Itinerary: 12 Oct - 01 Nov, 2009

Day 1, Mon 12/10: Koyasan
You will be met at the Kansai International Airport. We hope to have everyone gathered together at a nearby hotel by mid-morning so that we can commence the two hour drive to Mount Koya before lunchtime. Upon our arrival at Mount Koya, after depositing our luggage at Muryoko-in, we will proceed to the Okunoin, the inner sanctum of Shingon Buddhism where the founder Kobo Daishi is enshrined, where we will formally commence our pilgrimage with a prayer offering. Tonight we stay at Muryoko-in where we will be served the best of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, for which Mount Koya is justifiably famous. (D)

Day 2, Tues 13/10: Temple 1 Seigantoji
We start the day with an early rise in order to participate in the “Goma” ceremony in the temple of Muryoko’in. This is an esoteric fire ritual that this temple is famous for. The smoke, the chanting, the incense and the candle-light make this a mesmerizing experience and, because it is rarely witnessed by lay people, we are very fortunate in being able to participate. We depart immediately after breakfast for the long journey through the mountains of the Kii Peninsula to the sacred Kumano region, which has been a focus of pilgrimage and mountain asceticism going back into Japan’s mythological age. The area is rich in folklore and mysterious stories and is one of the few areas in Japan where shamanism is still practiced. At Seigantoji you may find that our temple inn is shared by hikers or school children or other sightseers because it is the only lodging place in this World Heritage listed area that is also famous for its natural scenic beauty, particularly the great Nachi waterfall which we can see from our rooms. (B, D)

Day 3, Wed 14/10: Temple 2 Kiimidera, Temple 3 Kokawadera
We start early again today because we have another long day in the bus ahead of us, traveling around the rugged coastline of the Kii Peninsula through one fishing village after another each clinging precariously to the small tract of land between the sea and the mountains that seem to plunge right into the ocean. In the afternoon we will arrive at Kiimidera with its beautiful views out over the ocean. Then we will follow the river on to Kokawadera, which is famous for healing children and has a wonderful garden that is a classified National Treasure. We will stay at the "Maruasa" inn directly in front of the temple gates, which has been servicing pilgrims for centuries, and is famous for its homestyle vegetarian cuisine. (B, D)

Day 4, Thurs 15/10: Temple 4 Sefukuji, Temple 5 Fujiidera
Our first temple, Sefukuji, is about a two hour drive through the mountains from Kokawadera and requires a strenuous climb up the 1000 steps of the mountain path to get to the main temple. This is our first real taste of what it must have been like for those pilgrims traveling on foot! But the walk will be rewarded with a view of the secret image of Kannon that will be on view. After our brisk mountain walk, we will travel on to Fujiidera, which was once a rural temple but now finds itself amid the ever-engulfing sprawl of Osaka city. Although it is now a quiet suburban temple, Fujiidera lies in the center of a network of enormous ancient burial mounds shaped like keyholes about which there is still a great deal of scholarly speculation. Another long trip on the bus through many rural towns and small cities that dot the Kansai Plain, will bring us finally to the beautiful tranquility of Chikurin’in a famed temple inn on the sacred mountain of Yoshino. Chikurin’in is visited annually by the Emperor and his family and is justifiably famous for its beautiful gardens that were designed in the 16th Century by the founder of the tea ceremony Rikyu. Yoshino is another center that is famous for its mountain-worship cult of yamabushi (mountain ascetics) who still practice esoteric austerities in these mountains today. It will provide a welcome place of quiet after this active day and it has a wonderful bath of natural spring water. (B, D)

Day 5, Fri 16/10: Temple 6 Tsubosakadera, Temple 7 Okadera, Temple 8 Hasedera
Tsubosakadera is famous for its miracles associated with eye diseases and the temple has a large residential facility for the sight-impaired elderly. Recently, the temple has also been associated with a social welfare program for the sight-impaired in India and much of the new architecture reflects a strong Indian influence. About an hour away is Okadera which is in Asuka, the center of the ancient historic heartland of Japanese culture. This mysterious region has many strangely carved stones and burial mounds, which mark it as a region steeped in folklore and shamanism. Our last stop for the day is Hasedera, a large famous temple complex that is still an active training monastery. We will stay in a traditional inn in the row of little shops that face the street leading to the temple gate. This road of little eateries and inns is very typical of the pilgrimage approach roads that once lined the route to the 33 temples and which catered to the needs of the pilgrims. Nowadays with modern transport available, these bustling monzenmachi of the temples have mostly disappeared, but Hasedera still retains the nostalgic atmosphere of bygone days. (B, D)

Day 6, Sat 17/10: Temple 9 Nanendo, Temple 10 Mimurotoji
We start the day with the memorable morning service at Hasedera, with the powerful chanting of the monks. After breakfast we travel into the ancient cultural capital of Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, where Nanendo is part of the larger temple complex of Kofukuji, set amid the beautifully preserved parklands of Nara, replete with herds of deer. The secret image of Kannon will be revealed today only, so we can expect a large number of pilgrims to be also gathered here today. We then move on to the town of Uji, famous for its green tea, to Mimurotoji with its exquisite gardens. The secret image here will also be revealed, making this a very special day. (B, D)

Day 7, Sun 18/10: Temple 11 Kamidaigoji, Temple 12 Iwamadera
On previous pilgrimages we would have to take the long 2kms walk up the steep mountain to reach the temple of Kami Daijoji, but unfortunately the temple was hit by lightning in August 2008 and is closed for reconstruction. So instead we will go to the Nyonindo, "Women's Temple," which used to mark the limit of women's participation on the mountain until the early years of the 20th century. We will explore the culturally rich grounds of the lower temple Daigoji, which is a World Heritage listed site, and take a stroll through the famous 500 year old gardens of Sanbo'in. In the afternoon we will visit Iwamadera, an important Shugendo mountain ascetic temple, and meet with Myojo-san the abbess of the temple. There will be many people here today at this usually quiet mountain temple because the secret image of Kannon will be on display. We will stay at the Zen temple of Enman'in, which is famous for its Zen vegetarian cuisine. (B, D)

Day 8, Mon 19/10: Temple 13 Ishiyamadera, Temple 14 Miidera
These two temples are located on the shores of southern end of Lake Biwa. It will be a very powerful energy day with both temple displaying their secret images of Kannon today. Ishiyamadera is famous for its close association with Lady Murasaki, the novelist who is said to have begun writing the world’s first true novel “The Tales of Genji” here while on retreat early in the eleventh century. Miidera is a large rambling temple complex that has a lovely view out over Lake Biwa, its peaceful atmosphere belying its turbulent violent history as it was the center of many attacks by the warrior monks of nearby Mount Hiei, the center of the esoteric Tendai school of Buddhism. This evening we arrive in Kyoto to begin our stay at Daishin'in, a small delightful subtemple within the vast grounds of Myoshinji Temple that is an important center for Rinzai Zen. Daishin’in has a beautiful Zen garden that is right outside our rooms, and is famous for its Zen vegetarian cuisine. (B, D)

Day 9, Tues 20/10: Temple 15 Kannonji, Sanjusangendo
We start today in the peaceful grounds of Imakumano Kannonji, which although a part of Kyoto city feels like you are in the remote mountains of the Kii Peninsula. We will then walk up to Sanjusandgendo, which is not one of the pilgrimage temples but it has one thousand individual statues of Kannon and is a spectacular temple to visit. If you are interested, you may cross the road and spend the afternoon visiting the magnificent Kyoto National Museum. (B, L)

Day 10, Wed 21/10: Temple 16 Kiyomizudera, Temple 17 Rokuharamitsuji
Kiyomizudera is Kyoto’s most famous landmark. Whereas most of the temples we visit will be off the tourist maps, in visiting Kiyomizudera we place ourselves directly in the middle of the tourist throngs complete with glitzy souvenir shops, hawkers, camera-toting tourists and rambunctious high school students on excursion. However, I believe that nothing can dampen the impact of this truly beautiful temple because it is a stunning architectural feat perched over the mountainside supported by a crosshatch of massive timber beams. There are many sub-temples to explore and we will spend most of the day here. After lunch at the temple restaurant famous for its wonderful tofu cuisine, we’ll escape the tourist crowds down a cobbled side street that will take us to the quiet suburban temple of Rokuharamitsuji, said to be the entrance to the Underworld. (B, L)

Day 11, Thur 22/10: Temple 18 Rokkakudo, Temple 19 Kodo
Although Rokkakudo is small temple wedged between modern city buildings, it is famous as a center for ikebana and the tall modern building in front is the headquarters of this important ikebana school. After visiting Rokkakudo, we will walk into the heart of Kyoto’s shopping district and visit the famous food markets where the ingredients of Kyoto’s highly specialized gourmet foods are purchased. Kodo, the only nunnery on our pilgrimage, is another 20 minutes walk from here and is a quiet neighbourhood temple near to the old imperial palace. (B, D)

Day 12, Fri 23/10: Rest Day
This is your chance to explore the many treasures of Kyoto, or to take the opportunity to rest before we move out into the countryside – there will be a lot of driving in the upcoming days. (B)

Day 13, Sat 24/10: Temple 20 Yoshiminedera, Temple 21 Anaoji
Yoshiminedera is set in a very beautiful natural mountain landscape with lots of enticing walk paths to explore. Anaoji is a small rural temple set amid rice paddies, which feels like it’s never quite made it into the modern era. It houses a wonderful 12th century statue of Nehan Buddha that is famous for its healing miracles: you can be healed if you rub that part of the Buddha that corresponds to your illness. (B, L)

Day 14, Sun 25/10: Temple 22 Sojiji, Temple 23 Katsuoji
Sojiji is an immaculate suburban temple where you will always see local children playing beside the Benzaiten pond, or workers having their lunch, or grannies chatting about neighbourhood events. After leaving the urban sprawl of Osaka, we once again enter the countryside to visit the beautiful mountain complex of Katsuoji, where we will stay. Katsuoji is famous for its association with Daruma, the folk figure of good luck and the whole complex is covered with little statues of this popular figure, hiding in the trees and shrubs and statues. Its gardens are extensive and a delight to stroll through at leisure. (B, D)

Day 15, Mon 26/10: Temple 24 Nakayamadera, Temple 25 Kiyomizudera (II)
Nakayamadera is a wonderfully vibrant temple always thronging with people with their children and babies. It is the place where people come to receive blessings for their newborn babies or to ask Kannon for help in getting pregnant or to purchase a special wrap that is worn during pregnancy and birth to ensure a problem-free delivery. Whilst Sunday is the best day to visit, we should still capture this atmosphere today as well. Kiyomizudera is a quiet mountaintop temple, up to which we can nowadays drive, but I highly recommend taking the old pilgrim’s path up the mountain because it is so lovely to walk through the forest here. When we reach the top we will be rewarded by viewing the secret image of Kannon that is on display today. It has an ancient well wherein it is said that if you can see your reflection, you will live another three years! Tonight we will enter the castled city of Himeji where we will be welcomed into the home of Rev Kato and his lovely family. (B, D)

Day 16, Tues 27/10: Temple 26 Ichijoji, Temple 27 Engyoji
Ichijoji is a rural temple that has a very interesting ceiling covered with the name plaques of pilgrims from centuries ago and a very poignant sacred site dedicated to the souls of children and infants. Engyoji is a vast sprawling mountain temple complex that is still an active training monastery of the esoteric Tendai tradition. We approach the complex by cable car. It has many interesting buildings dotted around the mountain and still retains the atmosphere of bygone times and today will be very busy because the secret image of Kannon will be on display. We will stay again with Rev Kato. (B, D)

Day 17, Wed 28/10: Temple 28 Nariaiji
Today we have a very long journey by bus as we traverse the island of Honshu from south to north on our way to Nariaiji but the wait will be worth it because Nariaiji overlooks one of the classically famous three most beautiful scenes in Japan – Amanohashidate (The Bridge to Heaven), a white beached isthmus covered in pine trees. We will have the opportunity of walking this beautiful stretch of land and then take the cable car up to Nariaiji temple. We will spend the night at an inn beside the Bridge to Heaven. (B, D)

Day 18, Thur 29/10: Temple 29 Matsuno-odera, Temple 30 Chikubushima
From Amanohashidate, we travel to the rural temple of Matsuno-odera which is halfway up Mt Aoba, the “Fuji of the West.” It is a lovely remote temple on the north shore of Japan which feels like stepping back in time. Another couple of hours drive will bring us to the shores of Lake Biwa where we will take a 30-minute boat trip out to the island of Chikubushima, which has a long history of syncretic Buddhist/Shinto/Shugendo practices and is also associated with many miracles related to the secret image of Kannon enshrined there. (B, D)

Day 19, Fri 30/10: Temple 31 Chomeiji, Temple 32 Kannonshoji
Chomeiji is on the shores of Lake Biwa, and is traditionally reached by way of a long ancient stairway of 808 steps through a primeval bamboo forest. Although it taked about half an hour to climb up the steep incline, we will be rewarded because today the secret image of Kannon will be on display for the first in living memory. The temple complex itself is a particularly pleasing combination of architectural styles. Kannonshoji is not far from Chomeiji and is at the top of a quite scary narrow road that just keeps going up and up! At the carpark there is still about a kilometre walk to the temple but the incline is quite flat as we pass by eerie rock formations that are strewn about the mountaintop. Kannonshoji was burned to the ground in 1990 and was only reopened in 2005. We will spend the night in an inn just in front of the temple gates to our final destination, Kegonji. (B, D)

Day 20: Sat 31 Oct: Temple 33 Kegonji, Koyasan
Kegonji, the final temple of our long pilgrimage, is an important regional temple and training monastery, and here we can make our offerings of thanks like the countless pilgrims before us. Before we leave though, we must enter into the dark passageway under the temple that marks our rebirth back into the mundane world. We will then take the long journey back to the starting point of pilgrimage, Koyasan, where we will once again offer thanks for our journey at the Okunoin shrine. Tonight will be our last night together before we part company tomorrow. (B, D)

Day 21: Sun Nov 1: Airport
This morning, after the morning fire ceremony, we will depart for the airport. (B)

Please note that this itinerary is provisional and may be subject to slight variation depending on group numbers, weather conditions, and accommodation availability.

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