My Mountain Hermit Training in Japan

Read part 1 On My Way For Yamabushi Training

I survived! I am officially one of the first few non Japanese speakers in the world to have received Yamabushi mountain hermit training. It was a wonderful experience and I feel stronger, accomplished and that I have spiritually grown to another level.

The 5-day program designed by Megurun Inc. is the first of its kind. Yamabushi training has been offered to the Japanese people for hundreds of years. In fact, many people take solitary retreats in the mountains and its popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways every now and then. But these are generally 3-day programs where large groups of people undergo the training with minimal interaction with the master. They are expected to ‘just experience’ as they push their physical and emotional boundaries.

In my case, there were only 2 people in the program, which was led by Master Tak who is fluent in English and Japanese. He described the process in great detail and guided us through the journey. Tak-San was a business professional who moved to the area to seek solace. After years of practice, he is now a Master Yamabushi and trains others.

On the first day, we stayed at a modest hotel in the city of Shonai, which was crowded with local tourists who had come to worship at the three sacred mountains of Deva. Located in the Yamagata prefecture of northern Japan, the area is known as “hidden Japan” as it is relatively cut off from other cities and not many foreign visitors go there.

This day was intended to disconnect from daily life, prepare for shugo (the training) and embrace Japanese culture.

We spent most of the day at a Zen temple with a Buddhist monk. He showed us their way of life, which included proper posture for sitting on the floor in lotus position, focusing one’s attention to meditate, and sharing their humble lunch. We got to see where the resident monks eat, pray and sleep on tatami mats. We also witnessed a prayer ceremony where the monks played drums, chanted the sutras and blessed us for our journey.

Then we had a calligraphy master, Mayumi Honma, teach us how to write ‘Uketamō’ in Japanese. This phrase is very important as it is the only word we are allowed to speak during Yamabushidō. It means, “I humbly accept with an open heart” and is a readily used response to everything the master instructs us to do (as we would say OK in English).

Calligraphy is an ancient Japanese art of writing, but it is much more than that in the spiritual sense. To do it well, you have to have a lot of focus and a steady hand. You have to be silent and be in the moment. Using a brush and ink, there is no way to go back and erase mistakes. You have to start all over.

For dinner, we went to a farm-to-table family-run restaurant where we tasted local specialities, including dadachamame (indigenous edamame) grown only in this area.

The next morning we transferred our bags to Daishobo, a pilgrimage lodge at the base of Mount Gassan. At one time, there were almost 300 pilgrimage lodges in the area, but now the number is reduce to less than 30. The lodges were family-run not-for-profit businesses, but the new generations don’t want the upkeep.

Daishobo is also home to Master Hashino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, who designed my program. He is in his 70’s now and worked in civil services professionally, and has been a Yamabushi for over 40 years. He still climbs mountains on a regular basis!

The lodge was basic – 2 floors with open rooms that can accommodate up to 35 people. The women stayed upstairs and the men downstairs. Meals, chanting, meditation and orientation were also held downstairs. Basically, not much privacy which is how Japanese people traditionally travel. You just find a spot on the floor to put your bedding down and sleep there.

There were male and female toilets outside the main house. We weren’t allowed to take showers during the program.

During this time, we had an impeding typhoon headed towards Shonai. Typhoons can bring a lot of rain and strong winds (similar to tornadoes). Being an unseasoned hiker, I was already nervous about the steep hikes we were going to do and started feeling more anxious. Tak-San remained calm and said he was closely monitoring the weather. We would still hike in the rain, but will change our route if we were in the eye of the typhoon. At that time, I reconsidered what I had signed up for.

Click here to read what happened next…

On My Way For Yamabushi Training

Here I am, headed to Japan for a 5-day Yamabushi Training program! Until a few weeks ago, I did not even know what Yamabushi was about. But an email that landed in my inbox convinced me to go check it out.

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to a traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. In other words, they are like Native Americans. They often live in the forest, hike for days, eat what they can find, all to connect with nature. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems drawn from local folk-religious practices, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The practice is no longer limited to hermits. Many Japanese people are taking a break from their busy city lives to go to the countryside and connect with nature. Therefore, Yamabushi training programs for Japanese people has become quite popular. But very few, if any, training programs are offered to non-Japanese visitors. I will be one of the first foreign visitors to experience a 5-day program under the guidance of a 13th generation Yamabushi master. Yamabushido is based in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

I Skyped with Tak (Takeharu Kato) and Kanae Soma (owner of Megurun Inc.) in Japan, to better understand what I was signing up for. “We realized that many people have tried meditation and other mindfulness practices in their lives, but also realized that Yamabushi practices offer something different, something more powerful, and something which – although it has been practiced for 1,300 years has never been more relevant. Yamabushi training is the simple philosophy of placing yourself in nature and feeling, not thinking, to rejuvenate back to your true self. Yamabushi training is quick, practical, and effective, and provides a powerful context in which to resolve any challenges, questions, or decisions that need to be made. It has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of the modern-day person, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? I am totally in for a spiritual retreat that involves connecting with my true self, but wait, there’s more…

Soon after, I received a list of guidelines and checklist to prepare for arrival. In it was a fair warning. “Yamabushi undertake training in harsh alpine conditions including hiking through bush, over streams and waterfalls, up rocks, ladders and stone steps, which can include walking more than 10km for the basic course, or 15km for the extended course per day. In addition, your Yamabushidō experience will likely include hiking during the nighttime, meditating under ice cold waterfalls, jumping over fire, and being enclosed in a smoky room.”

Ok now I am not so sure!  I am fine with meditation, but am I ready to hike all day and night, and jump into an icy waterfall? Well, physically I am not so sure if my body that hasn’t stepped into a gym in years, could possibly handle it.

Other guidelines include not washing your face, brushing your teeth, or shaving, not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and making sure to get as much sleep as possible before arriving. The last one may be tough as I make my 24-hour journey from Atlanta to Tsuruoka, and catch up with the 13 hour time difference.

The release form also came with bunch of warnings, most sentences ending in the word “death.” Yikes!

Well, I am on my way, packed with a suitcase full of white clothes (required), hiking boots and my backpack. It will be interesting to see how my mind and body are able to handle the demands of the program and what wisdom I gain from it.

For the next few days, I will be following the three basic rules of Yamabushidō:

Number one: no talking.

Number two: no questions.

Number three: uketamō! Meaning ‘I humbly accept with an open heart.’

On that note, I am keeping an open mind about what’s to come. To be continued…

This Summer, Forget Tiny Houses, Stay in a Luxury Treehouse

Looking for a fun way to spend this Father’s Day weekend? Check out the newest trend in glamping – modern, high tech and sustainable treehouses. The Dove Men+Care Elements 360-square-foot treehouse equipped with a luxurious private bath, climate control, high speed Wi-Fi and a stocked refrigerator is like a “spa in the sky.”

Located at the base of Lookout Mountain near downtown Chattanooga, TN, the Elements Treehouse stands out for its state-of-the-art bathroom constructed of natural elements inspired by Dove’s Elements product range and sweeping forest views.

The treehouse is the second house for rent at a treehouse resort – Treetop Hideaways in Flintstone, GA. Founded by local entrepreneurs Andrew Alms and Enoch Elwell, Treetop Hideaways came about as an idea to allow childhood memories to flourish and for families to experience sustainable living close to the city.

The Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse is designed by architect Pete Nelson, a world-renowned treehouse architect, host of Treehouse Masters and owner of Nelson Treehouse and Supply company. It features modern architectural designs surrounded by nature, utilizing the most efficient and sustainable systems.

A wooden staircase leads you to the entryway marked by a living sage wall and Japanese Shou Sugi Ban-style charcoal wood. Welcomed by the aroma of sage, enter a cozy sitting area with furniture made of reclaimed wood, kick off your shoes and browse through the pages of ‘Cabin Porn.’

In the morning, sip on local MayFly coffee while lounging on the private deck. Feel the cool morning mist, listen to the sounds of birds chirping and the flowing stream on property.

Interior designed by Will Taylor, founder of Bright Bazaar is done in nature-inspired style, with sage bedding, charcoal-etched wall art, and sandalwood accents. Green, white and grey Earth tones create a rustic yet contemporary ambiance. Connect to Alexa to play your favorite music as you nap in the Tuft & Needle queen mattress downstairs or climb to the loft where you can see the tree canopy through the skylights from the comfort of two beds.

The focal point of the treehouse is the spa inspired Elements bathroom with charcoal wood paneling, clay sink, heated flooring, temperature controlled 5-head shower, linen robes, Dove Men+Care Elements toiletries, and a glass enclosed tree in the bathroom with skylight and see-through flooring. Here you can feel like you are showering in the forest, yet have your preferred water heat set on the digital keypad.

Grab a cold beer from the refrigerator and get some steaks or hot dogs started on the outdoor grill. The outdoor fireplace is perfect for roasting marshmallows under the stars and reminiscing about good old campfires.

Chattanooga is quickly becoming a top travel destination voted ‘Best Town in America’ by the readers of Outside magazine. Surrounded by acers of forest, Treetop Hideways is located within minutes of world-class climbing, mountain biking, trail running, caving, and more. Nearby attractions include Ruby Falls, Rock City Gardens, Tennessee Aquarium, Cloudland Canyon State Park and North Chickamauga Gorge.

The Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse is the perfect family friendly retreat to spend summer holidays in nature and comfort.

9 Places to Visit in Lebanon

Lebanon is a beautiful country in the Middle East, bursting with history, great food, and great culture.  It being a classic traveler’s destination, how can you decide where to go and what to see?  Since planning a trip can be quite the task, Go Eat Give has named the nine must see cities in Lebanon for your touring pleasure:

1. Beirut

This capital city of Lebanon is nicknamed “The Paris of the Middle East,” and is bustling with things to do. Along with great shopping and beautiful scenery, Beirut has a rich cultural history to explore. There are many museums and sacred religious sites there, such as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George, the National Museum of Beirut, and the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque.

Beirut

2. Baalbek

Baalbek is located on the western end of Lebanon and is home to some of the most well preserved Roman ruins known to mankind.   The city dates back over 9,000 years and was previously known by the name of “Heliopolis,” or The City of the Sun, during the period of the Roman rule. Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus are all believed to have been worshipped at the Baalbek temples.

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3. Jeita Grotto

Located in the center of the Nahr al-Kalb valley in Jeita, Lebanon, the Jeita Grotto is an amazing sight. The interconnected limestone caves, which can only be accessed by boat, span around nine kilometers in length. To make the grotto even more intriguing—it was a finalist to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Lebanese journalists and photographers tour the Jeita Grotto by boat during a media day to campaign for the selection of the Jeitta Grotto as one of the seven natural wonders of the world

4. Sidon

This is a Lebanese town that is filled with old history and remarkable sight seeing.   Located on the western coast of the country, it was one of the most important Phonecian cities and is now known as an active fishing town. Sidon is home to the largest Lebanese flag and also the Old Souk, a famous marketplace.

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5. Tyre

Tyre is another city in Lebanon that contains very interesting ruins and historic sites. One main attraction here is the Roman Hippodrome—an ancient stadium for chariot and horse racing! The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve is also the largest sandy beach in the country.

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6. Beit ed-Dine

Beit ed-Dine is a town famous for its’ magnificent Beiteddine Palace (shown below). This one-of-a-kind palace was built in 1788 and hosts the annual Beiteddine Festival and Beiteddine Palace Museum. Interestingly enough, after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 the palace was officially renamed the “People’s Palace” since it had been created by the people’s hard work and will.

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7. Faraya

Lebanon is known for it’s interesting climate, and this town is the perfect example why. Above this village lies the Mzaar Resort, which is a ski resort. The resort is only about 20 miles away from Beirut, meaning you could experience warm weather and winter all in the same day!

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8. The Cedars of God

Cedar trees are sacred and known to have covered Mount Lebanon in the past, but The Cedars of God is one of the last forests left in the country. This was caused by persistent deforestation by Lebanon’s ancestors, such as for shipbuilding and construction. The snowy area has great hiking and beautiful views.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.28.24 PM9. Deir el-Qamar

The name of this Lebanese village can be translated from Arabic into the “Monastery of the Moon.” It’s home to many important religious sites such as Saydet El Talle and the Mount of the Cross. This village is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Budget friendly romantic vacation to Amicalola Falls, GA

Traveling to far off places to experience fun, happiness and peace is a passé.We don’t have to rush through life to book that ticket for Europe or to save money for a luxurious trip to the oceans. Lately, I have realized that all we need to do is to open our eyes wide, sit back and relax; we are not in a race to visit the world first. If we try to look around, we will find so many places in and around the city we dwell in, which are still unexplored and are exceptionally beautiful.

countryside

Amicalola Falls State Park is one such place. My husband and I have always thought of visiting different countries to experience the newness of traveling but driving through the countryside to a nearby water-fall is also an equally overwhelming experience. The journey to a destination sometimes is more beautiful than the destination itself. Located in the heart of Chattahoochee National Forest, Amicalola falls are the perfect weekend gateway for those looking for an escape from the daily hustle bustle.

romance in amicalola

We did a day trip, hiked the 720 foot tall falls, the trees became our shelter, the ground was the dining table, every moment spent there made me realize that we don’t need to travel miles to feel the beauty and magic of nature, the gateway like these, the moments spent singing songs under the trees, walking the trails and drinking the mineral rich water straight from the rocks make the journey called life more beautiful.

A perfect weekend into the lap of mother nature, eat under the trees, play guitar, sing songs, camp, hike the famous Appalachian trail, or just be yourself, this place is a refreshing change for those who like to get lost in the striking beauty of the mountains. For those, who want to be a little more comfortable there are cabins and full service hotel rooms available around the state park. While returning back don’t forget to make a halt at the North Georgia Premium Outlet Mall for some shopping from the best of the brands.

Life is beautiful and once in a while romancing with the nature add tons to its beauty.

~ By Divya Sarin, a yoga enthusiast who can’t sit idle, and wants to create some magic in each person’s life.  Follow her on divyasa11.blogspot.com

Book your stay at the Amicalola Falls Lodge now with TripAdvisor!

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A Day Trip to Muir Woods

Located 45 minutes north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge is a place where you can find trees older than the USA itself. It’s called Muir Woods and it happens to be the home of thousands of ancient Red Wood trees. Not only is Muir Woods a national park, it is also a great hike for any outdoor enthusiast.

San Francisco Bridge

The hiking trails are good for beginner to advanced hikers and can take from 2 hours to a full day to complete. There are a few campsites on the property if your inner boy scout needs a nature fix. If you have the time and can handle the terrain the hike up to the hidden beer garden is absolutely the best thing you could do with your day.

Muri Woods Trail

The full day hike will take you through a variety of landscapes from the glorious red woods to fields of wildflowers. There are small creeks sprinkled through the trails and as you ascend you will be rewarded with extraordinary views of the surrounding mountains.

Hiking at Muir Woods

The beer garden or Nature Friends Tourist House is a nice break from the hike. It’s a hidden cabin isolated on the side of a mountain that can be accessed by driving, but the hike is much more enjoyable. As you sit among the other travelers playing popular 90’s board games and consuming beer on picnic blankets you will feel a bit of nostalgic euphoria.

Overlooking the Canopy

If you have some time in San Francisco – Muir Woods is highly recommended for all travelers alike. The welcome center has a variety of educational information and activities for all ages. If you enjoy adventure, the hiking is beautiful and the smell of evergreen with a shady canopy brings you into a state of instant serenity.

~ By Joy Hmielewski. Joy is an ex office worker with a love for adventure. A few years ago she picked up a camera and learned everything she could. She never wanted to spend her days in a cubical so she started a photography business and traveled anywhere she could go for cheap. She now travels extensively with a backpack and a small budget. Follow Joy on Facebook, Twitter @JoyDoesStuff and Instagram: @JoyDoesStuff

South Lake Tahoe Vacation Guide

South Lake Tahoe is the largest city along Lake Tahoe. With skiing, boating, biking, blackjack, ice skating, swimming, shopping and bar hopping, South Lake Tahoe is a bustling town that offers something for all ages. Continue reading “South Lake Tahoe Vacation Guide”

World’s first four sustainable tourism destinations

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has put together a brand-new set of criteria that will help put travel destinations, not just hotels, restaurants or airlines, on the path toward social, cultural, and environmental sustainability. Continue reading “World’s first four sustainable tourism destinations”