When you travel as much as I do, people often ask ‘where’s your favourite place?’ I used to stop and think a minute. Now I don’t have to think, I know and I have an instant answer Mt Koyasan. The most sacred place in the world. It is simply stunning.
Mt Koya or Mt Koyasan as it is often referred to has been a sacred place that has welcomed pilgrimas and visitors from all over the world. It is small town made up of temples, shrines and pagodas and happens to be the birthplace and home of Singon Buddhism, also known as Esoteric Buddhism. It is the largest religious centre for Buddhist study in Japan nd has been a UNSECO World Heritage listed site since 2004.
There are many highlights of the town including the Kongobu-ji Temple which isi 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.
One of the other highlights include Okunoin, the cemetary on the edge of town which carries 200,000 gravestones 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
We are excited to announce the introduction of a new service – unique ‘Meet Your Insider’ sessions, facilitated via Zoom for a our clients. These individual sessions may help you to decide if a trip is for you and is an opportunity for you to get to know your insider guide.
We will publish a time once a month starting in April for anyone wishing to take a trip to India, Japan or a bespoke experience in Australia please let us know if you want to join us so we can send you the link (it will be early evening in Australia).
Your Insider in India – Vikas Kumar
You will get to meet Vikas, our insider in India. Vikas is our Tour Manager in India and has been guiding tours since 2011. He starting as a trekking porter then guide whilst he was at school, leading people in the Indian Himalayas and he is passionate and knowledgable about the area. Since then he has lead many tours throughout India including women’s and photographic groups, Buddhist Pilgrimages and specialist trekking groups. Vikas grew up in Dharamsala and still lives and works there with his family.
Your Insider in Australia and Japan – Sharon Thrupp
Sharon’s life has been consumed by travel. She got her first insider experience travelling in her home country of Australia, and after this taste of life on the road she set off further afield and spent many years living and working in New Zealand, England and Scotland.
Sharon then spent several years volunteering in the Himalayas – both in a rural village in Nepal and in Dharamsala, India; the home of the Dalai Lama. It was in Dharamsala that Sharon started her travel business – she was an insider in India and wanted to share her knowledge and passion with others.
Nowadays Sharon splits her time between India and Australia, and continues to share her vision of life as an insider as the business manager of Ekno Travels. Sharon leads tours in India, Australia and Japan; with a unique focus on Buddhist pilgrimages and walking tours. Sharon currently enjoys volunteering at Chenrezig Buddhist Institute doing what she loves best, facilitating creative writing courses with a unique Buddhist perspective.
‘One of the things about being an Insider is that it creates lifelong memories of the people you meet along the way and the places you bond with. These are the experiences that help you delve deeper into another destination and create the memories that will last for a lifetime.’
Pilgrimages are a part of nearly every religion. When followers set out there is the hope of finding virtue and gaining merit. Buddhistsvisit places where a spiritual master once spent time, taught or meditated – and this presence is felt often by those who visit that very place.
I have been on and lead many pilgrimages, mainly in India, and I find them to be particularly powerful events. I especially felt this way in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree and found enlightenment 2500 years ago. This is the most sacred place in the world for Buddhists and you can feel it is a very special place, with Buddhists from all over the world walking around in the Mahabodi Stupa in a clockwise manner. It is a truly mesmerisingand rewarding experience, especially as Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take undertake a pilgrimage.
So, when the idea of undertaking a pilgrimage to Japan came up I jumped at the opportunity. Japan is well known as the home of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism and I was delighted to be asked to lead a pilgrimage to this fascinating country. I asked my good friend and co leader in many pilgrimages, Venerable Kartson from the Chenrezig Institute.
The dates were decided and before we knew it we were all meeting in Osaka – Rob, Pam, Phil, Lesley, Paula, Yaki and I. After arriving at our hotel, we found a small restaurant in the downtown area and got to know each other.
We got down to business on the second day, heading to Nara by train with our guide. Nara is the old capital and is
the most sacred place in Japan for Buddhists. I was blown away as soon as I walked through the gates and marvelled at all the moss covered tōrōs (traditional lanterns made of stone) that line the walkway up to the main temple of Todai –ji. The Daibutsu-den (temple) is the largest wooden building in the world, housing a spectacular 16-metre tall image of the Rushana Buddha in bronze and gold.
The main attractions however were the many deer that roam around the park. They were very friendly and cute, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from being the ‘patting the deer’ tourists. We were also lucky enough to witness a wedding in one of main Shinto temples. It seemed very special to be a quiet observer.
Returning to Osaka we had time to take in the beautiful Osaka Castle. As we arrived late we got to witness the beautiful evening shadows on the surrounding grounds, what a picture it was.
Our next destination was Koyasan. The journey to get there was full of anticipation as we had to get a train from Osaka, a cable car and finally a bus. We then reached our destination, a Shuboko (temple)where we wouldbe spending 2 nights. We were fascinated by the cable car, run very efficiently and safely as most things are in Japan. It was thrilling heading straight up the mountain almost vertically.
The town of Koyasan turned out to be a beautiful little town sitting high in the mountains amongst many large trees. The town itself felt old, very old. Our accommodation at the temple were large tatami rooms with beautiful bedding folded in the corner. A yakata (robe) and jacket were folded up in the other corner, complete with a round tray with cup and a pot of green tea. Dinner turned out to be equally fastidiously prepared, with around 10 different dishes on our trays (all of which we wanted to eat mindfully as it was so beautifully presented). Japan has its own temple cuisine known as Shojin Ryori,which is the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks. It grew in popularity with the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century as the cuisine is made without meat, fish or other animal products.
The founder of Mt Koya was Kobo Daishi Kukai (774-835) a Japanese monk, and the son of a regional aristocratic family in the southern island of Shikoku. In 815 Kobo Dashi was granted the area of Koyasan by the Emperor at the time to build a monastery. The monastery still flourishes 1200 years later, and we had the good fortune of visiting the monastery whilst staying in Koyasan. It was a beautiful old monastery and one got the sense that it was significant not only for the historical perspective it offers but also for care paid to the raked stone garden by the volunteers who took loving care of the place.
Kobo Dashi is buried in a large mausoleum at the cemetery close to town along with 200,000 other monks and feudal lords. The cemetery is full of tombstones which are a mixture of stone statues with faces and others without. Some statues have had their faces painted and wear red hats and bibs and appear very life like. It is one of the main attractions of Mt Koyasan and no visit is complete without a walk through this large area of dead souls.
We were invited to the fire ceremony early the next morning which consisted of monks and nuns chanting and praying while feeding a small fire with wood. An English-speaking monk came and welcomed us, explaining the ceremony before inviting us to breakfast. Breakfast turned out to be as elaborate as dinner the night before.
Heading back down the hill, our cable car journey was just as thrilling as the one on the way up. We were on our way to Kyoto where more adventures were in store. As we were travelling the whole journey by train, we were on and off local trains before getting on a fastintercitytrain to Kyoto. After living in Australia where everything is so far away, and in India where everything is so slow, the speed and lack of distance is a delight. It felt a bit like being in a time capsule.
There is so much to see in Kyoto, where to start? Our wonderful guide Tomokolead us toHigashiyama, Kyoto’s most
popular sightseeing district, so that we could take in some of the city’s most famous highlights. We started near Sanjo-dori Street, before visiting Shoren-in Temple. We were also lucky enough to visit the vast Pure Land temple and garden of Chion-in, which few tourists visit. Bringing back memories of Mt Koyasan, we headed through the graveyard before heading up to the awe-inspiring bell of the temple. We then headed to thepicturesque Maruyama-koen Park, full of young women dressing up in Kimonos taking selfies. It was a very colourful sight and of course I couldn’t resist my own selfie, with them.
Next, we explored the beautifully kept narrow lanes of the Gion district, secretly on the lookout for Geishas (who usually go around in pairs). I was reading an article recently which said that Geishas have become a target of tourists mobbing them wanting selfies, which has made them more reluctant to move around as freely as they have done in the past.
Our second day in Kyoto starts with a train ride then a walk to Tofuku-ji, a little visited temple complex, before heading to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were fortunate to witness a magical ceremony with monks of all ages dressed in their robes of many different colours. We watched as they marched into a courtyard one by one as local women sand in the background. It felt surreal as all the monks, in perfect lines, walkedsombrely from the entrance to another temple.
Tomoko then lead us through the narrow streets and alleys before started to climb the northern slope of Mt. Inari, home to Fushimi-Inari Taisha. Here we entered a world of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates), hidden shrines, strange stone figures and according to some, legions of ghosts and spirits. The endless red torii gates weaved up and down the slopes and it was a beautiful thing to walk through them on the cobbled stones. This was something that I had always wanted to do ever since living and teaching English in the northern part of Honshu Island back in 2003.
After all that walking we found a little artists café to rest in. We were led into a tatami room with low tables and cushions to sit on. The room overlooked the garden which was very green and overgrown but seemed to match the whole place. It was the perfect natural picture to frame the perfect room, or was it the other way around? The coffee turned out to be equally as good and the matcha (green) tea cake was to die for. I can now see why Kyoto gets 50 million visitors per year.
Next morning, it was time to head south to our next destination, Kii Tanabe, the first point of call for our Kumano Kudo pilgrimage walk. The ancient pilgrimage trail is of the emperor’s and is UNESCO World Heritage protected.
We arrived and immediately headed to the office to get our last minute instructions for the walk. It is well organised for tourists, with locals speaking English and handing out extensive maps and bus timetables to get us around. We also received our Dual Pilgrim books to collect stamps along the Kumano Kudo. The Kumano Kudo and the Way of St James in Spain (also known as the Camino de Santiago) are both UNESCO World Heritage pilgrim networks and came together to share knowledge and to respect each other’s unique spiritual and cultural heritage.
That evening we decided to head into town for a bit of local cuisine and ended up in a tiny restaurant/bar. Our waitress had limited English, but she didn’t need any as she was the most outgoing person we came across on our travels. She ordered food for us, bought us beers and oolong tea and generally entertained us, only for us to meet her at the train station the next morning. She was very excited to see us again. Ven Kartson gave her a small koala bear souvenir and she screamed and clapped her hands in delight.
We left by bus for the start of the walk, having left our bags back at the hotel to be delivered to the next destination. One of the great advantages of travelling in Japan is having Takkyubin or luggage delivery services which we took full advantage of.
Our plan was to get the bus and start walking at Takijiri. We arrived and headed up the mountain, our map telling us we had a 300-metre climb but only 4kms till our next destination, Takahara. The route was made of stones and steps and was straight up. We grunted and groaned most of the way, stopping to catch our breath and admire the tall trees in the ancient forests as we went. It was welcome relief to get to Takahara so that we could stop, catch our breath and admire the scenery. We also found an outdoor café that served the most delicious homemade cakes, which bought smiles to our faces. Onwards we pressed, though equally beautiful old growth forests, up and more up then down and more down, arriving at Chikatsuyu by around 5pm. Our brochure told us that we had walked 13kms, but our fit bits and phones told us we had actually walked double that!
We decided the next day to do a shorter walk, given that some of us had a few blisters and sore legs from that mammoth first day. We caught an early bus to Hosshinmon-oji and the plan was to walk to the main temple of Kumano Hongu Taisha. We started in an old growth forest which eventually gave way to open fields and houses. People were selling their wares on covered tables outside their homes, the goods ranging from salted plums, mulberries and knick knacks.Most of the produce was sold on an honesty system where we put our money in a box. It was a very enjoyable way to spend the day in the fresh air with easy walking. We reached the very old temple of Hongu Taisha and wandered around. It was Saturday and there were many local people visiting the temple as well as a cultural performance to sit and absorb. We also visited the very large Ura-torii which rises out the rice fields with stark majestic splendour.
We then headed to Yunomine-oji, an onsen (hot bath) town where we would be spending the night. Being an onsen town, we were excited to get there and soak our weary bodies in the hot, sulphuric water. Yaki and I decided to do as the locals do and each have a communal bath in the town whilst the others soaked in the onsen next door to where we were staying which was set in the river. Our hostess for our nights’ stay presented us with a beautiful dinner, including special hand made biscuits wrapped in cellophane.
As a group we decided to take the bus to our final destination, Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine and Nachi Falls. The
temple complex at Nachi is one of the best places to see the blending of the older Shinto religion with newer Buddhist practices. The main worship halls for each are immediately adjacent to one another. It is immediately obvious how this location became a focus for the veneration of nature that is common to both religions. Pilgrims have been coming to view the Nachi waterfall — the tallest in Japan –since well before either religion was an established presence. The photogenic pagoda with the waterfall in the background was the final destination for our pilgrimage.
We then headed to Ki Katsuura where we would be staying the night. It is a beautiful fishing village and on finding our ryokan we discovered that we could go to the onsen across the harbour if we dressed up in the yukatas, complete with local slippers and green bags from our rooms. The green bags were our passports to get a free ride across the bay and a free onsen. It was in a cave and fronted onto the ocean. What an experience, sitting in the hot tub watching the waves crash over the wall of rocks just in front of us. Our final dinner was made up of local fresh seafood and lots of local delicacies.
What a fitting way to end a magical trip. We weren’t ready to head home yet, and we were all off to Tokyo for a final
explore – having completed 167,000 steps according to my phone but that’s another story!
Thanks to Venerable Kartson (Yaki) for his valuable insights, research on Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, meditations and a whole lot of travel fun. And thanks to Rob, Paula, Pam, Phil and Lesley for sharing the journey and being great travelling companions. I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year!
Pilgrimages are a part of nearly every religion. When followers set out on a spiritual journey there is the hope of finding virtue and gaining merit. For Buddhists, there is the focus of visiting places where a spiritual master once spent time, taught or meditated – and this presence is often felt by those who visit that very place.
The four most significant pilgrimage sites for Buddhists are – Lumbini in Nepal (where the Buddha was born), Bodhgaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment), Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath (the place of the first turning of the wheel after the Buddha was enlightened) and Kushinagar (where the Buddha died or entered Parinirvana). The last three places are all in India, making it a very significant pilgrimage location for Buddhists.
I have been on and lead many pilgrimages, mainly in India and Nepal, and find them very powerful experiences. I have found my visits to Bodhgaya especially enlightening. This is where the Buddha meditated under the Bodhi Tree at Mahabodhi Stupa and became enlightened some 2500 years ago, making it the most sacred place in the world for Buddhists. The main focus of Bodhgaya is the magnificent Mahabodhi Stupa. Buddhists travel from all around the world to circumambulate (the act of moving around a sacred object or idol) the Stupa in a clockwise manner or to sit and meditate under the actual Bodhi Tree. Even when just generally sitting in the enclosure people report feeling the vibrations from the Stupa. Every step and movement of the pilgrim becomes filled with a sense of spiritual progress, just by visiting the Stupa.
Bodhgaya is the most powerful Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world and is visited by Buddhists from many countries – in particular by people from the Himalayan regions of Tibet, India and Bhutan. Pilgrims also visit from as far afield as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos in the hope of receiving blessings for the highest achievements of their spiritual path.
When the Dalai Lama first visited the Mahabodhi Stupa in 1956 he wrote ‘when I finally stood in the presence of the seat of enlightenment, I was profoundly moved. Reflecting on Sakyamuni Buddha’s great accomplishment in this place, I also could not fail to remember his overwhelming kindness to all sentient beings.’ These powerful and enlightening thoughts are within reach for all who visit this spiritually significant site.
A trip to India and Nepal is usually on every Buddhist’s bucket list. You can take a pilgrimage with an organised group as the main four Buddhist sites are within driving distance from each other (you will need around 5 days to do this). The best time to travel is during the winter season between October and March each year.
Other famous sacred places for Buddhists include other parts of India, including Ajanta and Ellora Caves (see above) , South India, Mount Kailash in western Tibet, Borobudur in Indonesia, Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, Nara in Japan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar.
Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take part in something religious, with discipline and faith, because in doing so you shape a proper attitude within. So with the right attitude, any journey to a sacred place can become a pilgrimage.
(Source: Newsweek 23/4/2007)
Author: Sharon Thrupp regularly runs Buddhist pilgrimages to India, Nepal and Japan through Ekno Travels. www.eknotravels.com.au
Holidays and retreats in your own backyard can be as fun as travelling to somewhere exotic. No hurrying to get to the airport in time, lining up for check in for an hour then enduring that exhausting over night flight only to do it all again when you get there and on the way home.
Sometimes it is good to take a break close to home. I did recently, in my own backyard yard, the Scenic Rim. I went on a retreat at Mt Alford. The air was clear and crisp, the noise from cars non existent and the resident wildlife in abundance. This combined with outdoor yoga, drinks by the fire, lots of laughs and good home cooking for fuel, it was a perfect way to charge the batteries without all the extra fuss and stress of air travel.
We can organise your perfect retreat – find that venue that suits your needs, organise transport and help with the preparation. With many years of working with groups in India and the subcontinent, it is time to arrange them in our own backyard also.
Contact us for off the beaten track ideas/retreats etc. There are many hidden gems out there.
Thanks to @robynmoller for the photo of @rachelhodder
Come and share our passion for India with Ekno’s popular and knowledgeable insider guide, Vikas Kumar, as he takes you on two incredible journeys in 2019 – Inside Rajasthan and Hidden Gems of the Himalayas.
Those who know Vikas are forever touched by his deep love for his country; which is combined with a thorough knowledge of India’s people, culture, political landscape and everything else in between. As he is a true insider you will get to share in his world and his India, ensuring you are in for a rare and rewarding insiders experience.
20 – 31 January 2019
A$2950 per person twin share
Includes attending the world renown Jaipur Literature Festival for two days as well as exploring this famous ‘Pink City’. Other highlights of this bespoke tour include:
Exploring the colourful chaos of Old Delhi,
Marvelling at the majestic Taj Mahal and Red fort in Agra,
Wandering through the holy lakeside town of Pushkar and exploring your inner hippy,
Enjoying the stunning views from the Mehrangarh Fort in the blue city of Jodhpur,
Bespoke Indian experiences such as elephant and camel rides, yoga lessons and Rajasthani cooking classes
Features two of the most spectacular Hill Stations of Northern India, Shimla and Dharamsala. You will experience hidden gems such as exploring old Raj houses, staying at working tea estate, cooking your own lunch with a local Gaddi sheppher family, circumbulating the Dalai Lama’s residence and so much more. Other highlights of this once in a lifetime tour include:
Enjoying the many sights and wonders of Delh,
Traveling to Shimla on the world famous ‘toy train’,
Visiting the heritage village of Pragpur and staying in a palatial country manor,
Hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas,
Experiencing a visit to the stunning Golden Temple, Sikhism holiest shrine, in Amritsar
As with all Ekno experiences, we select our hotels and locations with an eye on combining luxury and comfort into one fabulous experience. With Vikas as your guide you will not only discover hidden experiences unique to India, but you can also relax safe in the knowledge that your security is foremost in our minds. But don’t just take our word for it, see what some of our satisfied clients have had to say about Vikas:
‘Vikas is a remarkable tour guide. Well organised, fun and with such an inspirational life story! It was great to have him interpret and explain situations, history and culture. I can’t actually speak highly enough of him – one gem of a tour guide.’ Rosalyn Johnson, New Zealand
‘Local guide Vikas was a brilliant choice, always open to chat about India and arrange some extra wishes. He was tireless, always living the slogan – “In India, everything is possible!” It was just an amazing, brilliant, fantastic journey every hour of the way. I really fell in love with the country and I can’t wait to return!’ Mario Becker, Switzerland
As a traveler all my adult life, I have realized there are many different stages of travel in ones’ life. It all started with school trips (travelling with big groups of fellow students) then starting to travel to safe destinations ie in Australia and New Zealand, either by yourself or with a friend. The next big adventure was to head off to work in the UK then backpacking around Europe, Africa and Asia with a tried and tested formula of a backpack, not much money, a Lonely Planet and a good dose of spirit for anything that came along.
By then, you had the travel bug so travel was a necessity for life so I spent my working life, saving up to keep travelling in between part time study or renovating houses. By then I would travel with friends, walking or doing something adventurous in Nepal, New Zealand, Canada, Africa and other parts of Australia. The accommodation would usually be a tent or huts in the wilderness and hire cars or buses. My forties and half of my fifties were spent in this way so pretty much for 30 years I did the same sort of travel.
However hitting my late fifties and early sixties, things have dramatically changed. I need comfort and safety, both in equal doses. I particularly need a comfortable bed, one that just isn’t a slab of form on a wooden bed but one with decent springs and thick top. Long car, train and bus travel has been replaced by air travel and safety has become a priority. I want to have the surety that I am safe wherever I travel. The security of travel knowing that there is someone looking out for you, particularly in India. From being met at the airport (particularly in Delhi) where the chaos begins as you leave the airport doors, through to getting into the car to take you to your hotel, the experience intensifies. Having lived in India for 13 years and have travelled far and wide either on my own, leading groups or with a couple of friends then safety is always high on my needs list. As one of my friends recently said ‘India never turns off’.
Keeping this in mind we at Ekno Travels are experts at providing custom made, safe travels (particularly for women).We understand safety, security and the need to be independent also, so if want to travel independently, pick one of our itineraries or customise one of our trips by adding or removing as many elements as you like.
As an alternative you can also start with a blank page and we will assist you in designing your own fully customised itinerary. You can travel with one of our guides or have one of our local guides at your chosen destination show you around. Our office has your back…being in touch with your driver and guide and of course you. Talk to us at email@example.com so we can give you some expert advice on where you want to go, what you want to see and when you want to do it. India will be an incredible experience.