When you travel as much as I do, people often ask ‘where’s your favourite place?’ I used to stop and think for a moment. Now I don’t have to, I know and I have the instant answer Mt Koyasan. The most sacred place in Japan. It is simply stunning and is one of the main features of our Pilgrimage Paths to Japan.
Mt Koya or Mt Koyasan as it is often referred to has been a sacred place that has welcomed pilgrims and visitors from all over the world for 1,200 years. It is small town made up of temples, shrines and pagodas and happens to be the birthplace and home of Shingon Buddhism, also known as Esoteric Buddhism. It is the largest religious centre for Buddhist study in Japan and has been a UNSECO World Heritage listed site since 2004.
There are many highlights of the town including the Kongobu-ji Temple which is the main temple of Mt Koyasan. It along with Konpon Daito Pagoda is another icon of the town. Standing at 49m it was constructed in 816AD and the structure is big orange in colour and can be seen at many vantage points throughout the town (pictured).
One of the other highlights for me including Okunoin, the cemetary on the edge of town which carries 200,000 gravestones and and immaculately cared for. There are centuries old cedar trees that line the path that runs through the centre of the cemetary and at night it is absolutely capitvating.
One of the monasteries run night cemetary tours of Okunoin and was one of the best parts of our Pilgrimage to Japan. The cemetary turned into a mystical and powerful place. The young monk who took the tour did a great job summarizing the difficult concept of Esoterism in such an understandable way. He chanted the sutra in front of the Mausoleum of the founder Kukai (Kobo Dashi) in such a smoothing and gifted voice. A highlight not to be missed.
Another highlight is staying in one of Mt Koya’s Buddhist temple inns – or Shukubo which provide lodging to pilgrims and travellers from the Edo era (around 1830’s). Back then there were 1,810 temples but this number has decreased today to 52 temples where you can stay. They also have an onsen to soak away your aches in the evening.
The Shukubo which we stay in had Japanese style rooms with tatami mat floors and shoji (paper screen doors).
Breakfast and dinner were included -vegetarian Buddhist monk cuisine and both were exquisitely presented. We also got to participate in the morning rituals which included a lot of chanting and praying for our departed ones. The whole experience was moving and authentic and loved how the main Buddhist monk had to keep looking at his little gadet to remember his lines in English. Certainly recommended for anyone who wanted an authentic Japanese experience.
The journey to and from Mt Koyasan is also a highlight. We came from Kyoto and took the train to Gokurakubashi station – on the Nankai line then a cable car at the end to the top of the mountain. On our way out we went by bus into the heart of Kii-Penisula to our next stop Yunomine Onsen where another adventure awaited us.
Venerable Kartson will be leading the next Pilgrimage Paths to Japan 1-11 December 2020 with an add on to Tokyo 11-14 December 2020
The lure of the big open spaces, the disconnection from the pressures of life, putting one foot in front of another are some of the reasons that we go trekking. It is an amazing way to stay fit, get back to nature and more importantly slow down and put life into perspective.
It is also way to meet with people that you wouldn’t normally have contact with. Trekking crosses cultural boundaries, age barriers and helps to form friendships that can be ongoing.
Meet two such people who both share a passion for trekking – Ray from Australia and Vikas from India. They are now trekking in India on the trail in the Bara Bhangal’s in northern India.
Ray is a veteran of trekking – has clocked up around 35 years taking people around the world on trekking holidays. Vikas was born and bred in the Himalayas and has taken people from the UK, USA and Australia trekking into the Indian Himalayas as trekking porter and guide.
Together they make a formidable team but more importantly they share a friendship which has been ongoing over these past years and will continue through their passion for trekking.
They will be teaming up next year for a repeat performance to Bara Bhangal in Himachal Pradesh from 9-23 September 2020. A trek of unsurpassed wilderness, remote mountain villages, high passes and friendly locals it is a trek will keep you going for years to come. For further details contact Vikas Kumar at email@example.com
When you think of Australia, you don’t immediately think of Buddhism. Picture open skies, beaches, the bush and cute furry animals. The state of Victoria has all of that and more, and on our recent visit to the Great Stupa’s Illumin8 Festival we were able to combine those well-known elements of Australia with a unique Buddhist pilgrimage.
I organised a group of people from the Chenrezig Institute, including Geshe Tsultrim (the main teacher) and his translator Venerable Kartson, for a mini Buddhist pilgrimage to Victoria. It turned out to be the perfect destination, as the distances between the pilgrimage sites are short and traveling between them is easy.
Our first stop was Quang Mingh Temple, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple with a thriving community of 15,000 people. Our group was warmly welcomed by the affable Venerable Phoc Tan with Vietnamese tea and snacks and a personal tour of the extensive complex. We were shown around the main temple which is extremely large by comparison other Buddhist structures in Australia. The flower arrangement offerings to the Buddha were abundant in the temple, ranging from vivid red and yellow roses to pink and white orchards.
Next, we headed towards Bendigo and the Great Stupa. Our destination was Thubten Sherab Ling Monastery, where we would be staying for the next four nights. We were warmly welcomed by the Abbot, Venerable Thubten Gyutso. Ven Thubten Gyutso was also one of the first Western monks to be ordained by the FPMT founders, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche back in the early 1970s. The structure of the monastery is rammed earth and as a result it sits naturally in the classic Australian landscape. That evening we spent time around the warm and cozy log fire and thoroughly enjoyed our unique surroundings.
We left early the next morning and headed to Trentham to share a special lunch at Newbury Monastery. The monastery itself is quite small and is only four years old and is nestled amongst picturesque falling autumn leaves. The lunch which was prepared by the students of the monastery, who come from the Sri Lankan community. The act of preparing and sharing the meal is called dana, or generosity. The ceremony that preceded the actual eating included prayers before the monks and nuns walked slowly towards the food. The people present spooned a small amount of rice into their alms bowls, similar to the traditional way that monks were fed in the time of the Buddha.
After lots of photo opportunities with all the golden autumn leaves around, we headed back to the Great Stupa as the Illumin8 festivities were starting. This festival coincides with Vesak, also known as Buddha’s Day or the full moon day. This year Vesak happened to fall on the 19th of May but was celebrated from the 17th to the 18th of May.
The festivities were held in and around the Great Stupa. The grounds surrounding the stupa were filled with multi-coloured statues depicting animals and mythical figures as well as singing, dancing and a puppet show from Bendigo’s various cultural groups.
Inside the Great Stupa itself the impressive Jade Buddha was the feature. The statue has come home to rest after being on a world tour for the past 9 years. Inside the stupa there were other activities such as dragon dancing, a Tibetan horn demonstration and the creation of a sand mandala by the monks.
Surrounding the stupa there were also plenty of food stalls, selling everything from Tibetan momos to spring rolls. The spectacular sound and light show was the clear winner though. The story of the Buddha’s life was beamed onto the stupa, with a short but beautiful fireworks display to top it all off. It was a magical way to spend the evening, under the great Australian sky on a cold Victorian night and within a thriving Buddhist community.
The Illumin8 festival was one of those surprising hidden gems and the Great Stupa has brought Buddhism to life in Australia. I can’t wait to return.
Travel means something different to everyone. For many in this day and age, a lot of people travel and have different expectations. Some travel to get away from everyday life – on their annual holidays they want to leave their old world far behind and have an adventure. Whether it is going to Japan or India to experience a different culture or to hire a car in the UK or France and drive around the countryside taking in the quaintness or visit the casinos of Los Vegas we are all looking forward something different, something new and exciting.
There’s nothing quite like the luxury of old world travel. Many travellers are seeking to travel the way it used to be, an experience from the time when travel was just a little bit more special. Guests felt that the journey itself was just as special as the destination, and the experience of being the guest was just that, an experience. When customer service reigned supreme and the little inspired touches of class turned a well earned holiday into a lasting memory.
As travel now is affordable to everyone, it has very little to do with cost and a lot to do with the seemingly unattainable. We are now all looking for experiences to fill our buckets. The Bespoke Experience which means ‘speak for something’, in other words something memorable. Moments of quiet in a wooded forest when everything is calm, drinking tea with the locals in a mud hut or taking a heritage walk around an ancient city first thing in the morning can be pure joy. These simple pleasures (to some) are equally as luxurious as diamond rings, brand names, luxury restaurants and first class seats. Luxury doesn’t necessarily equate to dollars spent, it is an experience, a feeling, or moments of happiness.
These experiences or hidden luxuries are the moments that we remember. As a regular traveler all throughout my adult life, my most memorable experiences are around people I have met and beautiful places but I don’t remember very many of the hotels I have stayed in. They are more personalized experiences such as include travellingwith fewer passengers, indulging in a moment of serenity in a beautiful location or an early morning walk through the alley ways of a very old part of a city, cooking in a locals kitchen and eating with their family, or having tea with a monk who lives high in the forest. The simple things, that may not be a part of our everyday life and are luxuries we seek when travelling.
I have many memories but a few ‘experiences’ that shine brightly. Like one with the Masai warrior in Sergenti National Park who took a shine to me. He gave me a quick look around the village and promptly told me he was looking for another wife. He thought I would be a good candidate and showed me where I would be sleeping – in a tiny room attached to where the cows are kept. I told him that I was past child bearing age (I wasn’t), but he said I didn’t have to worry he would find someone else to have a child and I would look after it…so when I politely refused his very kind offer, he showed my back to the bus – where my friends were having such a giggle about it all. As I went to step on the bus, he put his hand firmly on my rear end and in perfect English said that as I had declined him, could I at least spend the night with him….I didn’t pay for this but it has been a memorable moment all my life.
We at Ekno Travels, hope that we can bring these to you (not the promise though to find you your own Masai warrior), we promise though to bring you moments to remember.
We are about to extend our range of bespoke experiences and will be incorporating them into our journeys and as optional extras. Some examples are:
Morning Heritage Walk of Pink City of Jaipur and experience the city waking up with a visit to the local Vishnu and Hanuman temple to observe the local people praying to their gods.
Sunrise Nature Walk in Jodhpur in the nature park around Jodphur Fort with a naturalist talking about local flora and migatory birds
Homestay at Bishnoi Village with includes lunch with local family of potters and weavers and protectors of animals and trees.
Visit a Meditator Monk living in a hut above Dharamsala, India who has spent his life in meditation and hear about his life.
Cooking class in Jodphur to learn about life, cooking and spices with seven sisters
Participating in a Tea Ceremony, Kyoto Japan also called the Way of Tea, is a Japanese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha (powdered green tea).
Stay in a fully functional Temple Japan , sleep in the traditional way on tutami mats, bath in their in-house public bath, eat traditional temple food and attend the morning fire ceremony.
Travelling in winter is my thing. Last year I travelled to Denmark, Germany and the UK in March, which was mid-winter. It was the coldest winter for years with a record dumping of snow. I was very happy to a compete with a full range of thermal underwear and I borrowed a lovely, long winter coat which did not leave my back for the whole time I was away. I have vivid memories of waiting at Paddington Station in London while huge snowflakes drifted into the sitting area and wobbling through Bath after a massive snowfall.
So undeterred, I made plans for a short trip to experience winter in Japan and to make use of the efficient rail network. My sisterRobyn, decided to come along for the ride. She arrived the night before me, so we met at Narita Airport at the JR office to convert our vouchers to actual rail passes. Luckily my quick-thinking sister decided to line up rather than wait for me, as the line snaking out of the office was at least 50 metres long. By the time I got there at around 9am, she was not far from front, and we only had to wait for another 30 minutes.
Not knowing what to expect, we were surprised when the helpful person behind the counterasked if we would like to reserve any seats. Well yes, we did, and so we pulled out our itinerary. Tickets were issued quickly for the next 2 days and we were on our way on the train bound for the center of Tokyo before we knew it. This being Japan, we waited in a heated, glassed room within sight of the train. I am still amazed by such organisation. This is an indicator that I have travelled over too many winters in India where such luxuries don’t exist!In India the only equivalent is the first-classladies waiting room, with limited seats for an unlimited amount of people, so standing up out in the cold is usually the only option!
The train came and we jumped on, settling ourselves in for the 90-minute ride to Tokyo. The train ride from Narita is long, but you pass by quaint country side, full of small houses and manicured gardens. It gives you a taste of Japan straight up, nothing like immersion 101.
We were staying in the downtown area, not far from the Tokyo Tower. Armed with our detailed map and rail pass, we negotiated our way to our hotel, had a quick rest and then set off to see the sites. Our first temple sat under the tower, capturing the unique blend of old and new that Tokyo is famous for. The grounds of the temple are immaculate and sculptured, simple yet artistic at the same time. This also applies to the insides of the temples. It feels as though that the structures and gardens are simply there for support and the spiritual aspect is the most important.This differs from the elaborate gold temples in Thailand and the highly painted ones in Tibet and India.
We decided to head to the newer part of Tokyo, where the 21st century well and truly kicks in. Robyn wanted to buy a computer gadget for her teenage son, so we turned down a fairly narrow street only to discover an army of people, dressed against the cold, heads down on their phones. We could only imagine that it must have been a game that they were collectively playing.
The next day we headed to see Mt Fuji. I had only ever seen it from the train and I wanted to experience it closer.
Again using our rail passes, we headed towards Hakone and decided to go the tourist route. So, we took a train, bus and then a boat across the lake to see the mighty mountain, before taking a cable car to the best vantage point. We were not disappointed. It was majestic, sitting all alone on the horizon. The next mode of transport was small local train so that we could enjoy a quick onsen at a small local bathhouse, before getting back on the train bound for Tokyo. It was a Sunday, so we shared our experiences with lots of other domestic tourists all enjoying the day out of the city.
The next day we boarded the shinkansen bound for Yamanochi, where we were planning to stay at Shibu Onsen to visit the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. There was a long walk through the frozen snow into the park and it was slippery in places but still and quiet, with the tall majestic trees lining the path as we walked about 2kms towards the entrance. The monkeys didn’t disappoint – playing, fighting, de-fleaing, and eyeballing each other around the various hot pools and somehow not concerned about the tourists. It was a crystal-clear day which made for good photographing.
We headed back to our lodgings determined to take part in the town ritual, which involves wearing a yukata (traditional robe) around the town while taking a bath at a few of the towns onsens. The ryokan provided us with the yukatas and Japanese thongs with socks. It was a quaint, quiet little town where you felt transported back in time and was also an excellent place to have the complete Japanese onsen experience.We slept on a tatami mat that night which I found quite comfortable and warm. Just before leaving we were walking around town for the last time and found my rail pass sitting up on someone’s mailbox – Robyn commenting that looked like mine. Sure enough, I had dropped it in haste the previous evening trying to get back to our lodgings to get more money to pay for our dinner bill!
Our next stop was Takayama, a smallish town in the centre of Japan, famous for its spring and autumn festivals, dating back to the mid-1600s. The narrow streets of the historic district are lined with wooden merchant’s houses dating to the Edo Period, along with many small museums.We decided to lash out and stay in a central hotel walking distance from the historic district so that we could wander its famous streets and sample its famous Hida beef.
The next day we headed higher into the mountainous region of Gifu, heading to Shirakawa-Go. The famed thatch-roof village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled amongst the mountains and didn’t disappoint us. With snow still on the ground, and smoke billowing from blazing fires, it was one of the prettiest, quaintest villages I have ever been to (maybe the coldest also). My sisterRobyn fell in love with this place, it was an easy place to love.
Next it was time to head to Kyoto. We had to take stock of the Kyoto train system, which we were told even locals have problems with. We managed to find our hotel and headed to the Fushimi-Inari Taisha. When we arrived we entered a world of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates), with the endless red torii gates weaving up and down the slopes. It is a beautiful thing to walk through them on the cobbled stones. It is a shared experience with lots of other tourists (some 50 million visit Kyoto each year) but it still felt special. We didn’t make it to the top but were rewarded half way with views of the city.
The next day rain was predicted, and it was quite heavy when we left the hotel.Our first stop was the Sagano BambooForest. Its small windy paths flanked by tall bamboo on either side created an atmosphere that felt calm and peaceful despite the rain.We then headed to the picturesque Maruyama-koen Park and continued to the Yasaka-jina Shrine, full of young women dressed up in Kimonos taking selfies. The rain was persistent,so we took stock in a café to dry off, only to find we were right beside the Kimono Forest, an art installation with 600 backlit pillars adorned with vibrant kimono textiles. It was simply stunning, and I made a mental note to visit it at night next time.
Next was the Gion district,with its beautifully kept narrow lanes. We were secretly on the lookout for Geishas and were in luck, as we were at the right place at the right time to see the Geishas leaving their residences and heading for work in big black taxis.The drivers were immaculately dressed and acted as a barrier for the Geishas getting into their cars by shielding them from the cameras. I recently read an article which said that Geishas have become a target of tourists mobbing them wanting selfies which has made them more reluctant to move freely around as they have done in the past. We did see one Geisha who was indeed hurrying down the street to her destination. The rest had the shelter of those big black taxis. It was still special and felt as if we were star watching.
On our last day in Japan we got up early to visit the famous Philosopher’s Way, a short bus ride from our hotel. Afterenjoying our morning, we got the shinkansen back to Tokyo for our flight home.
It was a short trip, one with many highlights. Japan has the distinct advantage of having all four seasons, and winter is one of them to be enjoyed. I certainly recommend travelling then, as long as you have warm clothes, a good coat and a light bag. Next winter here I come!
If you want something more from your travels, take a look at one of our meaningful and transformative journeys. These trips are spiritual, cultural and educational in nature and are all led by one of our qualified tour leaders. These tours take in sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites and bespoke cultural highlights of India, Japan and Australia. Our experience and understanding of these destinations is what allows you to sit back, relax and enjoy your travels on a whole new level.
So why not explore our series of Mindful Journeys on the road less travelled? https://eknotravels.com/tour-category/buddhist-pilgrimages/
“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Hilaire Belloc
As travel becomes faster, cheaper and less personalized, slow-travel becomes one of those hidden luxuries. Train travel is very much about slow travel. There is time to sit and watch the passing surrounds of hills, villages and valleys. It is time simply to absorb, relax and breathe. It is also an opportunity to look at your new surrounds with fresh eyes and ears. You may even catch yourself thinking.
India is one of those places which forces you to slow down and take a breather from your normal life. Why not take that long awaited train journey on the Himalayan Queen from Delhi to Shimla with Vikas, who is currently on our Hidden Gems of the Himalayas Tour. Next trip will 19-30 April 2020. Along the way you will get to stay in Raj style hotels, visit and stay in a tea garden as well as have lunch with a local Gaddi family. The list is endless with so many hidden gems. https://eknotravels.com/tours/hidden-gems-of-the-himalayas-with-vikas-kumar/
Travelling is a very personal thing, and so is packing. For those of you who have mastered this unique art, well done! To the others (and I include myself in this category),why not take a leaf out of Marie Kondo’s book ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’?She devised the famous KonMari Method and is a pro organiser with a minimalist inspired approach to tidying. *Check out her 6 basic rules for decluttering your home below.
I have discovered that the KonMari method is also perfect for packing. Simply take out any item that doesn’t bring you joy when you make your final pack, and hopefully this will lighten your luggage.
On my two recent trips to Japan I traveled mostly by train and often had several flights of stairs to
maneuver to get to platforms. Once I was on the train I discovered that the luggage storage was usually overhead (particularly on the Shinkensen or bullet trains) and I needed to be able to do this myself rather than relying on the kindness of strangers (Japanese people are reserved and don’t usually offer to help). It is a struggle either way, but less of one if your bag is light. On the first trip I had 17kgs which was too heavy and during the second trip I had reduced it to 14kgs, which was about right.One of my travelling companions on my first visit had a suitcase of around 25kgs. This person was a novice traveler and we all nearly broke our backs juggling to pick it up to store it overhead. He ended up buying another bag and splitting the contents. I have discovered that aiming to sit around 15kgs is a good rule of thumb.
Travelling further afield to India, if you are taking an internal flight to a regional area (e.g. Delhi to Dharamsala), the airlines will restrict your check in luggage to 15kgs and usually charge for each kilogram over 16kgs. This can become a costly addition to your holiday if you are taking a few of these internal flights. The same applies for domestic flights in Australia – if you learn the art of packing lightly then there is no need to pay for luggage (e.g. when flying on Jetstar) and the bonus of not having lengthy delays waiting for bags.
From my years of travelling, I have discovered that having less weight to carry around on the road saves your back and your head if you have your suitcase carefully coordinated. I prefer travelling in winter and this has a distinct advantage. You don’t sweat – so that means you can wear the same thing more than once. Rotating different tops and bottoms along with colourful scarves also means that you never get bored. Scarves, shawls and sarongs are great multipurpose travel items and can be used for so many things – to provide warmth, as something to sit on, an emergency towel or blanket or to cover up when visiting religious sites. Wool underwear is another amazing addition as it dries quickly overnight.
Summer it is a bit different but does have one advantage as you can also get wash and wear outfits that you can wash at night time and hang out to dry under some tropical night sky.
I completely understand why Marie Kondo is so famous. Next time you are about to set off on that holiday you have been so eagerly awaiting, pick up every piece of clothing that you are thinking of taking and if it doesn’t bring you joy (or practicality) leave it at home. It is definitely a case of less is best. I am certainly going to try this approach, having just booked myself a flight for 5 days with carry-on luggage only.
The minimalist approach to packing lightly is an art form and something I am embracing, and I hope you will too.
*What is the KonMari Method?
The KonMari Method is Marie Kondo’s minimalist inspired approach to tackling your stuff category-by-category rather than room-by-room. There are six basic rules to get started:
Commit yourself to tidying up.
Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
Finish discarding first. Before getting rid of items, sincerely thank each item for serving its purpose.