Bloor West Egyptologist brings “Archaeology Alive”


Renowned Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson is profiled in this Toronto neighbourhood newspaper article by Laura Ranieri – Archaeology Alive.

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Archaeology Alive

Join Laura Ranieri as she guides you through Egypt along the route of Your Journey’s Archaeology Alive trip.

The trip, scheduled for January of 2012, is being led by renowned Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson.  Click here for trip details.

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In search of Tigers in India – Guest Post by Your Journey traveller Phil Kiep

We recently completed a customized trip to India. Our itinerary included Kolkata, a week-long  river trip on the Ganges, several days in Varanasi, and a search for tigers in Ranthambore National Park.

First glimpse of a Bengal Tiger

Although Kolkata (Calcutta) was not high on our list, it was a gateway to the river trip.  How pleased we were that we allowed a day and a half for the city!  We can only describe it as teeming.  Teeming with everything!

The river trip was delightful.  It was way off the beaten path in the Bihar region.  The boat was superb in all respects.  We stopped daily to see various temple ruins, reminders of the British Raj, the most sacred Buddhist site of Bodhgay (where Buddha attained enlightenment), and remote villages rarely encountered by tourists.

We then visited Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India.  It is gritty.  It is magical.  Most tour groups will visit for a couple of days to encounter the morning and evening rituals on the Ganges, see a few temples, and visit Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon.  However, we elected to stay for four days and were glad we did so.  For example, the extra time allowed us the opportunity to witness the celebration of the feast day of the goddess Saraswati. Varanasi is fascinating, and it needs to be “absorbed” at a leisurely pace.  We stayed at a hotel directly on the Ganges and highly recommend doing so. Varanasi is all about the Ganges and the old city.

One of our major objectives of this trip was to see our first tiger.  We chose to visit Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan.  We stayed four days to increase our odds.  We had pre-booked three safaris (there are two available each day).  It wasn’t until our third safari that we caught a glimpse.  We then booked a fourth safari and were rewarded with a good sighting.  “Our” tiger was resting near the road in some grass and stayed there a couple of hours, occasionally moving and raising her head.  Our mission was accomplished!  Many other people with whom we talked had better luck and had good sightings with one or two safaris.  There are a couple of safari options:  4-6 passenger jeeps and larger trucks holding 16 people.  We think that it was worth paying extra for the smaller vehicle, if for no reason other than ease of photography.  Ranthambore Fort is also a “must see” in the park.  It is a huge fortress with many well-preserved ruins of temples and palaces.

Bengal Tiger in Ranthambore National Park, India

India is truly INCREDIBLE.  Our thanks to Karl and Anna for putting this together for us.  It was a flawless and most enjoyable adventure.

Phil and Marilyn
Worthington, Ohio

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Egypt Update – From our local agents in Cairo

This was an email sent to us from our local agents in Cairo. We felt that you may want to read this. Please feel free to ask any questions at all about the situation in Egypt. Great news this morning with a new Prime Minister being appointed, not from Mubarak’s cabinet! Things are definitely moving forward.

Dear Travel Partners,

It wasn’t so long ago that we were wondering when the tourism in Egypt would get its legs back. It was never a question of “if” but “when”… Today we are pleased to share the good news that travellers are already heading back to Egypt.

All museums and historical sites which had been closed since the civil uprising started in January are now reopened , European countries lifted the travel warning against non-essential travel to Egypt and the respective leading tour operators are resuming their holiday offerings including rebooking of packages that were cancelled during the unrest.

Our Group of companies is now operating four vessels of our Nile cruises fleet, namely M/S Sonesta Star Goddess, M/S Sonesta Moon Goddess, M/S Monte Carlo and M/S Monaco; in the meantime our hotels in Cairo, Hurghada & Marsa Alam are recording a relatively better occupancy providing our clients with the superior quality service that they’ve come to expect from us and working diligently to mitigate any impact that these recent events may have had on our business or our clients satisfaction.

The Ministry of Tourism is now inviting several world-famous actors and TV celebrities to organize shows and entertainment programs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a bid to restore Egypt’s reputation as a tourist destination.

As some demonstrations take place from enthusiastic people who are seeking to witness a more fast change, the Egyptian security forces remain generally on a very high level of alert while keeping all the tourist sites heavily guarded to ensure the safety of all visitors.

On the political level, and after the army council took power, it immediately suspended the constitution raising hopes that there would be major changes in election laws, as well as a softening of the almost unlimited powers of the presidency. The panel of experts set up by the ruling military council to amend the constitution has lately unveiled the first set of political reform since the revolution paving the way for a successful parliamentary election in June prior to a presidential poll of which the potential candidates include former ministers, Nobel Prize winners and political parties’ founders among others.

Today things in our country are different; Egyptians have shown the world how to change with the most peaceful and civilized way and it is worth mentioning that, during the 18 days of the Revolution, there were about 480,000 tourists who have chosen to attend the event till the end and not a single one was hurt or even treated badly.

We understand that people may still be slow to make travelling decisions until more concrete changes take place in Egypt, we also understand that this political unrest has tremendously harmed your business in our beloved country, however in the coming period we see a very compelling environment for incoming business.

We always believe that we are strong enough to go on with our business and fulfil our obligations towards passing this hard time successfully as good as we have done before in other major crises; our strategy in this concern is underpinned by our know-how , devoted and professional team as well as our rigid relationship with all hotels in Egypt and further supported by freedom , democracy and rights-respecting regime.

Waiting to see you soon in Egypt, I remain,

Baher Ghabbour
Chairman & CEO
Sakkara Group International

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Join us at the Outdoor Adventure Show in Toronto

On Feb 25, 26 and 27, at the International Centre (by the airport), Your Journey will be exhibiting at the Outdoor Adventure Show, together with Peter Traynor from Nudge Training.

Come visit us at Booth # 306 in the International Adventure Travel Zone to learn more about our Family Adventures, Active Adventures and our scheduled trips to Kilimanjaro, Switzerland and Japan..

If you come by on Sunday, you can attend a seminar by Anna and Peter entitled: Kilimanjaro – How to train and prepare for a successful trek.                         (Sunday FEB 27, 1:15 to 1:45)

Print off this coupon for 2 for 1 admission to the show.

2 For 1 Admission - Outdoor Adventure Show

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Egypt – It does feel as if history is being made. Prof Barry Kemp

Amarna Spring Season 2011, 1st report

It will come as no surprise to know that I am writing this first report of the season not from Amarna, but from Cairo. The demonstrations for governmental change that began in Cairo on January 25th have led to a suspension of the fieldwork, but one that I hope will not last for long.

The first part of the 2011 programme was a field school dedicated to geophysical survey at Amarna. It was organised through the University of California (Los Angeles), represented on the ground by Dr Hans Barnard, with the University of Arkansas (Centre for Advanced Spatial Technologies) supplying two specialist instructors, Jason Herrmann and Dr Stephanie Sullivan, and equipment. Gwil Owen (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research) came for two weeks to demonstrate low-level aerial photography. The students comprised a group of eight from abroad (from the USA, Canada and Australia) and three inspectors from the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It commenced on January 12th.

Over the years, the idea has developed of creating for Amarna a series of survey layers organized as a geographic information system; in other words, a system in which all layers are tied to a common scheme of reference points so that they can be directly compared. We have topographic and archaeological survey layers, a growing aerial photography layer and, most recently, the start of a geophysical data layer. We took the first step towards the last in 2009, with a pilot project run in the North City, also by the University of Arkansas. The field school is a way of continuing it, at the same time using Amarna as a huge teaching aid not only for geophysics but for the understanding of the city itself.

Three techniques were run alongside one another: magnetometry (using a Bartington Magnetic Gradiometer), ground-penetrating radar (GPR, using a GSSI GPR kit) and magnetic susceptibility (using a Geonics EM-38 conductivity meter). The student group was divided into teams, so that everyone gained experience in using the instruments. The gathering of data occupied each morning, leaving the afternoons for lectures and the processing of data. Each technique is more or less suited to a particular kind of terrain. The ideal final result is a conflation of data from all three. Whereas magnetometry produces results in the form of a map almost immediately, the data from the other two instruments require considerable processing.
Each instrument has to be carried or dragged at a uniform pace along predetermined lines that fall within a survey grid. The main aim was to continue the survey begun at the North City; but before doing this, for the first week, the school carried out a practice exercise close to the expedition house: the area around the house of Ranefer and excavation grid 12. The second week took the school to the South Tombs Cemetery where the particular point of interest was the flat valley floor. Does it also contain graves? The magnetometer completed its work here in a few days. Whilst the other two instruments caught up, the magnetometer was taken to the Stone Village and was run for a day and a half.
At this point, on Saturday, January 29th, we received the police order to close down. Sunday saw the packing of the equipment and arrangements for the swift evacuation of the school, which took place on Monday, culminating in a chartered flight from Cairo to Europe on Tuesday afternoon.

Part of each afternoon had been devoted to processing data, and preliminary plots were starting to be prepared and analysed. The suddenness of the closure has meant, however, that the further processing and presentation of the results will have to wait for a while. To complement the geophysics, the new helium helikyte-balloon (purchased with another generous donation from the Amarna Research Foundation) was flown, not only over the survey sites but also over the Great Aten Temple, to complete a detailed mosaic started a few years ago. The making of this record is in preparation for a hoped-for start on reclaiming what little is left of this building, due to begin in 2012.

Many foreigners abandoned their holidays or places of work at this time, and there will be as many narratives of hasty departure. Here is mine. On the same day that the school departed, two inspectors from the Mallawi inspectorate carried out the formal closing of the site and magazines, taking their time to do it properly and finishing around mid-day, expressing regret at having to do it and the hope that we could return soon. Also present was the head of the Mallawi tourist police. He asked, in view of attacks on magazines reported in different parts of Egypt, that we build a wall of limestone blocks and cement over the two iron magazine doors.

On the following day, one of the drivers who had evacuated the field school (his name Ali) telephoned from Cairo to say he was stranded there on account of the curfew, and would not be able to return to Amarna to take myself and one other member of the expedition who had stayed behind to Cairo that day. This was the first step in a postponement that lasted until Saturday, February 5th. Once the field school had departed, the police seemed to relax. In these days, the walls across the magazine doors were built. In the case of the main magazine, the iron door is deeply inset into the wall, allowing the blocking and its final coating of cement to be flush with the wall and appear impregnable. It promises an interesting re-opening process.

The journey to Cairo on Saturday was uneventful. Ali was instructed by the police to take the western desert route. The usual police escort vehicle went ahead. The first part of the journey, past Deir Mawas and through Mallawi and on to Tuna el-Gebel, showed town and country life proceeding as normal, although the trains were not running. From Tuna, the road heads westwards to join the main desert highway. The police escort, as normal, went as far as the boundary between Minia and Beni Suef provinces, and then left to go home and was not replaced.

The next checkpoint is near the entrance to the Fayum. This was manned by the army, with a few tanks and other armoured vehicles. The soldiers, in loose camouflage suits but wearing neither helmets nor body-armour, were making cursory checks on a few vehicles but not such as to delay the flow of the traffic. They ignored us. A second similar checkpoint had been set up where the main road starts to descend beside the Giza pyramid plateau. Again, it caused only a slight slowing down of the traffic. On the way down, on the left, one of the roads leading into a new residential area was partially obstructed by a simple barricade, guarded by a group of young men, the only instance seen on the whole journey. At the bottom of the hill the road bears right, and takes one past the turning that leads up to the pyramids entrance and the Mena House Hotel. Here was a concentration of army vehicles and also a row of the familiar blue police vans, the only ones seen on the journey.

Ali’s route was then along the Sakkara road to join the ring road that takes one down to Munib, the terminus for buses and minibuses that serve Upper Egypt. He did not want to go further. I had therefore arranged for a driver, Hussein, whom I regularly use within Cairo, to meet us. Because of the amount of luggage, that included food and expedition records, he brought with him a small pickup truck. Ali bid farewell and left to return home.

It was already clear that much of Cairo was functioning fairly normally. The traffic was busy, shops were open, they contained food and the petrol stations were working. The next part of the route crossed the Nile by the bridge that descends to Fustat, then turned north along the main road that links Maadi to Cairo; beyond that, along the road that flanks the old aqueduct and continues past the Citadel. Here was another sign of current events, a small group of men selling national flags.

Not far beyond the Citadel, a short cut through the City of the Dead descends into the labyrinth of narrow streets that is the old part of Cairo city, where I rent a couple of apartments, used by myself and other members of the expedition, and a storeroom. On arrival, Hussein offered parting advice not to go to Tahrir Square for a few days (this is where the Amarna Project has its office). Otherwise, especially in the neighbourhood where I am known, there is nothing to fear. The old city has much the character of a vastly extended village somewhat separate from the rest of Cairo. It is its own world. It is quieter than usual, but this morning, for the first time since being back, I heard the familiar sound of the butagaz delivery boys, clanging a spanner on filled cylinders that can be exchanged for empties. As for the office in Tahrir Square, people who have been there tell me it is undamaged.

This morning (Thursday, 10th), I went to Zamalek to see the head of the foreign missions department of the SCA, Dr Mohammed Ismail, to ask about returning to Amarna. The front gates to the SCA building were locked and guarded, in the face of a crowd of men and women, perhaps 50 of them, demanding government employment, part of the pattern of demonstrations. Entry was by the side door. Dr Mohammed explained that the creation of a Ministry of Antiquities means that the SCA is no more, all existing procedures have to be remade and a new hierarchy created. A committee that had been called to discuss foreign missions had not met, also in part because of the difficulty people were experiencing in crossing Cairo to get to Zamalek. I am to call him next week for news.

The journey back crossed the Nile by the Kasr el-Nil bridge, which leads directly into Tahrir Square. It was open to traffic, though we turned south along the Corniche before actually entering the Square. Both pavements were thronged with people, those on the north coming out of the Square, those on the south heading into it, carrying or purchasing from groups of children national flags. There was no shouting or other aggressive behaviour, just a quiet determination to maintain the demonstration in an orderly manner. Some people had paused to chat to the few soldiers manning the tanks at the approach to the bridge.

It does feel as if history is being made.

My thanks to all those who have enquired about the expedition and expressed concern.

Barry Kemp, 10 February 2011.

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Looking back at 2010 – the year in pictures

Instead of telling you about what an incredible year of travels our clients had, we thought we should show you in pictures and let you hear about it in their own words.


Jim and Hilary visited the Highlands of Ecuador.

The Ecuadorian people whom we met, although a bit shy, were generally very friendly and welcoming. Most of them were quite pleased when we told them that we had come to see their country and were not going to visit the Galapagos Islands (as most foreigners do). We had a fantastic time visiting various archeological sites, museums, churches, country markets, hat factories, and even participating in a local festival and parade. – Jim and Hilary, OCT 2010


Dianne and Jim in the Netherlands on a 14 day Amsterdam to Budapest, European River cruise.

The cabins, food, etc. were exceptional. – Jim and Dianne, OCT 2010


Bob took this picture of a Black Hat Dancer in the courtyard of Wangduephodrang Dzong in Bhutan.

Things went well, saw most sacred sites… The country has undergone some profound changes in the last decade with the introduction of T.V. and the internet. Some sacred areas are closed that I have seen in the past. I was allowed to take pictures in the court yards of the dzongs but not the sacred areas. – Bob, SEP 2010

American Southwest

Janey, Don, Suzie, Patti, Aimee and Jim were treated to a tour of the American Southwest, including the Grand Canyon by our friend Jim.

Our partner in Arizona liked the group so much, he wrote us to tell us about them:

Wow! I have just completed the best tour of my 27 years of touring. Great, Great, Great people. I think I am now officially part of the gang. Fun, Fun, Fun…….Everything clicked….perfect weather, perfect timing on everything. – Jim, SEP 2010


Jo-ann and Collin - Sunset on the Napo River, Amazon Basin, Ecuador - part of their 3 week Ecuador trip that also included the Highlands and the Galapagos Islands.

Our favourite portion was clearly the high country “Due South” trip through the volcanoes.  We stopped at many villages, markets and haciendas and we think we really got an intimate look at the Ecuadorian rural life as well as the spectacular scenery.  The Tungurahua Volcano eruption we witnessed obviously was a highlight that we were very fortunate to have seen. – Collin and Jo-ann, FEB 2010

The Baltics and Poland

Linda, Gordon, Marilyn and Phil on the Curronian Spit, Lithuania

We really had a good time. You did a nice job putting the trip together. The accomodations were from fine to superb. The program was well organized and interesting, not an easy feat with six separate tastes to factor in. The food was a pleasant surprise, but I am not going to give you credit for that.

Parts of the trip I enjoyed the most were the discussion with Andrew at the castle and the Crazy Russian tour discussion at the restaurant. I thought the vast majority of the guides were very good. The biggest positive surprise for me was the Chopin concert. I’m not a classical music fan as a result of being forced to both take piano lessons and attend concerts as a child. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We really had a good time and look forward to doing it again soon. – Gordon, SEP 2010

Here’s what a few other people had to say:


Our trip was fantastic!!!!!!!!  You couldn’t have done a better job, we were thrilled with  every aspect. I’ll go in to much more detail but I would like to thank you over the phone. Once again, many many thanks… – Laurie, DEC 2010


Thank you for your “Welcome Home” greeting.  My sisters and I had a great time.  Our weather was outstanding, sandwiched between two rainy weeks.  The hotel worked well…the whole staff was most friendly and most helpful.

Our day in Victoria went off without a hitch.  We enjoyed the view from the float plane, the gardens were great with springtime flowers, and high tea was a very pleasant experience.

We went to the market and shops on Granville Island, strolled through Gastown, visited the Anthropology Museum at the University, went to the top of the Tower with the 360 degree view of the city, took the carriage ride around Stanley Park, and ate in some outstanding restaurants.

All in all it was a most successful trip. – Marilyn, APR 2010


So everything was fantastic! Belize is the perfect place for a honeymoon…

Katie was great…our hotels already had co-ordinated everything with her.

We can’t say enough about The Singing Sands, I would say that was our favourite place!

Thank you again, we could not have enjoyed our honeymoon any more! – Jill, MAY 2010

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Japan invites you.

There are few countries and cultures that have had an effect on the entire world.

Sure there are the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese
and the Europeans during the age of exploration and colonization; but these civilizations
made their marks over the course of hundreds of years. Of course the United States
has also made a huge global impact – and that in the last 200 years.

Tokyo street scene

But in a world that, until recently, was very Euro-centric and Anglo-centric,
Japan stands out. A small island nation, on the other side of the world that until
150 years ago lived in self-imposed exile; yet now we can’t imagine a world without
the influences of Japan. I think you would be very hard-pressed to find anybody that
hasn’t been impacted by those influences.

So, if we’re interested, we can study Japan. We have access to any type of media we
want these days – ways to read about, hear about and watch about, anything or any
place we want to. Yet that’s not enough where Japan is concerned. You realize that
you can’t truly get a feel for Japan without going there.

But why?

Because Japan is such an enigma, that no matter how much you study it from afar,
it draws you, it compels you to visit.

As you’ve read these stories about my experience in Japan, you’ve read about Japan – the concept, the ancient traditions and exotic elements. Buddhist temples, kimonos, sumo wrestling, gardens, forts and castles. And of course, the food!

But you’ve also read about the modern or contemporary Japan with its skyscrapers and
neon-lit pachinko parlors, bullet trains, electronics and Tokyo fashions.

There are tourism posters that depict a kimono-clad woman in the foreground, a bullet
train speeding by in the middle ground, with Mount Fuji in the background.

How does a student of Japan, or the traveller to Japan, reconcile these things?
How can the two Japans exist side by side? Which is the real Japan?

Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.

They all are.

In the time since Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world they have
simultaneously immersed themselves into their culture – arts, religion, architecture,
history and food – and they have modernized like almost nobody else – the electronics
industry, a nationwide network of super efficient high speed trains and huge cities complete with modern infrastructure.

The authentic experience we want as travellers is easy to find. It’s all around you.

As the trains whisk you around the country, you can pull out of the station in a
large modern city and in a few minutes see farmers in their fields.

You can be relaxing in a hot spring in the mountains, silence so profound you
can almost hear the snow falling around you and later that day find yourself in
the largest camera store in the world looking at the latest and greatest gadgets
Japan has to offer the world.

Japan is Westernized but not Western, a part of Asia but unlike any other Asian country.

It is tradition and modernity together.

And from a travellers’ perspective, it approaches perfection. Despite all the exotic
elements that draw us, but also make us a bit nervous at times, it is accessible
because of the people and the infrastructure. Yet even as accessible as it is to
foreigners, you don’t have to step too far off the beaten path to get to places where
foreigners are a rare sight. Unique in my experience.

I truly hope that you’ve enjoyed these little insights into my experience in Japan. Your
feedback has been wonderful. Thank you.

Want to talk about Japan (or any other place for that matter)? You know how I love to talk travel – just send me an email or give me a call. Better yet, come to Japan with me.




To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012 and book your spot today!

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I took Mother Nature to Japan

I grew up with Mother Nature.

Well, maybe not THE Mother Nature, but it sure
seemed like my mother was – and continues to be –
some corporeal manifestation of Mother Nature. As
a kid growing up in the countryside outside of
Toronto, I remember that we had a huge vegetable
garden, numerous flower gardens and what seemed
like hundreds of trees and shrubs. Every other
week my mother was digging up another patch of
lawn for a flower bed or planting another tree. I
didn’t mind because it meant less grass for me to
cut, but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate
what she was doing.

Later in life I started to understand that
gardening was Mom’s sanctuary. Her way of getting
away from it all.

And during our trip to Japan I learned that
not only the act of gardening, but gardens
themselves, can be sanctuary for many people.


Walking through a garden in Japan

You’ve probably heard that Tokyo is considered
by many to be the largest city in the world and
you are most likely aware of the fact that Japan
is a relatively small country.

Here are some statistics to ponder:

* Japan is the 61st largest country in the world at 378,000 sq/kms
* Japan has a population of 127 million, 10th most populous nation on earth
* Japan is the 36th most densely populated country – 337 people per sq/km

Tokyo street scene

So, in a country the size of Japan with the
population of Japan and with the population
density that Japan has, where do the Japanese go
to get away from it all?


And they have been going to gardens for over a
thousand years. As long ago as the Asuka Period,
from 538 to 710, when Buddhism was introduced to
Japan, the country underwent an artistic
transformation and gardens became works of art.

Garden design has been an important Japanese
art for many centuries. Traditional Japanese
landscape gardens can be broadly categorized into
three types, Tsukiyama Gardens (hill gardens),
Karesansui Gardens (dry gardens) and Chaniwa
Gardens (tea gardens).

Each garden should have some or all of the
following features:

* Water, real or symbolic, often creating an island
* Rocks or stone arrangements
* A lantern, usually of stone
* A teahouse
* A hedge, fence, or wall
* A bridge to the island, or stepping stones

We saw many examples of traditional gardens
and most of the elements of a garden were used in
every one of them. But we saw one garden that
really puzzled me. It was a dry garden, the
Karesansui style. It had a few rocks placed on a
bed of fine gravel and it was supposedly one of
the finest examples of this type of garden. But if
each garden is supposed to have a water feature,
why are dry gardens so revered?

A dry garden - raked gravel to look like water

My mother then explained to me that the gravel
of a dry garden represents the water, and that the
way it is raked symbolizes the waves or ripples on
the water. I was being too literal. Not Zen

When did she become so knowledgeable about
Japanese garden design? Must have been all that
time in the garden, meditating.

Speaking of meditating, there is one garden in
Japan that has a very interesting entrance
requirement. In order to visit the garden you must
first learn about meditation from a monk. This
takes about an hour. Then you must meditate… for
another two hours. Only then you are allowed into
the garden.

In every garden we spent time in, it could be
argued that many of the visitors were practicing
some form of walking meditation, communing with
nature and enjoying the peace and tranquility that
one finds in a Japanese garden. It’s not
surprising that there are so many gardens then,
when you consider the population of Japan. Even in
the middle of the biggest city in the world, with
all the hustle and bustle that comes with it, you
can find oases of calm and serenity. When they
need to get away from it all, when they have had
enough and need refuge from the commotion, I think
that Japanese people use their gardens for
spiritual renewal.

Enjoying a stroll through a garden

Call it sanctuary or call it meditation,
people all over the world have figured out that
going out into the garden is a great way to
maintain one’s sanity.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever be the gardener my
mother is but I know that if I need sanctuary I
will go to the nearest garden and walk around a

127 million Japanese can’t be wrong.

And my Mom’s probably not wrong either. She’s
Mother Nature after all.

We have one more installment in our Japan
travel diaries that will be posted next week. Stay tuned!


To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012


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Slippers on – slippers off, Chanting for your breakfast..

When I was researching the Japan “research trip” I stumbled upon Mount Koya, or Koyasan, and came across the following entry in wikitravel :

About half of the over 120 temples in town offer
lodging for pilgrims, known as shukubo, in
Japanese. Prices vary between ¥9,000 and ¥15,000
per night and include two meals. You will be
offered the opportunity to join in the morning
prayer session, a hypnotic experience involving
sutra chanting, incense and gongs.

Oooooh. I had never stayed in a monastery before.

And my experience with gongs was limited.

As I read on, the place started to sound more and more intriguing:

All temple lodgings on Mt. Koya offer shojin
ryori, purely vegetarian food intended for monks.
People who equate vegetarian food with blandness
will be surprised – in their hundreds of years of
experience with vegetarian cooking, the monks have
invented amazingly tasty dishes.

Hmmm. Vegetarian food that’s not bland? Prepared by monks? In a monastery?

And gongs?

I had to go and see this place.

Koyasan has a long and distinguished history. In the year 805, a man named Kobo Daishi introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japan. Shingon has gone on to become an important sect and Kobo Daishi is one of Japan’s most important religious figures.

Kobo Daishi wandered the countryside looking for the right place to establish a base for his religion and after many years of searching he found the wooded mountaintop of Koyasan and in 826 he began construction of a temple complex.

Given his importance as a religious figure, Koyasan is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s
mausoleum. Since that first temple was built nearly 1200 years ago, over 120 temples have been constructed in the area and a town sprang up to support the temples, the monks and the pilgrims that come to visit.

One of the ways that the temples generate revenue is by hosting pilgrims and tourists and offering overnight stays. About half of the temples offer this service. Most temples offer 2 meals, breakfast and dinner, as well as the opportunity to attend morning prayers.

As it’s situated on a mountaintop, Koyasan is not that easy to get to. We took a regional train from Nara, then a private railway through the mountains to Gokurakubashi station and then a cable car to Koyasan.

The scenery was lovely, the ride was comfortable, the connections were great and in no
time we were there. Then we caught a local bus and we were dropped off in front of our lodging for the evening. Our monastery.

We checked in and followed a monk down the long, dark corridors until he showed us to our rooms. Sliding paper room dividers as doors, futons on top of tatami mats on thefloor and a small window. Spartan, but very clean and comfortable.

One of the things that I found very interesting was the shoe thing. Japanese do not wear their outside-shoes inside. Instead they have slippers for inside. So you stand on a slatted wooden mat to remove your outside-shoes and put on your slippers. You cannot wear your slippers on the tatami mats so you have to take them off when entering your roomor the dining room. Then there is another set of slippers for the bathroom!

There were men’s and ladies’ rooms as well as segregated areas for bathing, including a big tub for soaking in the hot water, Japanese style, and wooden seats to use in front of the many taps where you wash, twice, before getting into the tub.

After settling in and unpacking, we wandered around the temple a little before we were called to dinner. We were ushered into a small private room, where there were 4 low tables and quite a few cushions on the floor. In traditional Japanese style, we were expected to sit on the floor. We were offered tea and left on our own for a while.

When our monk returned he brought our meals with him. A large tray for each person with a number of plates and bowls and cups, made of wood and porcelain and lacquerware, on each tray. Every course and every different ingredient had its own dishand no two were alike. We counted 12 dishes on each tray. Soup, rice, tempura, steamed vegetables, different types of pickles, tofu, a custard of some type, sauces and an orange. It was beautiful! Everything was edible. As much thought had been put into the presentation as the preparation. It was all wonderful.



To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012 and book your spot today!

The next day we woke up very early in order to attend the morning prayer service. A monk came to the door at about 6:30 and we followed him to the temple. The temple was quite dark, but I could make out the altaer with Buddhist figurines, glowing incense sticks, candles and fruit. The ceremony mostly consisted of the monks chanting, lighting candles and reading sutras. There was a little bit of light drumming and very little gonging. Too early for the gong?

We didn’t understand any of the chanting and we couldn’t see very much because the alter was on a raised platform and there were paper screens obscuring our view. Was it worth getting up very early for? It was very spiritual. And Buddhism does mean exploring your own suffering.

Following morning prayers we had another amazing vegetarian meal prepared by the monks before heading out for the day. One last stop before leaving the monastery. Slippers off, bathroom slippers on, bathroom slippers off, slippers on, slippers off, out-side shoes on.

As we walked around the town and past the various temples, we didn’t see many tourists, but we did see quite a few Japanese pilgrims, all dressed in white, some wearing bells, wandering from temple to temple and chanting prayers at each stop along the way.

By far the most impressive part of our walk was Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, a short walk from our monastery, along a path that took us through a forest of huge and ancient cypress trees. Everywhere you looked there were stones and shrines, laid in memoriam for loved ones and ancestors. There are over half a million of these in the wooded area around the mausoleum and they appear to be growing out of the ground, moss and lichen clinging to them like a protective shroud. Set amongst the massive trees, the whole place seemed as old as time itself, as though it had always been there and always would be. It reminded me of a forest as described by Tolkien. Ancient. Primeval. And full of souls.

We spent one more night in Koyasan, walked through the forest and up to the mausoleum at night, enjoyed another peaceful evening in the monastery and two more wonderful meals.

We didn’t go back to the prayer ceremony the next morning but we did walk along the path, among the shrines and trees, mist rising from the forest floor, each of us in silent, walking meditation.

I went to Koyasan expecting to learn a lot from the prayer ceremony, but I think I got much more out of seeing the pilgrims and by walking around. Ironic that the spoken ceremony gave me little insight into Shingon Buddhism but that walking amongst the age-old temples and forests communicated volumes to me. Perhaps not that ironic at all to learn about Buddhism through observation and experience rather than through the spoken word. After all, Buddhism is about silent meditation isn’t it?

Speaking of meditation, in the next post we’ll explore a few Japanese gardens and get Zen



To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012 and book your spot today!

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