At the start of the year I was lucky enough to travel to India for the tenth time. Even though I hadn’t been there for many years it didn’t take long until I felt right at home.But India is the kind of place that surprises with hidden gems and unique experiences, no matter how many times you visit.

On my latest trip I found that my travel expectations had changed. Being a single parent in my late 30s meant that I didn’t want to backpack this time. Travelling with the Ekno team meant that I was able to have those unique insider experiences and also travel in safety and comfort. This time I left India with fantastic memories and great friends.

Here are my top ten ultimate Indian experiences:

  1. Learning the language. Although English is widely spoken and understood in India, learning a few local words really helps to break down barriers when you travel. If you are in the north Hindi is the main language whereas in the south it is Tamil. I was in the north on my latest trip and knowing a few phrases in Hindihelped me to have more unique experiences, whether I was at the local market, visiting a local or travelling on the trains. I also learnt a few simple words in Tibetan for when I was in McLeod Ganj and a few words in Urdu for when I was in Rajasthan. You can try to learn a few of the basics before you travel and if you want to know more once you are in India you can ask your guide or take a lesson with a local teacher.
  1. Visiting places of worship.
    Golden Temple, Amritsar
    Golden Temple, Amritsar

    India is known for being deeply spiritual with a multitude of faiths. This is one of my favourite things about spending time in India, and embracing the diverse spiritual practices feels both comforting and welcoming to me. I like to start and end my tripsto India with a visit to an auspicious place of worship. In January I flew into Amritsar, home to Sikhism’s holiest site, the Golden Temple.I visited the gurdwara at night, and even though it was freezing it still buzzed with people. A highlight was visiting the langar, the free community kitchen, where I learnt to make chapati with the volunteers before enjoying a meal with the pilgrims in the community dining hall. It was a magical way to start my journey in India.

Over the next two weeks I visited many Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in Himachal Pradesh, including the Namgyal Monastery,also known as the Dalai Lama’s temple. A highlight was walkingthe kora, following the sacred path around the monasteryand turning the many prayer wheels that line the path. In Rajasthan I listened to the call to prayer as it rang out from the mosques and across the sky. On one of my last nights in India I came across a tiny temple near my guesthouse. Inside there were three elderly women and a few children. A teenage girl was chanting into a microphone and one of the women was playing a hand drum. I was welcomed into the temple and it turned out to be a beautiful moment that needed no translation.

3. Going to markets and bazaars.

Bargain like a local
Bargain like a local

On my first day in India I headed straight to the local fabric market. This is a highlight for many reasons – markets are great for people watching, for trying delicious local delicacies and of course, for shopping. On my first day I was able to pick some material that I then took to a local tailor. Having Indian clothes made is a great way to experience the culture and to feel comfortable when you are travelling around. Visiting the bazaars in each place that you travel to is also a great way to get your bearings, meet locals and discover some of the unique specialties of that region.

  1. Groom at his wedding
    Groom at his wedding

    Attending a big fat Indian wedding. Now that you are all dressed up you need somewhere to go– an Indian wedding! In January I was truly lucky to be invited to a family wedding by Shiv, Ekno’s office manager. The wedding was a fascinating and exciting glimpse into Indian culture, traditions and family life. With the Ekno team of Shiv, Vikas, Ashish and Sharon by my side I was able to take part in this memorable and unique experience. If you are ever invited to an Indian wedding – go! Even if you aren’t planning on going to a wedding, travelling during the wedding season means that you will probably get a glimpse of a wedding party, as a lot of the festivities play out on the streets. You might even find yourself joining in and dancing to Bollywood tunes with the revelers!

  1. Getting festive. Attending a festival in India is an experience not to be missed. In the past I have experienced Diwali, Holi, Shivaratri, Teej, Eid, Losar and countless other smaller festivals. When I arrived in Amritsar this year there was a kite flying festival and the sky was a blaze of colourful kites as people celebrated on their roof terraces. At the end of my trip we went to a different kind of festival – the Jaipur Literature Festival – but it still had all the culture, colour, pomp and music that you would expect from an Indian festival. If you are planning a trip to India it is worth finding out what festivals occur at that time of year.
  1. Sharing a meal with locals.
    Eating with the locals Jodphur
    Eating with the locals Jodphur

    Indian culture is welcoming and family focused, meaning that you will probably be invited to visit people at their home to share a meal. In January I visited Vikas and his family and shared a delicious home cooked meal as we sat around the fire. It was a wonderful experience and I felt very welcomed by his extended family. Even if you are travelling with a group, you canstill visit people at home. In Rajasthan we enjoyed a jeep safari and then a home cooked lunch at Chhotaram’s Homestay. All over India you will find cooking classes that take place in people’s homes, and if you don’t have time for that there is always the offer of sitting down for a chat with someone over a cup of chai (tea).

  1. Travelling like a local.
    Slow travel aboard an Indian train
    Slow travel aboard an Indian train

    Home to over a billion people, India is constantly busy with people on the move. From the famed Indian Railways to rickshaws,motorbikes, iconic ambassador taxis and everything in between, the journey is just as important as the destination in India. Train travel is the ultimate for people watching whereas autorickshaws and motorbikes are great fun for covering short distances.Travelling by car is a great way of seeing life on the road and is comfortable as well. One Sunday, Ekno’s founder Sharon took me on a drive through the villages of Himachal Pradesh, meaning we could stop along the way to admire the magnificent mountain views. The day after, we departed for the plains and boarded an overnight train for Rajasthan, meaning that we could sit back and watch the world pass as by.

  1. Getting entertained by Bollywood. Going to the cinema in India is an experience. There will be cheering, there will be singing, there might even be people dancing in the aisles. Get swept away by all the excitement and make sure you find the time to enjoy a samosa or a cup of chai while you’re at it. If the movie doesn’t have English subtitles you will still be able to follow the basic storyline. In January Sharon and I went to see a historical movie with a local family and were entertained by the lavish costumes, song and dance numbers and beautiful cinematography. It is a must do cultural experience!
  1. Taking a walk. Walking in India is a great way to get out amongst people and make unique discoveries. From
    Walking around a corner to magnificent scenery
    Walking around a corner to magnificent scenery

    early morning heritage walks in Rajasthan to strolls through markets or going on a trek, walking is the perfect way to take things at your own pace and get off the beaten path. Even just taking a stroll in the streets around your hotel can result in wonderful experiences. In Himachal Pradesh Sharon and I would go on early morning walks through the surrounding villages and fields, taking in the stunning views of the snow-capped mountains that surrounded us. It was a fantastic way to start the day.

  1. Relaxing with a therapeutic treatment. In India you can pick from yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and massage to name just a few.After the hustle of the streets and strain of long-distance travel, relaxing with a massage or Ayurvedic treatment is good for the body and soul. I indulged in an Ayurvedic massage at the Kayakalp centre in Palampur, near Dharamsala and I left feeling rejuvenated and full of energy.India is also the perfect place to practice or learn a form of yoga or meditation. In January I was lucky enough to be taught by Sharon’s friend and yoga teacher Hari, who came to Sharon’s house for our private lessons. No matter where you go in India, the opportunity to try one of these treatments of practices is easily organised and well worth the experience.

Even though we don’t know when it will be safe to travel again, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember all the wonderful experiences that we have had through travel. I’m looking forward to the day when I can return to India again.

I shut the door of my hotel room, turning the key to lock it.I walked slowly down the steps onto the busy street. There was noise, lots of it. The street was full of people strolling and shopping, cars beeping their horns and people on bicycles dodging the traffic. It was mid afternoon, India in full throttle. I tried not to pay attention to it and kept my head down. I walked slowly towards the ghats. I was lost in my thoughts, the surrounds distant. This was India after all, where noise is a constant and only stops for a few hours in the early morning. This is a country that sleeps little – the streets are never empty, there is always the odd cow, person, motorbike or car.

As I continued walking,the sound of people talking and shouting grew louder. What started as a low hum of white Preparing for Aarti at main Ghatnoise became more distinctive. A man walking slightly ahead of me turned around and shouted‘jaldi,jaldi’ – hurry up. His voice carried over my head and I turned to see if the words had reached their target. One woman looked up, noticing but not paying attention. She half smiled and bowed her head again, still listening to the conversation she was having with an older woman – perhaps her mother or her mother in law. None of the children around paid the slightest bit of notice – did they have any children with them?

Family life in India is sacrosanct and is a microcosm for greater society; moving, shrinking and expanding whenever the need arises. Indians spend most of their time as extended families: living together, visiting each other in distant places, going on holidays and have big fat Indian weddings where the whole family get together to catch up, gossip, drink and dance. Importantly, each family member knows what is expected of them in this unbreakable unit.

I stepped to the side, wondering if the family had brought one of their own loved ones to be cremated. Varanasi is the ultimate place to be cremated or have ashes put in the Ganges.

As I walked, I heard a voice above the rest ‘das rupee’,meaning ten rupees. Street sellers were holding up small offerings for sale. They were made from large green leaves,dried out and cleverly folded using toothpicks. Inside were a few pink rose petals, one single yellow marigold flower and a small handmade tea lamp placed in the middle.

‘You buy, you buy,’ said a young girl as she stepped in front of me.

I looked at her expressionless, casting my eyes down and kept walking. I was determined to focus on my task at hand.

I reached my destination – Sheetla Ghat. I walked down the steps. They were smooth and slippery from wear and

On a smoke filled day in Varanasi
On a smoke filled day in Varanasi

tear. There were many pilgrims at the water’s edge, and I wanted to feel the water, get familiar with it. I put my hand into the water, the mighty Ganges. It was cold and milky, I snapped my hand back. Yuck, how could I swim in that? Soap suds mixed with heavenly water. I gazed out further. I saw water moving, it was cleaner. The self-cleaning current is where dead people’s ashes and partially burnt bodies are thrown in to float down stream to the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges, or Mother Ganga, is Nirvana is the ultimate goal after death for Hindus (and Buddhists) where there is no suffering or desire but a peaceful resting place. I had a sudden flashback of my first visit to Varanasi: of seeing swollen dead bodies, wrapped in a grey cloth which blended in with the body floating past. I wondered if I would have to dodge one of these.

The voices of my friends interrupted my thoughts.

‘Hey Shaz.’My friends came into view, I smiled and waved – relieved and terrified all at once.

Why had I agreed so many months ago that I would swim the Ganges in Varanasi – one of the most polluted rivers on earth for the occasion of my fiftieth birthday. Was I insane?Apparently!

My friends Ant and David walked towards me, smiling. Ant, already in her 70’s, was going to be the other swimmer. She had already completed the swim twice before. David, in his 20’s and a budding photographer, was going to record the event. They had lined up the boatman and we were going to row the other side, so that we would be swimming with the strong current and not against it.

Ant and David chatted with the boatman, finalising the price to row the three of us over to the other side. Ant and I would swim back to where we were standing. David and the boatman would follow beside us. How simple, what could possibly go wrong?

The price fixed, we were ready to go. The boatman held out his hand offering to take our hands as we walked onto the boat. The earlier mist had cleared, churning out a fine mid winter’s afternoon. I looked down at myself, sitting there in my new fisherman’s pants of bright colours and T-shirt. I wouldn’t have them for long. They were bought for the occasion the night before, disposable swimming clothes. India is not a place where you swim in a pair of bathers in public.Covering your body is essential even when swimming the Ganges.

I was quiet throughout the journey over to the other side. I thought about one of the stories I knew about Ganges:that it had an active population of blind dolphins. The dolphins were not completely blind but had a very low level of eyesight. They feed on the plankton that lives just below the water’s surface. While the dolphins are elusive, they have been spotted from time to time. Would I bump into one, the blind leading the blind? I almost wished for it. It would be less confronting than bumping into a floating body.

The boat slowed, we had reached the other side. This was the moment of reckoning, there was no going back. I jumped out into the cold water, fully clothed. I hit the mud, it squished between my toes.

Oh god!

What had I done?

Then I heard a reckless voice, deep inside me, say ‘go for it honey’.

I lunged forward into the water and put one arm in front of the other. My body was in slow motion. I focused on my breathing. I told myself turn your head to the right, breathe in through your nose, then out of the corner of your mouth, in through your nose, turn your head to the left side, breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth in through your nose. Repeat. My rhythm started. I made a mental note to keep my mouth firmly shut, remembering all those dead bodies floating in the water and not wanting it washing through my mouth.

The water was clear, it gave me more confidence. I imagined I was swimming the English Channel, all lathered up with imaginary Vaseline to keep me warm and mobile. I could feel the clothes dragging against my skin. It was hardly the English Channel but I was enjoying the challenge and the foolishness of it all. Who else gets to swim the Ganges for their fiftieth birthday?

Ant swimming the Ganges for the third time
Ant swimming the Ganges for the third time

My body started to tire. I stopped and treaded water, looking around to see where Ant was. She was way ahead. I checked for the boat. David waved and I felt a small warmness in the pit of my stomach, someone was there looking out for me. But then I noticed that I was only a third into the swim, and still had a long way to go.

I put my head down and kept going. Stroke after stroke, feelinglike the only thing in the world was to be there; no fear of the soap suds, toxic waste, floating bodies, animal carcasses and excrement that polluted the water I was immersed in.

The flow of the water intensified. I figured I was starting to hit the middle where the tide was the strongest. My arms started to tire and my breathing started to labour. My chest tightened. Oh yes, I had forgotten about the cough which been lingering for the past couple of days.

Could I keep going? I looked up. Ant was nowhere to be seen, she was in front; and the boat was ahead somewhere between her and me. I was getting slower, there was no one to rescue me now so I would have to keep going. I tried to focus – if I just did freestyle slow motion, it would get me there. I started again, breathing in, stroke, breathing out.

I was opening my mouth letting the polluted Ganges water wash in and out of my mouth.How long had I been doing that, god I would surely die now! It was hard to breathe. My limp slow strokes were not enough to keep the force of the current from washing me downstream. I looked up and saw myself moving further away from the boat. I stopped and treaded water. My breath was shallow and kept getting caught in my chest cavity, not going any further. I started to hyperventilate and felt panic rising. Wouldn’t it be good if a blind dolphin came by and helped me to swim, just like the movies. I smiled at the thought, and the panic subsided lightly.

But the current was still strong, and it carried me further downstream. I saw my end point – the large buildings in front of the main ghat. I felt a calmness come over me, all I needed was to tread water and I would drift to the place where there were many people. Someone would see me and rescue me. I drifted on, feeling my arms, legs and torso resting. My mind had the help of massive doses of adrenaline to power on. Survival was key now.

Then a thought: why hadn’t it thought it before, breast stroke! That would keep my head out of the water and save my arms, and I could let my solid legs do all the work. I had power back. I kept going. My hands gliding under the water, legs kicking out, deep breaths in, projecting my body forward then breathing out. I was moving again, the ghatVaranasi 1 was around 100 meters away. I could see David and the boatman rowing closer.

David came up beside me as I treaded water.

‘Are you ok?’

I nod. I wasn’t and he knew it.

‘Do you want to jump in and come back by boat?’

I felt a power surge, adrenaline kicked in. ‘No thanks, I’ll finish what I started’. I saw the outlines of the pilgrims bathing in this pure water, so close. Nirvana waited with open arms.

In India, travelling with insiders can make all the difference. From finding a porter at a busy train station to helping you to dress like a local and sharing a home cooked meal at a family home; travelling with a local is a unique experience.

For me it started before my plane had even touched Indian soil. In fact it started before I boarded my packed plane to Amritsar. As I waited in the busy airport in Kuala Lumpur it became apparent that I was going to be the only non-Indian on the flight. As I waited to have my boarding pass checked I realised that I was surrounded by great big Indian families – grandparents cradling smiling babies, sleepy eyed children in the arms of parents, teenagers in their holiday best, excited young couples and Sikh men in their traditional turbans. What was amazing to me was the sheer number of family members and generations that were travelling together. This was a glimpse into the beauty of India, where family and community are everything.

Brooke-in-India-1
Ekno Insider Guide – Mr. Ashish Kumar

As I waited people began chatting to me. They wanted to know if it was my first time in India and why I was travelling to Amritsar. On the plane I was offered advice and introduced to extended family members. Grandkids acted as translators so that I could talk to their grandparents. When we landed, I was shown which way to go and asked if I needed any help. Luckily for me I was being picked up by insider guide Ashish, who was waiting patiently for me in the arrivals lounge.

As an outsider you can only get a glimpse of all that India is. With a local guide the road is smoothed, making day to day travel easier. The added bonus is that you will often find that insider guides are able to open hidden doors that offer a tantalising glimpse into life in India. Even as a seasoned traveller to India, I appreciated the wonder and ease of travelling with insiders, who soon become good friends.

There are countless times when travelling with a local made my life easier – from helping me with pre-departure visa requirements to ordering food to suit my dietary requirements or negotiating costs with drivers and porters at busy train stations. But what I really love about travelling with insiders are those experiences that you just wouldn’t have if you were traveling independently.

Brooke-in-India-2 One of the many highlights of my latest trip to India was attending the wedding of a friend’s brother. I was welcomed by the family as if I was an old friend. Language and cultural barriers melted away and I was embraced by the warmth of an Indian family for the three-day celebration. English speaking locals were on hand to explain the intricacies of the ceremony, a table and chairs and bottled water was provided for the Kangri Dam, or wedding feast; and invitations to dance and try on traditional dress were welcomed. If you find yourself travelling with locals during wedding season (which can vary depending what part of India you are in), you might just find yourself being invited to participate in a big fat Indian wedding.

Brooke-in-India-3
Groom in traditional Gaddi wedding dress

 

 

Whilst in Himachal Pradesh I was lucky enough to experience some other local experiences. In India, like in many other places, I feel that it always easier to travel wearing traditional clothes. Not only is it culturally appropriate, especially in a country like India where it is not acceptable to show a lot of ski; it is also practical, comfortable and helps you to blend in. So on my first day in Amritsar I asked insider guide Ashish if he could help me find some material for a traditional salwar kameez, also known as a ‘suit’. The salwar kameez consists of a long tunic like top with splits up the sides, a pair of paints, either loose and billowing or tighter like leggings, and a shawl, known as a dupatta. Ashish took me straight to the cloth market near the Golden Temple and I was presented with a dizzying array of options. The hardest part was choosing a colour or pattern from the many wonderful options! I settled on two and when we headed up to Himachal Pradesh the next day the boys set about finding me a tailor. I ended up visiting two, one in the main bazaar and another at a local woman’s home. The experience of being measured and then the joy of picking up the outfit a few days later was very special and I enjoyed wearing both of my outfits for the rest of my trip.

Brooke-in-India-4After the excitement of the wedding and the serenity of the village setting in Himachal Pradesh, we headed back down to the plains of the Punjab for an 18-hour train trip to the desert state of Rajasthan. Train travel in India is a must do – it is a unique opportunity to meet locals and sit back and watch the world go by from the comfort of a train. There are all kinds of trains and classes in India – we opted for second class sleeper, but many trains have first class or even luxury options. Even waiting for the train and boarding is an experience, made all the easier when Ashish organised a porter who carried our bags and guided us to our carriage.

Once we were on the train it was time to sit back and enjoy the changing scenery. As usual we made plenty of new friends who were happy to share their home cooked food with us as well as good conversations. It is also easy to order drinks, snacks and meals as train employees frequently travel through the carriages taking orders.

Brooke-in-India-5
Lunch with Jodhpur village family

In Rajasthan there were yet more insider experiences. Early one morning we woke up early in the blue city of Jodhpur, famed for the iconic Mehrangarh Fort which overlooks the city from its rocky outcrop. As we wandered through the twisting lane ways Ashish organised for a local to guide us up to the best viewpoint. As we climbed higher the area began to unfurl with the dawn and we were offered a peak into people’s homes and morning routines. At the top of the hill we witnessed a beautiful pink sunset against the blue homes of the city that fanned out below us. There was also a temple at the top which I was able to visit before we headed back down to out hotel. On the way our new local friend took us in another direction, asking if we wanted to visit his home. Of course, what a wonderful opportunity. As we entered, we realised that not only did he live in one of the traditional blue home of the city, but that his home backed right onto the fort walls.

On my last night in India, in the pink city of Jaipur, I wanted to visit a Hindu temple. I joined some locals in praying at an altar, and as I did so the temple priest beckoned me closer. In his hand were items that had been offered to the gods that he was now giving back to me as prasad. Prasad, which translates as ‘gracious gift’, is common in both Hinduism and Sikhism. In this temple the priest gave me a gift of fruit, sugar cubes and flowers that had been adorning the gods. What a fitting farewell to this special country.

After returning home it is the memories of these special experiences that have stayed with me – attending a spectacular Gaddi wedding, sharing a meal with new friends, being invited into a temple or shrine – all of which are in the end opportunities to share in community. – Brooke Maddison travelled to India courtesy of Ekno Travels

My love of travel goes far deeper than creating and running Ekno Travels. You could say that my life has been consumed by travel. I got my first insider experience travelling around Australia before embarking on adventures to New Zealand, England, Scotland and Japan.

But it wasn’t until I travelled to the Himalayas – firstly as a volunteer in a Nepali village and then to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama – that I fully realised the power that travel has to connect us to the people, places and unique cultural experiences that make up the world.

Many people have shared in my journey since I started Ekno Travels over 15 years ago. My vision was to set up a sustainable tourism company and employ local guides and the services of local people.  Since then that has happened and I am very happy to say that not only do we have local guides, but two of employees have now become my business partners in India.  Vikas heads the field operations whilst Shiv is in charge of the internal operations.  We opened a new office in India in December 2019 in Sidhpur and look forward to many more years working together to keep us all connected (pictured above) .

We will continue to work to provide to insider guides in India to you, the people who have travelled with us in the past and created lifelong memories. We are all a part of a global community who will be affected by this current crisis.

I  believe that even during these uncertain times, it is important to keep planning for the future and not to give up hope. There will be a time when we can travel again. That’s why we are making sure that you can once again explore India and beyond when you are ready.

We truly are Indian and subcontinent specialists as we live and breathe this part of the world. We look forward

 Ashish & Brooke getting inside in Jodphur, India Jan 2020
Ashish & Brooke getting inside in Jodphur, India Jan 2020

tosharing it with you again in the future as the world defeats COVID-19. We intend to spend our time over the coming months planning new and exciting trips from the safety from our own homes – Sharon & Brooke in Australia, Vikas, Shiv, Ashish & Kalpna in India. We are a small team but we believe that we will bounce back stronger, more rested and ready to hit the ground running.

We have postponed all of our mid-year trips until 2021 as these are to destinations which can only be reached during the summer season (Ladakh and the Spiti Valley in India and our pilgrimage to Tibet).We will be focusing on the upcoming festival season, an experience not to be missed in spiritual India. Or you might be looking for more chilled out time in enchanting Kerala with the city of Kochi recently voted as the top trending city in the world. With its quaint old world charm of colonial backstreets, interesting architecture, thriving art forms and bespoke cafes and galleries it is the perfect remedy to combat the fear currently in our lives. Beyond India, our Pilgrimage Paths to Japan is still planned for  December 2020.

We will keep you informed with regular newsletters during this period of uncertainty.

All of us at Ekno Travels are wishing you and your family the best of health at this difficult time.

Sharon, Vikas, Shiv, Ashish, Brooke & Kalpna  

 

Did you know that Pilgrimage Paths to Japan covers three parts of the Kumano Kudo which allows  you to be have half of the Dual Pilgrim title uner the UNSECO World Heritage pilgrimage routes.  One of the conditions is that you must cover Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha on foot (~7 km) plus a visit to Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.  During the last few  days of the Pilgrimage we get to cover all three and along the way get the opportunity to gather stamps in a book for recording your journey.   Part of the fun is finding the places where the stamps are kept and placing them in your book.

Kumano Kudo stamps
Kumano Kudo stamps

A “Dual Pilgrim” is someone who has walked both the Kumano Kodo and the Way of St.James (Camino de Santiago). This program was developed to celebrate, honor, and share the stories of those who have completed both of these UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes. Dual Pilgrims receive a limited edition “DUAL PILGRIM” pin badge and are featured on the Dual Pilgrim page of spiritual-pilgrimages.com. (Inclusion on the website is optional).

The Dual Pilgrim logo is a combination of a shell and a three-legged crow. The colors are shades of orange, often seen in beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

To receive the Dual Pilgrim status, pilgrims must complete one of the options for the Way of St. James, and one of the options for the Kumano Kodo and register.  When completing the sites, you can register at the tourist office at Hongu or at Tanabe.

Meet Cathy and Phil from our 2019 Pilgrimage Paths to Japan who having completed the Way of St.James (Camino de Santiago*) in 2018 were able to become Dual Pilgrims. *The Camino de Santiago is known in English as the Way of St. James, is a network of pilgrims’ ways or pilgrimages leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth.  Japan-Kumano-Cathy-Phil

Koyasan-Cemetary---JapanWhen 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.

Ven Kartson at the start of our Pilgrimage
Ven Kartson at Okunoin Cemetary

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 at a Shukubo
Breakfast at a Shukubo

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 info@eknotravels.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.

Illumin8 Festival-2Our 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.

Illumin8 Festival-3After 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.

Cooking with 7 sistersThere’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 2019-06-11unattainable. 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 travelling with 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.

HiddenGems-013We 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Sunrise Nature Walk in Jodhpur in the nature park around Jodphur Fort with a naturalist talking about local Meditator Monkflora and migatory birds
  3. Homestay at Bishnoi Village with includes lunch with local family of potters and weavers and protectors of animals and trees.
  4. Visit a Meditator Monk living in a hut above Dharamsala, India who has spent his life in meditation and hear about his life.
  5. Cooking class in Jodphur to learn about life, cooking and spices with seven sisters
  6. 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).
  7. 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.

Stay tuned.

 

Tokyo
Tokyo

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.

Mt Fuji taken from Hakone
Mt Fuji taken from Hakone

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.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

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-Shirakawa-Goroof 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 BambooOne thousand Torii Gates, KyotoForest. 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. AfterPhilosopher's Way, Kyotoenjoying 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

Travelling with free hands is always a bonus
Travelling with free hands is always a bonus

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.

Are we there yet?
Don’t be weighed down by your heavy luggage

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:

  1. Commit yourself to tidying up.
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
  3. Finish discarding first. Before getting rid of items, sincerely thank each item for serving its purpose.
  4. Tidy by category, not location.
  5. Follow the right order.
  6. Ask yourself if the item sparks joy.

To find out more visit:

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/organizing/a25846191/what-is-the-konmari-method/

 

 

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.’

To discover more about Sharon’s life of travel as an insider, read her blog A life unplugged for 10+ years in India

 

 

 

 

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.

Ven Kartson at the start of our Pilgrimage
Ven Kartson at the start of our 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

Deer at Nara Park
Deer at Nara Park

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.

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle

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

Torii Gates, Kyoto
Torii Gates, Kyoto

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.

Brave Pilgrims at start of Kumano Kudo ancient Pilgrimage trail
Brave Pilgrims at start of Kumano Kudo ancient Pilgrimage trail

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

 Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine and Nachi Falls
Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine and Nachi Falls

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

Traditional Kumano Kudo dress
Traditional Kumano Kudo dress

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!