hongu Taisha and wandered around. It was Saturday and there were many local people visiting the temple as well as a cultural performance to sit and absorb. We also visited the very large Ura-torii which rises out the rice fields with stark majestic splendour.
We then headed to Yunomine-oji, an onsen (hot bath) town where we would be spending the night. Being an onsen town, we were excited to get there and soak our weary bodies in the hot, sulphuric water. Yaki and I decided to do as the locals do and each have a communal bath in the town whilst the others soaked in the onsen next door to where we were staying which was set in the river. Our hostess for our nights’ stay presented us with a beautiful dinner, including special hand made biscuits wrapped in cellophane.
As a group we decided to take the bus to our final destination, Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine and Nachi Falls. The
temple complex at Nachi is one of the best places to see the blending of the older Shinto religion with newer Buddhist practices. The main worship halls for each are immediately adjacent to one another. It is immediately obvious how this location became a focus for the veneration of nature that is common to both religions. Pilgrims have been coming to view the Nachi waterfall — the tallest in Japan –since well before either religion was an established presence. The photogenic pagoda with the waterfall in the background was the final destination for our pilgrimage.
We then headed to Ki Katsuura where we would be staying the night. It is a beautiful fishing village and on finding our ryokan we discovered that we could go to the onsen across the harbour if we dressed up in the yukatas, complete with local slippers and green bags from our rooms. The green bags were our passports to get a free ride across the bay and a free onsen. It was in a cave and fronted onto the ocean. What an experience, sitting in the hot tub watching the waves crash over the wall of rocks just in front of us. Our final dinner was made up of local fresh seafood and lots of local delicacies.
What a fitting way to end a magical trip. We weren’t ready to head home yet, and we were all off to Tokyo for a final
explore – having completed 167,000 steps according to my phone but that’s another story!
Thanks to Venerable Kartson (Yaki) for his valuable insights, research on Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, meditations and a whole lot of travel fun. And thanks to Rob, Paula, Pam, Phil and Lesley for sharing the journey and being great travelling companions. I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year!
Pilgrimages are a part of nearly every religion. When followers set out on a spiritual journey there is the hope of finding virtue and gaining merit. For Buddhists, there is the focus of visiting places where a spiritual master once spent time, taught or meditated – and this presence is often felt by those who visit that very place.
The four most significant pilgrimage sites for Buddhists are – Lumbini in Nepal (where the Buddha was born), Bodhgaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment), Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath (the place of the first turning of the wheel after the Buddha was enlightened) and Kushinagar (where the Buddha died or entered Parinirvana). The last three places are all in India, making it a very significant pilgrimage location for Buddhists.
I have been on and lead many pilgrimages, mainly in India and Nepal, and find them very powerful experiences. I have found my visits to Bodhgaya especially enlightening. This is where the Buddha meditated under the Bodhi Tree at Mahabodhi Stupa and became enlightened some 2500 years ago, making it the most sacred place in the world for Buddhists. The main focus of Bodhgaya is the magnificent Mahabodhi Stupa. Buddhists travel from all around the world to circumambulate (the act of moving around a sacred object or idol) the Stupa in a clockwise manner or to sit and meditate under the actual Bodhi Tree. Even when just generally sitting in the enclosure people report feeling the vibrations from the Stupa. Every step and movement of the pilgrim becomes filled with a sense of spiritual progress, just by visiting the Stupa.
Bodhgaya is the most powerful Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world and is visited by Buddhists from many countries – in particular by people from the Himalayan regions of Tibet, India and Bhutan. Pilgrims also visit from as far afield as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos in the hope of receiving blessings for the highest achievements of their spiritual path.
When the Dalai Lama first visited the Mahabodhi Stupa in 1956 he wrote ‘when I finally stood in the presence of the seat of enlightenment, I was profoundly moved. Reflecting on Sakyamuni Buddha’s great accomplishment in this place, I also could not fail to remember his overwhelming kindness to all sentient beings.’ These powerful and enlightening thoughts are within reach for all who visit this spiritually significant site.
A trip to India and Nepal is usually on every Buddhist’s bucket list. You can take a pilgrimage with an organised group as the main four Buddhist sites are within driving distance from each other (you will need around 5 days to do this). The best time to travel is during the winter season between October and March each year.
Other famous sacred places for Buddhists include other parts of India, including Ajanta and Ellora Caves (see above) , South India, Mount Kailash in western Tibet, Borobudur in Indonesia, Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, Nara in Japan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar.
Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take part in something religious, with discipline and faith, because in doing so you shape a proper attitude within. So with the right attitude, any journey to a sacred place can become a pilgrimage.
(Source: Newsweek 23/4/2007)
Author: Sharon Thrupp regularly runs Buddhist pilgrimages to India, Nepal and Japan through Ekno Travels. www.eknotravels.com.au