What to wear in Greece: Silver Goth babydoll dress! Pi Athens Hotel Suites, Aegean Airlines, Iron Fist Clothing.
“It’s all Greek to me!” Ready for more from travel adventures from Athens?
In my first post, we went on an eye-opening underground, alternative walking tour. This time, I’ll show you where we stayed, and the intriguing architecture found all throughout the city.
There’s no substitute for coming here yourself — but to give you a sense of the experience, Joey Wong shot this travel video about our Athens trip.
Please take a moment to watch the short vlog above, or on @LaCarmina YouTube.
Joey took these images of me on the rooftop of Pi Athens Suites, a newly-opened luxury hotel. From up here, you can see the Acropolis — and the “golden hour” lighting conditions are perfect as the sun is setting.
(Shop my style with a click below:)
I know many of you dream of visiting Greece, and have it as a bucket-list destination. Fortunately, it’s easy to get to Athens by flying on Aegean Airlines. Joey flew here from London (where there are three direct flights daily on Aegean), while I came direct from Amsterdam (on their daily flight) — and it only took us a few hours.
Aegean Airlines uses the latest technology to make the journey smooth: if you download the smartphone app, you can check in, download, and access boarding passes even when offline.
I chose a window seat for incredible views during the entire flight. I watched the Mediterranean waters, ancient Athenian ruins, and tiny islands below me… it was better than any in-flight entertainment!
I had an excellent experience flying with Aegean, which goes to more than 30 destinations within Greece. They also serve 145 international destinations in 40 countries, and are an award-winning Star Alliance member.
I’m all about living like a local, and was glad to see that these suites were in a non-touristic neighborhood. Pi Suites is run by a family, which gives the stay a personal touch. The owner, Sokratis, greeted me warmly, shared his favorite restaurants, and showed me major sites on a map.
He took me up to the fourth floor, and we walked up to the π Terrace. From the hotel’s rooftop, I got a 360 degree, unobstructed view of the Panathenaic Stadium, Acropolis, the National Gardens, Filopapou Hill… a magic moment.
The hotel’s location is ideal — within walking distance of the landmarks, yet in a neighborhood with an authentic, residential feel.
(In the next post, I’ll take you right up to the Parthenon, the iconic temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.)
Sokratis is passionate about interior design, and did all the decor and furnishings himself. The result: Pi Athens’ interiors are modern and luxurious, with bursts of color.
(If you like my Goth metallic fashion, see more below:)
I particularly loved the interior courtyard of Pi Athens, which looks like a picture-window into a dollhouse. Such a cute place to sip coffee and bask in the sunlight, surrounded by greenery.
π Athens only has six rooms, which gives guests the personalized service of a boutique hotel. The rooms are large, and decorated with modernist minimal accents (my favorite type of interior design, as you’ll recall from my apartment tour).
I slept extremely well in this big, fluffy bed…
Every morning, I looked forward to the home-made breakfast downstairs. Fresh orange juice, Greek honey and orange marmalade with zest, and my beloved “dolmades” or seasoned rice wrapped in grape leaves.
Love the architecture of the suites, which take inspiration from pi. π is the Greek letter that symbolizes the ratio of the circle’s circumference to its diameter.
It’s impossible to square the circle (you get 3.1416… to infinity), but Pi Hotel Athens always aims to give guests a 5-star stay.
(My pink hair is by Stephanie Hoy at Sugar Skull Studio in Vancouver. There’s a buzzcut / undercut / hair tattoo in the back, but you can’t see it if my hair is down.)
Our hotel was right by the Panathenaic Stadium, or “Kallimarmaro” (which means “beautiful marble.”) This is the only stadium in the world built exclusively from marble, making it an architectural marvel as well as a historic monument.
You may recognize this Athenian stadium from TV — it’s where the Olympic flame is first lit, before it goes on a journey by foot, all the way to the hosting city.
● Outfit Details ● I’m wearing this Iron Fist Bone faux fur black coat, and metallic skeleton skirt (click the links to get these exact designs). My Ouija board shirt is from Long Clothing, and my fishnet stockings are similar to these.
This landmark dates back to 330 BC, when it was a racecourse established by the Athenian statesman Lycurgus. It was refurbished in the late 19th century, and became the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
The stadium became an Olympic venue again, when Athens hosted the games in 2004. Today, it remains a popular site for events, and is the finishing point for the yearly Athens Classic Marathon.
I posed like a champion in front of the marble stands. (Although in the days of ancient Greece, Olympic athletes were always male… and they competed nude!)
Classic, timeless architecture. The ancient Greeks were ahead of their time, in so many fields.
From certain angles, the Panathenaic Stadium reminds me of a stark, alien spaceship.
I stopped in front of the massive Greek columns of the Zappeion. Located by the National Gardens, it was built in the 1880s as a fencing hall, for the first modern Olympic games.
Vertical meets horizontal, light and shadow. For architecture buffs like myself, Athens is a joy to explore on foot.
The city’s neighborhoods have very different vibes, ranging from gritty industrial, to romantic Mediterranean. One of my favorite parts of Athens was Monastiraki, in the winding paths near the Acropolis.
Find a local cafe, bask in the sun, sip a coffee or ouzo (Greek anise-flavored liqueur), and dine on orange cake (made with layers of filo, orange zest, and Greek honey)… Zeus, this is heaven.
It’s rather obvious that I’m a fan of Greek food! I could wax on about the incredible dishes we tried in Athens.
I suggest asking locals for recommendations, and dining on traditional fare from the region. Two of my favorite restaurants were Fish Point (8 Archimidous St, Plastira Square, Pagrati) and Seychelles (Kerameikou 49, Athens 104 36). The grilled sardines with fresh lemon, sea bass, cabbage dolmades with herbs, spanokopita (spinach feta and filo pies)… take me back…
And needless to say, Greek olive oil is beyond compare. In addition to eating it with every meal, I found my new favorite bath product: olive oil soap from Korres. This company creates Greek beauty products with natural ingredients like honey and yogurt; I also picked up an avocado face mask that is a winner.
It’s fascinating to see layers of history in Athens, one of the world’s oldest cities. Above is Mitropolis, or Greece Metropolitan Cathedral, built in the late 19th century.
Walk a little more, and you’ll come across the Panaghia Kapnikarea: a Greek Orthodox church, and one of the oldest in the city. This structure dates back to the 11th century, and it was built over an ancient Greek pagan temple dedicated to either the goddess Demeter or Athena. Today, it’s in the center of a busy, modern shopping area!
Ultra modern meets ancient… Athens is one fascinating city.
(All photography by Joey Wong.)
If you’re planning a visit to Greece, check out the Discover Greece portal for lots of helpful travel tips. You’ll find suggestions for every type of traveler, from family hotels to nature excursions to spas.
How are you enjoying my Athens stories and outfits of the day? Wait until you see what I wore to the Parthenon… you can see glimpses of this in our travel video – come watch!
Noord: a hidden, off-the-beaten-track Amsterdam hipster neighborhood! Eye Film Museum, restaurants, art studios.
This girl is all smiles (despite what my Long Clothing top says)… because I’ve discovered an Amsterdam district filled with inspiration!
Have you heard of “Noord,” the waterfront area north of the city center? Home to EDM festivals, artist studios, and transformed warehouses, this is a side of Amsterdam that very few tourists see.
Like intrepid astronauts (or… space cadets), my friends and I will take you to the most cutting-edge hangouts in Noord. It’s incredible to see how these run-down shipyards have been transformed into hipster heaven.
(Above, I’m wearing this Long Clothing Drippy sweatshirt.)
But first, a quick announcement: I had the honor of being interviewed by BBC Radio about Goth lifestyle and culture! The show “talks to Gothic blogger, La Carmina, about the extraordinary and extreme goth scene in Japan that includes body modifications.”
Here’s the link to my BBC Radio Worldwide interview, and you can hear my voice throughout in the entire program for “The Why Factor” show. Thanks everyone for the positive reception so far!
Now, back to Holland. The team at I Amsterdam (the city’s tourism board) matched me with the perfect guide for an insider tour of Noord. I instantly clicked with Faustina, who shared my love of glamorous fashion and cat-eye sunglasses!
She met us at Hotel The Exchange, and did an introduction with maps to get me oriented. (Soon, I’ll take you around this stylish boutique hotel).
We walked to Centraal Station, where Faustina locked her bike next to literally thousands. Notice the “parking lot” above her, filled to the brim. Amsterdam truly is the city of bicycles.
Noord is located only 5 minutes from the central station, making it a convenient yet off-the-beaten-path destination.
Anyone can hop onto the Buiksloterweg ferry. The ride is free, departs every 10 minutes, and can accommodate bicycles and scooters. Before you can figure out how to pronounce the ferry’s name, you’ve crossed IJ Lake and arrived at NDSM wharf.
Step off the little ferry, and you’re arrived in northern, uptown Amsterdam. Right away, you can sense that Noord has an artistic, young vibe. (All photography by Arina Dresviannikova)
“I see a little silhouette of a man”… that’s the one and only Freddie Mercury, next to a decorative wall overlooking the waters.
It’s impossible to miss A’DAM Toren, named for “Amsterdam Dance And Music.” This 22-storey tower looks over the waterfront, and was opened by a creative team that includes EDM pioneers.
As you might expect, this is a one-stop place to party. ADAM Tower contains nightclubs, bars, cafes, hotel rooms, and a revolving restaurant (the square-shaped disc at the top rotates around). The top floor has a 360 degree panoramic terrace, and Europe’s highest swing that sends adrenaline junkies “over the edge.”
There’s another space-age building nearby: EYE Film Museum.
Named after the river IJ (which is pronounced “eye”), this modern structure is a film buff’s dream. You’ll find four cinemas and a restaurant inside, plus an extensive archive, and rotating exhibitions about filmmakers.
The Eye is the vision of architects Delugan Meissl. Like a projected film, the building seems to be in constant motion. As the designers put it, the concept is a “sustained encounter between urban reality and cinematographic fiction.”
When I visited, EYE Film Museum had a fascinating exhibit dedicated to Hungary’s Bela Tarr, auteur of melancholic films about the human condition.
His films played in sets that re-created his world — including a decaying tree surrounded by barbed wire fences, with leaves blasting though the room. (We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so you’ll have to use your imagination — or better yet, visit for yourself).
On the ground floor, the Eye has an open-plan cafe with spectacular views of the IJ harbor.
Eye Filmmuseum hosts frequent screenings and lectures. They have an annual Imagine Film Festival, dedicated to exploitation, cult and lower budget films.
Within these walls, there lies an extensive film archive with close to 40,000 Dutch and foreign titles. The collections also include posters, photographs, soundtracks and other archival material: a treasure trove for studies.
In the lower level, we saw historical cameras, projectors, and clips of Dutch films dating back to the late 19th century. This museum is a must for movie-lovers.
We continued our walk through Noord, and Faustina told us about its history. In the 1600s, sailors and merchants moved to the northern banks, to work in the maritime industry and find affordable housing.
This was a shipbuilding area until the 1980s, when the industry declined. Before long, Noord turned into an industrial wasteland, filled with the ghosts of the past.
Lured by low rents, artists moved in — followed by creative companies like MTV. They revitalised Noord, transforming these decrepit lots into a graffiti-covered wonderland.
Today, Noord is a lively neighborhood with a diverse population. Many tech startups and artistic firms are headquartered here.
The Netherlands gives generous support to young artists, including providing studios for them to create.
Faustina took is to NDSM Wharf, a giant collective of creative minds. As we approached, the street art grew more and more vivid.
NDSM stands for Nederlands Dok en Scheepsgebouw Maatschappij (Dutch Dock and Shipbuilding Company): one of the largest European shipyards before going bankrupt in 1980.
The abandoned warehouses fell into disrepair, until street artists from around the world turned them into colorful canvases.
We peeked into design studios, and posed in front of this intergalactic mural. There was even a cheeky, hot-pink installation called a “Barbie Peep Show.”
“Make art, not Euros.” That’s the DIY spirit at NDSM.
As we kept walking, I was impressed by the myriad of ways that locals turned industrial skeletons into art.
Case in point: Crane Hotel Faralda. In this old shipyard, an abandoned 50-meter-high crane was turned into a three-room boutique hotel!
I witnessed one of the coolest transformations at Pllek, a modern restaurant built out of shipping containers. (Address: TT Neveritaweg 59, Amsterdam)
It’s easy to mistake this entrance for a pile of rusting compartments. However, when you walk in, you’ll discover a spacious glass-front eatery by the river.
Pllek continues the upcycled theme inside, with furniture made from salvaged maritime artifacts. Concrete floors maintain the industrial feel, while a disco ball adds fabulosity.
The diners tend to be young, hip foodies… an alien would fit right into the picture!
The menu relies on organic, sustainable meats and produce. I ordered a pumpkin ravioli, and it was one of the best meals of the trip.
Desserts are a must at Pllek: Dutch apple pie, creme brule, chocolate cake, ahh.
Outside, Pllek has picnic benches and a strip of sand. When the sun shines, this is “the” place to hang out by the river.
Pllek also organises regular cultural events, ranging from photography exhibits to yoga and Tai Chi on the beach. At night, they bring in DJs for some of Amsterdam’s best dance parties.
Back in the city center, I had another spectacular meal at Restaurant Lt. Cornelis (Address: Voetboogstraat 13, Amsterdam).
As you might guess from the “chiaroscuro” portraits, they specialize in traditional Dutch cuisine, prepared with locally sourced ingredients.
However, a peek into the open kitchen, and you’ll see young chefs with tattoos working with flames. Restaurant Cornelis draws from the past, but gives all their dishes a modern flair.
I recommend going for the “Menu Cornelis,” a four-course tasting that will surprise your palate. Each dish also comes perfectly paired with wine.
The friendly servers brought out dishes that I had never tried before, including melt-in-your-mouth bitterballen (Dutch croquettes). Everything was beautifully plated and prepared: highlights included the sustainable sirloin, and a chocolate/citrus/white chocolate dessert with foam.
Cheers to all the new friends we made on this journey! I’m glad I got the chance to see the underground, alternative, obscure side of Amsterdam.
If you’re planning a visit, check out the I Amsterdam website. You can find more suggestions for attractions in Noord and other areas.
What’s next… a space-disco journey throughout the galaxy? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out where I’ll be next!
We stayed in a Santorini cave with Blue Villas Collection! Ikastikies Suites, luxury villa vacation rentals in Greece.
Ah, take me back to Santorini!
Imagine waking up in a luxurious cave villa… walking out to a private patio with this view of the cliffs… and then digging into a hand-delivered local breakfast.
That was my life for a sweet moment in time, thanks to the outstanding team at Blue Villas Collection!
As you’ll see in this photo diary, they went above and beyond to ensure we had the best possible stay in gorgeous Santorini.
I’ve always wanted to stay in a classic Greek home, but wasn’t sure how to find the right accommodations. Thankfully, Blue Villas works with over 200 luxury rentals on four Greek islands, hand-picking only the best hosts.
My lovely concierge took the time to get to know my interests (modern design, young local culture, photography), and paired me with the perfect Santorini stay — the cave-like Ikastikies Elegant Suites!
The 5-star service began from the moment we arrived. Our concierge, Amanda, personally picked us up and took us to several insider locations on the island — including a Cretan bakery and scenic spots.
Then, she drove us to Firostefani (north of Fira), and helped us get settled into our dream vacation home. (All photos by Joey Wong).
Amanda introduced us to George, owner of Ikastikies Suites. He designed the four villas himself and runs them as a family operation.
As you can see, Blue Villas Collection is all about creating personalized, tailor-made holidays for clients. They gracefully take care of all the logistics, and offer the concierge services of a top hotel.
Ikastikies had everything I dreamed of. We had the home to ourselves, with our own private pool, and landing with a brilliant view of the water.
Every morning, I had “me-time” out on the edge, with my cup of coffee. I could look out at the Aegean Sea and cliffs for hours…
… but I loved spending time inside as well, lounging in the fluffy beds and soaking in the giant Jacuzzi bathtub.
The design is a modern take on the island’s traditional cave homes, which were carved into the caldera (volcanic cliffs).
Taking inspiration, Ikastikies Suites feels like a cozy white cave, filled with light. The rooms have elegant curving lines, highlighted with minimalist accents.
Natural accents like the seahorse statue and coffee table add to the Mediterranean island vibe.
I’ve stayed in a lot of unique boutique hotels worldwide — but this Santorini cave villa captured my imagination!
Every time I woke up and saw this glowing circle next to my bed, I imagined that aliens had transported me to outer space.
Our Ikastikes cave home had everything we needed for a relaxing holiday, including a full kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.
I felt utterly relaxed here, thanks to the kindness of George and Amanda. Booking with Blue Villas Collection made our stay far more special than if we had blindly chosen a rental, as their arrangements were tailored exactly to our needs.
Next time I’m in Greece, I’ll be sure to reach out again: BlueVillas has over 200 stunning properties on the Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, and Crete.
Our concierge, Amanda, took care of every detail so that we’d get the most out of our experience.
She knew we loved to shoot travel photos, so she drove us to Santo Winery.
Once again, I got a science-fiction feeling from this door that seems to open into space.
Amanda also suggested that we stop by Perissa Beach, and her recommendation was spot-on. I felt so tiny, standing next to the towering Mesa Vouno rock.
Located on southeast Santorini, Perissa beach features crystalline waters and black sand (quite fitting for a Goth!)
I like to wear outfits that match my destinations: hence the blue clothing, and a white ribbon in my ponytail.
We couldn’t have found a better spot for photos — such an interesting texture on the rock wall, contrasted with the clear waves and dark sand.
Perissa is also one of the best-protected beaches from the wild Aegean winds, as it lies right next to the Profitis Ilias mountain.
Anyone can come to Santorini’s major beaches for free, and chill on the sand or at the waterfront cafe.
In the distance, you can see the Church of Holy Cross, painted in the traditional Cycladic white with a blue dome.
– I’m wearing hand-crafted wooden sunglasses by Moat House. I get so many compliments on these, and the pink polarized cat-eye frames are made for my face.
– My studded blue leather jacket is one of my wardrobe staples (no, I’m not selling everything I own… only most of it!). It’s from the Bauhaus store in Hong Kong and no longer available, but similar to this Acne blue biker jacket.
Santorini has a bus system that lets you ride to and from the various beaches for less than 2 Euro. However, the locations can be quite spread out, and the public transport routes don’t connect (meaning you’d have to return to the main terminal, then hop onto a different one).
Thanks to Amanda, who guided us around by car, we were able to see several places within a few hours.
Between excursions, I loved the secluded feeling of our villa. Such a pleasing contrast to a large hotel and group buffet meals.
Every morning, we phoned the Ikatikies Suites staff — and they hand-carried over a tray laden with delights, fresh from the local market and bakery.
If only I could have breakfast like this every day, enjoying the sunshine and view from the patio.
Everything was prepared fresh for us. I ate up every last drop of the Greek yogurt, with local honey and orange marmalade.
Blue Villas can arrange for dinners to be delivered as well, and services such as wellness, gastronomy and sailing.
Joey and I came to Santorini right before the start of the tourist season (late March — most villas and restaurants don’t open til April 1st).
If you’re keen on avoiding the crowds, we recommend coming here in the off-season. The weather can still be a bit cool in late March, but we had clear skies and plenty of sunlight.
The conditions were great for photography; nice to feel as if we were alone on this beautiful Greek island.
When I first researched villas, I was dismayed to find that many were not open yet (as the season hadn’t started), and that our selection was limited.
Fortunately, Blue Villas Collection took care of us. They have personally vetted over a hundred properties in Santorini, and introduced us to Ikastikies Luxury Suites.
Our villa is located at one of the most beautiful spots on the isle: Firostefani. The quiet village lies between Fira and Imerovigli, and has magnificent views of the Caldera and sunset.
Talk about a picture-perfect patio. (I’m wearing a bleeding mummy bandage dress by Black Milk Clothing — a limited edition Halloween release.)
I loved being surrounded by the traditional architecture of Cyclades, characterised by narrow cobblestone paths, whitewashed houses and volcanic cliffs.
Ever wonder why Santorini homes are white, with touches of blue? Historically, locals added a bit of blue to the “sovas” (white layer of plaster) to avoid having it look too bright under the sun. The shades also mimic the Greek flag, and were compulsory during the rule of Metaxas (1936-41).
Although the architecture has a historic basis, the effect is ultra-modern, with echoes of the Avant Garde movement and architects like Le Corbusier.
The quality of light is beyond compare. When the sun sets over the Aegean and caldera… ahhh.
From our villa, it was a short and easy walk to the main village of Fira (or Thera). We often went there for dinner and snacks (try the spanakopita from Svoronos Bakery, and tsipouros anise liquor, sardines and risotto at Tsipouradiko Santorinis).
From Fira, you can also descend the Karavolades Stairs, which take you down the 400 meter high caldera cliffs.
Photographer Joey Wong trekked down the 588 stairs, which opens into the Old Port of Ormos Firon. There’s a cable car option, but it was closed by the time he reached the coast… so he had to walk all the way back up.
If you’re not keen on a “stairmaster” workout, you could also ride up and down the steps on a donkey.
As for me — I descended about halfway, then went back up to eat dark chocolate gelato.
Despite the futuristic feeling, Santorini’s earliest settlements trace back to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC.
The islanders built their “yposkafos” houses right into the volcanic rock — creating villages nestled into the cliffs. When night falls, the view is mesmerizing.
Santorini has a long history with many different rulers through the ages, including the Phoenicians and Byzantine Empire. The Italians and Germans occupied the island during WWII, and it suffered a devastating earthquake in 1956.
However, from the 1970s onward, Santorini became known as a luxurious getaway spot — and is one of the most popular Greek islands for vacationers today.
Whether you’re here for a honeymoon, family trip, or Gothic adventures… this island has something for everyone to enjoy.
A million thank yous to Blue Villas Collection, for the sublime hospitality and memories!
Reach out to them if you’re traveling to Greece (Paros, Crete, Mykonos, Santorini), and looking for a perfectly tailored vacation. And check out Ikastikies Suites in Santorini, for a 5-star stay with a friendly owner.
I know I’ll be staying with them again, as I’m keen to see more of Greece. (You can find more info about Athens and other cities at DiscoverGreece.com.)
Is Santorini one of your dream destinations as well?
Coming up soon, I’ll share our sailing trip, and more photoshoots on the beaches!
My Buddhist temple stay with monks in Mount Koya, Japan! Booking a Koyasan guesthouse, Okunoin graveyard.
As the cherry blossoms bloom for sakura season, I’m thinking back to my days in Japan. I did something very different from my usual trips: I escaped for a few days to a Buddhist temple retreat in Koyasan!
Several of my friends have stayed with the Japanese monks of Mount Kōya (in the mountains north of Osaka), and raved about the peaceful experience. Since I was traveling with my unlimited Japan Rail Pass, it was the perfect opportunity to do a spiritual pilgrimage.
Mt. Kōya was first settled in the year 819 by the monk Kūkai, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. He discovered this mystical location high in the mountain peaks, and made it the center for his monastic headquarters.
Since then, both monks and laypeople have come to Koyasan to study and practice Esoteric Buddhism. Most come for a 1-3 night stay, so that they can experience living in a temple with Buddhist monks. (I stayed two nights, which is a good amount of time to explore Mount Koya’s attractions.)
I hope this guide to Mount Koya gives you a sense of what it’s like to spend a few days in this spiritual village. You can see more about my entire J Rail Pass journey in the video above, or here on YouTube.
How to get to Mount Koya by train: I recommend getting a JR Rail Pass like I did. The pass lets you ride the rails throughout the country for a week or longer; it includes JR and bullet trans, busses and some ferries.
Most people come to Koyasan from Kyoto or Osaka. From Osaka, it’s only a 1.5 to 2 hour train ride: take the Nankai line from Namba or Shin-Imamiya Stations, and get off at Gokurakubashi (you may need to transfer at Hashimoto station). Then, it’s a 5 minute cable car up the scenic mountains, and a short bus ride into the town where the temple-stays are located.
How to book a room at a temple stay: These Buddhist guesthouses (shukubo) are run independently by the monks, and most don’t even have websites.
Foreigners can visit the Koyasan Shukubo Association website, and fill out the form to make a reservation request (your travel dates, price range, etc). You’ll quickly receive an email reply in English, with a booking that you can confirm, and information such as maps. There’s no fee for this tourist service; you simply pay the guesthouse directly in cash upon check-out.
I stayed at Hoon-in, a simple yet comfortable and authentic shukubo. I was greeted by a young Buddhist monk, who spoke English and showed me to my room (traditional-style Japanese accommodations with tatami floor mats, sliding doors, and futon mattresses).
The monks serve the guests a vegetarian breakfast and dinner every day, and these meals are included in the price of the stay (about 10,800 yen per person, per night). I enjoyed gathering in this long dining hall and sitting cross-legged on the mat.
Everyone receives a tray of delicacies — it’s a joy to open up the lids and see what’s inside! The cuisine is seasonal and vegetarian, and there are a variety of small dishes: tofu, soups, pickled vegetables, tempura, miso eggplant, rice and fruit. You can also order a small bottle of hot or cold sake to round out your meal.
I was impressed with everything I ate at Hoon-in. The plant-based fare is fresh, delicately seasoned and beautifully presented.
I loved participating in the simple day-to-day life of the temple. At the lush entrance, you take off your shoes and wear socks or slippers. Each guest gets a robe to wear, and can soak in a large Japanese-style bathtub.
Although you get to feel as if you’re in ancient Japan, the guesthouse has modern amenities such as free and fast WiFi. There’s even a convenience store and ATM machine next door, and you can easily walk to cafes, shops and more.
There are no “mandatory activities” or programs at Mt Koya’s shukubos. However, the guests are invited to wake up at 6am to see the resident Shingon monks chant sutras. I’m not a morning person, but this is well worth getting out of bed for.
The monks’ chanting consists of low, guttural, repetitive verses, expressed in the same or different tones. (You can hear the Buddhist chants in my travel video.)
This ritual is as form of meditation that joins the body, speech and mind. It’s a feast for the senses: the monks sit beneath gold relics, light incense and candles, arrange offerings on the alter, and ring a bell or gong. It’s a powerful and uplifting effect that I hope you can experience in-person.
For the rest of the day, you can walk around and visit the various temples, ancient gates, Tokugawa mausoleum, and other sites.
Of course, the town has a kawaii mascot: “Koya-kun!” The cute character is supposed to be little monk in a “kasa” bowl-shaped hat… but doesn’t he remind of Toad the mushroom-head, from Super Mario Brothers?
I encourage you to wander around at a leisurely pace, rather than making specific plans. There’s no better place than Koya to practice mindfulness and being in the moment.
Visiting Okunoin graveyard is an absolute must. It’s best to come during the morning, when the lighting conditions are ideal and there aren’t too many other visitors.
At the Ichinohashi Bridge (the traditional entrance to the cemetery), visitors bow and pay respect to Kobo Daishi (the posthumous honorific name for Kukui).
I loved exploring Okunoin, filled with 200,000 ancient graves. This immense, forested cemetery is the largest in Japan, and home to the mausoleum of Kukai.
I came across many small Buddha statues, adorned with red bibs and hats. They represent the Bodhisattva Jizo, who protects travelers, women and children.
The gravestones are surrounded by a lush canopy of towering cedar trees. The inner sanctuary contains the resting grounds of several famous Japanese, including the samurai ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Pacific War.
Okunoin cemetery has an otherworldly feeling. I felt as if I were surrounded by ancient Buddhist spirits.
Some of the graves are over 1000 years old, and covered in layers of moss. No wonder Koya-san was declared a UNESCO protected site in 2004.
The path through the cemetery spans two kilometers. Along the way, you’ll find lots of interesting sculptures and gates, which cast shadows under the morning rays.
Many visitors leave flowers and offerings in front of the tombstones.
The buried Buddhist monks are not dead according to legend, but meditating and waiting.
You’ll notice that many of the little Buddha statues are wearing colorful red or purple bibs. Often, people who lost children tie these cloths around Jizo Bosatsu, since he is believed to protect children in the afterlife.
These lovingly handmade hats and accessories keep the Bodhisattvas warm.
Doesn’t it seem like these stone statues are bursting with personality? I half expected this little guy to stand up and bow, as if were a character out of Totoro.
At night, Okunoin cemetery is lit up by long rows of stone lanterns for a spooky atmosphere.
I was fortunate to be in Mount Koya during an October festival for the spirits. These yellow-robed Buddhist monks walked single-file through the graveyard, followed by the head monk under a red umbrella.
Everyone followed the Shingon Buddhist procession to the main temple of Okunoin. The monks slipped off their shoes to enter the inner sanctuary, which was glowing with lanterns and golden artefacts.
From behind the barrier, we watched the monks march in a circle and recite chants, while incense filled the air. A powerful and uplifting ritual — I’m fortunate to have witnessed it.
The next day, I continued to take in the sights around Koyasan. I’m standing inside Kongobuji temple, the head temple of Koya’s Shingon Buddhist sect. It was built in 1593 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi upon the death of his mother.
Inside Kongōbu-ji, you’ll find Banryūtei, the largest rock garden in Japan. The inner rooms are beautifully decorated with sliding doors (fusuma) that depict cranes, animals and ancient landscapes.
The Garan (Koyasan’s central temple complex) features a Kondo Hall, and the eye-catching Konpon Daitō pagoda.
The interior holds a statue of the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai) surrounded by art, which comes together to form a three-dimensional mandala.
I snapped a photo of a monk bowing in front of Sanmaido Hall. This is supposedly where Nichiren (Buddhist founder of the Nichiren school) debated other monks.
I discovered a pond with lotus leaves, under a red arching bridge… Koyasan, you’re magic.
There are many shukubo (guesthouse) to choose from, which all offer the temple stay experience. This one had a perfectly raked sand garden.
Do you see Koya-kun peeking out from the bushes? (I’m wearing vintage Japanese robes.)
I loved immersing myself into the spiritual culture of Koyasan. I hope you’ll take the cable-car up to these tranquil mountains one day.
Would you do a temple stay in a Japanese Buddhist temple, like I did? For more about Mt. Koya and my Japan trip, enjoy my travel video — and feel free to ask me any questions in the comments.