Posts tagged ‘buddhism’

Zen and the Art of Painting a Pavilion in Gold Leaf

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

An early start for us all this Monday as we begin our final day in Japan, on board the local bus (and still under the watchful eye of our local expert Leah) to the Golden Pavilion, just north of Kyoto. Kyoto Buses announce stops (and include signs) in English as well as Japanese, which makes them a reliable option for navigating this beautiful city.

The Golden Pavilion complex dates back to the end of the 14th Century, the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu converted on his death into a Zen temple. No prizes for guessing the origin of its name – the top two levels of the Golden Pavilion are completely covered by gold leaf.

Two levels of gold leaf!

The Golden Pavilion and Lake. Photo by David Sanz, CC License

Absorbing the view across the lake as the early morning light strikes the gold makes it clear why this is the favourite option for many tourists wondering what to do in Kyoto.

Entry to the Golden Pavilion, and the nearby hojo (priest’s living quarters) is not permitted, but look closely across the lake and you can admire the statues revealed inside the ground floor, including one of Yoshimitsu himself who would be impressed at the dedication Kyoto has shown to the pavilion – it’s been rebuilt at least 3 times, with the current structure dating to 1955.

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Bus number 59 takes us from right outside the Golden Pavilion to our next destination, the Zen garden in the Ryoanji Temple. You may be familiar with Japanese rock gardens – Ryoanji is perhaps the most famous example of Zen rock garden design. In addition to the innumerable small stones, there are 15 large rocks in the design (though the specific meaning is unclear after 650 years). If relaxing the mind is not your idea of fun Kyoto travel, then take up this challenge: can you find the spot where all 15 large rocks can be seen? (Here are some photos – answer in ‘Want to Go? Need to Know!’ below)

The only way to see all 15 stones

Viewing from the air is cheating! Model Photo by Kimon Berlin, CC License

At Ryoanji, the hojo (and the adjacent Kuri – kitchen) are accessible, as are hours-worth of walking trails around the pond. These are best experienced in Spring, however, so we make a beeline for the restaurant Ryoanji Yudofuya and enjoy an early lunch of yudofu (Kyoto’s specialty boiled tofu) among the tatami screens.

Classic Yum!

Ryoanji Yudofuya. Photo by Herry Lawford, CC License

Next, we’re on the tram from Ryoanji to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. The sunlight dapples through the immense bamboo, and even in the middle of the day on the narrower paths there is more greenery than sunshine.

On the train ride back to Kyoto station, Leah shares that one the favourite things to do in Kyoto is an afternoon spent on these bamboo paths until completely running out of sunlight (followed, of course, by dinner in Gion trying to see a geisha).

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Photo by Curt Smith, CC License

What to do in Kyoto? Bamboo

More bamboo than sky! Photo by CLF, CC License

Bamboo and Sunlight

Some sunlight, just. Photo by hslo, CC License

But our time in Kyoto must end before the day runs out, as we take the 2.20pm bus to Kansai International Airport ahead of an evening flight from Osaka to our next daydream holiday destination – Mexico City! Prepare to say sayonara one last time, and practice your Hola for when we touch down!

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Leah, our local expert from, is “completely torn” about deciding what to do in Kyoto given the limits of our 4 day trip. If we had another day, the plan would be to spend the whole day exploring the Higashiyama district – done well you can knock over Kiyomuzudera, Yasaka Jinga, Maruyama Park and Chionin.
  • Bus passes are an easy way to travel Kyoto – grab a ‘Bus Navi‘ from the information centre – or you can walk some of the legs. Ryonaji is only a 25 minute walk from the Golden Pavilion, for example.
  • Looking for a website to help you learn more about what to do in Kyoto? Check out Japan-Guide (their links to the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji, and Arashiyama)
  • Want the answer to our Ryoanji riddle? It’s actually a trick question – it is not possible to see all 15 rocks from one viewpoint. So if you find the kids (or another tourist) are getting all up in your Zen, set them the challenge and enjoy the quiet.
  • We cross the international dateline on our flight – so while 15 hours with United is the longest flight we’ve yet done on our dream holiday, we actually depart on Monday at 6.20pm and land on Monday at 7.03pm. I’ve never seen so many movies in just 43 minutes!

Still wondering what to do in Kyoto? Or want to share your favourite moment from our Japanese daydream holiday? Wed love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

From Glico Neon to Geisha Style: The beautiful madness of Japan

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

The hardest part about early morning international flights is often the cold, yet somehow just the thought of leaving Harbin makes us feel warmer. Our flight with China Southern (not heard of them? They’re actually the 4th largest airline in the world!) lands in Osaka, Japan just after midday.

Now, “lands in Osaka” is somewhat misleading – Kansai International Airport is actually an artificial island inside Osaka Bay. Completed in 1994, engineers excavated 21 million cubic metres (27 million cubic yards) of soil from three separate mountains to create this international hub. (And they did a fantastic job – it’s already survived an earthquake and a typhoon.)

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Japan can be an overwhelming destination if you don’t come prepared. Thankfully, we’re under the watchful eye of Leah, a tours and activities expert for, and a former resident of this enticing archipelago. Minutes later, we on the airport train ‘Nankai Limited Express’ for the 45 minutes (7 stop) trip to Nipponbashi.

Better know by its local name ‘Den Den Town’, Nipponbashi is like 1980s Japan on steroids. Every electronic need you may have can be met here (and feel free to bargain with the vendors), and with districts shifting from gadgets to anime and eventually fashion, Den Den Town can be seen as a cultural immersion first and a shopping opportunity second.

Of course, Japan’s cultural heritage owes more to the samurai than to manga. Leah navigates us onto the subway for the six minute journey from Namba Station to Tanimachi (changing at Honmachi half way through). It’s Osaka, not Tokyo, so we don’t have to be squeezed into the carriages by guards.

We come back into daylight in the metaphorical shadow of Osaka Castle. From this location Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan, but when the Shogunate later moved to Tokyo the region lost power – the original main tower was destroyed along with the Toyotomi family in the Summer War of Osaka in 1615. The current main tower may be twentieth century, but the artefacts and emotional history it displays are far older; so too are the immense gardens (106 Hectares / 250 acres of them) which boast cherry blossoms and 95 kinds of apricot flowers in the spring, while the highlight of our winter wander is the Great Stone Wall on the inner moat.

The brooding Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle and the Great Stone Wall. Photo by Joop Dorresteijn, CC Licensed.

Evening calls, so we head back to Dotonbori for food and neon wonderment. This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, as the Glico Running Man (“a postwar symbol of Japan emerging as an economic power”, says Leah) indicates. We could walk for hours taking in the neon signs of Ebisubashi and the madness of Dotonbori Arcade, powered only by takoyaki octopus balls (or maybe a stop at one of the many izakaya, where good and drink are often served in equal quantities).

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba. Photo by yeowatzup. CC License.

But our mind turns to Saturday. An hour east of Osaka by train, Nara is the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to the UNESCO listed Todai-ji complex. We’ve seen some overwhelming temples on our everydaydream holiday so far – but nothing prepares us for the 500 tonne, 15 metre high ‘Big Buddha’.

Daibutsu, Naro

That is a big buddha. Photo by David Offf, CC License.

You can look closely and observe the combination of periods that make up the Daibutsu – a head from the Edo period, while the hands are much older, all housed in a 300 year old hall that until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. If you do observe changes forced by earthquakes and fires, then be mindful of this quote from the Buddha himself:

When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering. I became aware that I too was of the same nature, the nature of beginning and end.

Too much spirituality? Then go and enjoy watching the Sika Deer which freely roam the temple gardens, before we take another train journey north to Kyoto. Once here, we head for dinner in the Gion – Kyoto’s main restaurant, shopping … and geisha (geiko, in the local dialect) hub.

An authentic geisha experience is exclusive, no dream holiday or wallet size will gain you access to the Ichiriki Ochaya, for example. While a tourist geisha experience is now an option, the thought of paying a premium to eat and watch in a tourist trap is the antithesis of our everydaydream holiday. So instead, we wander down Shirakawa Canal, select a restaurant full of locals, and enjoy some genuine Japanese cuisine (while also keeping an eye on the street for any geisha who may walk past).

See a Geisha in Kyoto

Please – if you see a Geisha in Kyoto, be respectful. Photo by This Particular Greg, CC License

Sunday dawns with a promise of comfortable shoes and quality photo equipment. We head two stations back towards Nara for the amazing 4 kilometre (6 mile) meander around Fushimi Inari. The only photographic subject more Japanese than cherry blossom has to be the red gates, and today we will see hundreds of them – large and small, isolated, and built together to created shaded paths that lead to the various shrines on this site.

Red gate Fushimi Inari

One Red Gate. Photo by Daa Nell, CC License

Many red gates Fushimi Inari

MANY Red Gates! Photo by SteFou, CC License

What an amazing weekend in Japan … and we still have Monday to see more!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Japan’s rail and subway infrastructure is superb – and clearly colour coded, even if you can’t read kanji or kana.
  • A quick rule of thumb – you can divide Yen by 100 (just remove the last two zeroes, so 3000 becomes 30) to give you an approximate amount in US Dollars. The exchange rate isn’t quite that bad (unless you buy currency at the airport!), but you try dividing everything by 89!
  • Shinto and Buddhism are the two most common religions in Japan, although (by western comparison) both are more ‘harmonious ways of living’ than an orthodox dogma.
  • Here’s a link to a collection of real Buddha quotes – but if you’re looking for laughs, go to the home page and explore their fake Buddha quotes!
  • Want a glimpse inside the madness of Osaka (and Leah)? Enjoy this personal video she took on her most recent trip to Japan (when she wasn’t dragging around hundreds of everydaydreamers).

Which part of Japan’s diverse culture interests you the most? What would you like us to do in Kyoto on Monday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nom and Om – relax in Sydney with Brunch and Buddhism

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

  • 8AM – Find peace relaxing in the placid waters at Balmoral Beach.
  • 9AM – enjoy the best brunch in Sydney at the Bathers’ Pavilion.
  • 11AM – take a relaxing drive down to Wollongong.
  • 2PM – find your centre at the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple.
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The theme for today is peace and relaxation. We’ve heralded the brand new year in Sydney with a celebration of all things pyrotechnic, watching the Harbour Bridge light up at midnight. After a day to slowly recover from all that excitement, we’re going to find some time and space today to centre ourselves, and set ourselves on the path we want to follow for the coming year.

We don’t have a jam-packed agenda today, but what we do have planned, we’re going to immerse ourselves in. Literally and figuratively!

Bather's Pavilion at Balmoral Beach is the best place for a relaxing brunch in Sydney

The view from the Bathers’ Pavilion out towards the Sydney Harbour headland.

8AM – find peace in the placid salt-water at Balmoral Beach in Sydney’s north

Bather's Pavilion at Balmoral Beach - right on the water at Balmoral, so a swim is essential before brunch!

A gorgeous day looking in the water at Balmoral beach, looking back to Bathers’ Pavilion. Photo by kerno.

You could easily visit Sydney and pass right on by Balmoral Beach. This almost hidden suburb, nestled off the busy Military Road that leads over the Spit Bridge to Manly and beyond, is tucked away from sight. And yet if you drove on past Balmoral you’d miss an amazing experience.

Driving down the incredibly steep Awaba Street, foot firmly on the break, we’re amazed to see people running up the hill! They’ve started their New Year resolutions with admirable dedication.

With our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, with stunning view that stretch to Sydney’s North Head and beyond into the Pacific, we park the car and head down to the beach. At 8 AM in summer the water is going to be wonderfully refreshing, and no matter what you have to stay in the water until you’ve gotten used to the temperature.

It’s time to shake off the excesses from New Year’s Eve and put in for some vigorous splashing about.

There’s a brunch to earn, after all.

9AM – the best brunch in Sydney at the Bathers’ Pavilion

We shake the water from our hair and head just across the sand into the Bathers’ Pavilion salivating at the thought of the food that awaits.

The amazing brunch at the Bathers' Pavilion in Balmoral, Sydney, Australia.

The amazing brunch offered at the Bathers’ Pavilion includes the best baked beans you’ll likely ever eat! Photo by kerno.

There really is no brunch like a Bathers’ Pavilion brunch. Serge Dansereau has turned a run-down old bather’s building into a Sydney institution, with both casual cafe and more formal dining areas. As we are still in out

The food is wonderful, and with amazing variety. Just a few favourites are the house-made baked beans, the french toast, and the oven-roasted tomatoes sprinkled with oregano. We’ll have several coffees here, but an additional treat with our meal is the cranberry and watermelon cocktail – perfect for a summer’s day that is already warming up.

It’s easy to lose track of time here, watching the passersby on the promenade and the endless swell washing onto the beach. As they say in ‘The Castle’ – how’s the serenity?

11AM – take a relaxing drive down to Wollongong

Our bellies full and our heads slightly buzzing from all that coffee, we pile into the car and hit the open road.

From Balmoral, it is just a one and a half hour drive down to Wollongong, where our next destination awaits. A real highlight are the views from the high bluffs as we approach Wollongong, with a great view over the southern beaches of Sydney.

2PM – find your centre at the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple

You can see the Nan Tien Buddhist temple as you approach, and we all agree it is an odd sight.

A tall tower and massive orange roof rise above the city of Wollongong, looking lost amidst modern Western architecture. And yet, it does exists, and what’s more, we’re visiting today!

The Nan Tien Buddhist temple is reputed to be the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is easy to believe when we arrive and see the size of the structure.

The imposing steps leading into the main temple, flanked on either side by stone lions, lead up to a place of worship and of great beauty, with panoramic views stretching to Mount Kembla.

Nan Tien Buddhist Temple in Wollongong, Sydney, Australia, is the place to relax

Photo by woof69, CC License

The smiling Buddha statue in the grounds of the Nan Tien Temple, Sydney, Australia

Photo by ss2001, CC License

We begin our afternoon with a Temple tour, which costs $4.00 per person. The guide explains to us the origins of Buddhism, the history of the temple, and leads us around the incredible grounds of the temple. Populated with statues representing Buddhist faith, they are both solemn and amusing.

Once our tour is complete, we have the option of participating is several choices of course. We can choose from Tai Chi, Calligraphy, Meditation, and Basic Buddhism.

Personally, the appeal of relaxing the mind and finding our centre is very strong, especially at such a reflective time of year. All of us complete the Meditation session, and then awaken our bodies with a course on Tai Chi.

The temple runs intensive courses, including weekend retreats, throughout the year.

Invigorated and inspired the leap ahead into the new year, we watch the setting sun fall behind the distant mountain ranges, and ponder – where are we going next?

What amazing travel destinations are you hoping to visit this year?

Tell us in the comments!

Bangkok – hot, hot, hot!

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

Bangkok is the world’s hottest city

We’re out of the frying pan and into the fire as we fly from Oman into Bangkok, Thailand – officially the hottest city in the world. With year-round mean air temperatures of 28°C (82°F), we’re lucky to be in Bangkok during the ‘cool and dry’ season between November and February.

Arriving into Suvarnabhumi Airport at 7:25 AM, we make our way into central Bangkok using the Airport Link (SARL). Our hotel is the Shangri-Hotel (Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok 89 Soi Wat Suan Plu) on the banks of Bangkok’s river, the Chao Phraya. The temptation after that long flight from Oman on arriving in our room is to dump the luggage and collapse straight into bed, but….must….resist!

Only being in Bangkok for two days and after an overnight flight from Oman means there’s lots to do, but little energy to do it, so our local guide Anna, who’s lived in Bangkok for two years, has promised to let us take it easy – but that doesn’t mean we can slack off!

After jumping straight into the shower and putting on some long-sleeved clothing made of light fabric, we’re off to the Oriental Pier.

11 AM: A River Ferry to the Grand Palace

Outside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is the Oriental Pier, and that’s where we meet up with Anna. She has planned an easy day for us today, and promises a relaxing surprise this afternoon.

We catch the Chao Phraya Express ferry from the Oriental Pier for a quick trip up the Chao Phraya river, part of the navigation toolkit of any Bangkok local.

We disembark at the Tha Tien Cross River Ferry Pier, and from here it’s a quick walk to one of Bangkok’s biggest tourist attractions, the Grand Palace.

It becomes clear why we wore long-sleeved clothing and pants at the entrance to the Grand Palace. As a holy and important site to the Thais, there are people at the entrance checking your dress and ensuring that it meets their standards for respectfulness. Although you can hire clothes, it’s really better to dress appropriately to begin with. In this video, journalist Lauren Bercarich explains all.

The Grand Palace isn’t just one, but rather a complex of buildings, and has been the residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782, and is still in use as a royal residence and as a ceremonial site. The beautiful and intricate architecture is entrancing and it takes several hours for us to complete a tour. We linger particularly at the Wat Phra Kaew, which houses the famous and significant Emerald Buddha. Only Thailand’s King is allowed near the Emerald Buddha, ceremonially changing the Buddha’s robes throughout the year.

Wat Mahathat, Bangkok, Thailand

“wat mahathat bangkok”, a photo by telmo32, CC License

2 PM: Wat Po and the Origins of Thai Massage

After visiting the site of the Emerald Buddha, we arrive outside the Wat Po temple.

It’s full name is the Wat Phra Chetuphon, and is well known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Inside is an enormous reclining Buddha, roughly 40 metres long and covered in gold leaf. That alone is impressive but with a smile Anna turns to tells us more about Wat Po.

And what a surprise! It turns out that Wat Po is considered the origin of Thai massage – and is, in fact, a functioning Thai massage school, the country’s most prestigious. This is too good an opportunity to pass up and for the rest of the afternoon, we experience the best in Thai massage and relaxation at the site where it all began.

Thailand Tips – What is a Wat?

A typical Thai Wat, which is loosely translated as monastery or temple, has an enclosing wall that divides it from the secular world. Find out more here.

Sunset over Wat Arun.

Sunset over Wat Arun. Photo by Mark Fischer, CC License

6 PM: Night Markets

We’re early for dinner by Thai standards, but it’s been a long day and we want to fit in a quick tour of the markets before we finally collapse. We head up to the Suan Lum night markets by motorbike taxis because, in Anna’s words

“The best tip I would give is to use the motorbike taxis – the guys on street corners with orange vests on. That’s if you’re game- they’re much quicker in the horrendous congestion of Bkk (Bangkok)! You can bargain a little because they’ll give you a tourist price at first, but they’re cheap anyway. And they’re way better than tuktuks, because they won’t take you to the tailor or shop that is giving them fuel vouchers in exchange for customers”

At the night markets, we load up on accessible street-style food in a big open courtyard, listening to local live entertainment.

Goodnight Bangkok!

That’s it for our first day in Bangkok. Smiling and serene from our massages and with our bellies as full as Buddha’s from the night market, we fall asleep in minutes.

TukTuk, Bangkok, Thailand

“Go Baby, Go Go”, a photo by lynhdan, CC License

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Don’t disrespect the monarch! Lengthy prison terms up to 15 years can be imposed for insulting the monarchy.
  • Keep your fluid intake up! According to the World Meteorological Organization, Bangkok is the world’s hottest city. Located just 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is sunny at any time of the year with temperatures over 30°C (86°F). So make sure you have plenty of fluid throughout the day.
  • Bangkok has many public transport options, including the BTS Skytrain, the underground metro line MRT, Bangkok buses, river boats, and the famous tuktuks. Find out more at TransportBangkok.
  • Locals refer to Bangkok as Bkk.
  • Did we mention that it’s hot in Bangkok? Drink water, silly!

Have you been to Bangkok? What did you love? What did we miss? Tell us in the comments!


Mark Fisher (who took this amazing sunset photo that we used above) was kind enough to update us that the Suan Lum Night Markets have closed down. As an alternative, he says;

[although it is father out] the Train Market (Tarad Rot Fa) in Bangkok is very interesting and could be worth adding to you itinerary.