Home of Zen Buddhism, Japan offers many mini oases of peace and tranquility, such as teahouses, manicured gardens, and temples that offer meditation classes. Historically and culturally rich Kyoto is a haven for the harried urbanite in need of a restorative retreat. There are more than 1,600 Buddhist temples in this city alone, and all just as beautiful and serene.
Wander around Zen gardens and stop to smell the flowers as you ruminate on bridges over koi ponds, or simply sit in a teahouse and meditate or enjoy a cup of finely brewed Japanese tea. Kyoto is arguably the ultimate Zen city.
You wouldn’t normally associate a frenzied city like Tokyo with the idea of restfulness. But even in the heart of this fast-paced city, amidst the skyscrapers and flashing neon lights, you can find some respite in Rikugien, an Edo-period garden that bloomed under the Tokugawa shogunate.
It is often lauded as one of Tokyo’s most beautiful landscape gardens. Built around 1700 for the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Rikugien literally translates to “six poems garden”. It reproduces 88 scenes from famous Japanese poems and features a large central pond surrounded by man-made forested areas and hills. Hit up the network of walking trails that allow you to admire the scenic views of the garden, particularly during autumn, when the maple trees turn the garden into a sweeping sea of red. The views are especially stunning around the stream that flows by the Tsutsuji no Chaya teahouse and around the Togetsukyo Bridge.
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This mountain located just on the border of the North and South Jeolla provinces in southwestern South Korea is about a three-hour drive south of Seoul. Popular with hikers and out-of-towners, it’s a place with stunning natural beauty all year round, especially in autumn, when the 600-year-old nutmeg trees on the mountain paint it in vibrant hues of red and amber, in spring, when the azaleas and cherry blossoms bloom, and in winter, when the mountain is blanketed in pristine white snow.
And tucked away in the 763-metre high mountain are two Buddhist temples, Baekyangsa and Naejangsa, which visitors can stop by on their invigorating stroll up the picturesque mountain.
As the cultural heart of Bali, Ubud offers plenty of sights for nature- and arts-lovers. It’s a peaceful retreat from the hubbub of the more commercial areas such as Seminyak. Set among verdant paddy fields, Ubud has plenty of local markets, traditional art and music that keeps you occupied but at a leisurely pace.
You can rent a bike and ride out to the lush rice terraces in the surrounding countryside, shop for some Balinese souvenirs in the markets, and maybe finish the day with a relaxing Balinese massage. In the evening, if you’re up for a traditional dance performance, catch one at the Ubud Royal Palace, which also features a well-groomed garden and well-preserved historic Balinese architecture.
This is the place where the concept of niksen (the art of doing blissfully nothing) originated, so you know the Dutch treat their downtime seriously. One of the most famously laid-back cities in Europe, Amsterdam is where you can take a meander along the streets or sit at a café and watch the world go by. Chat with the friendly locals, explore the city by bike, or wander through its quiet streets lining picturesque canals to discover the city’s charm.
Visit the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church (it dates back to 1250), which features a magnificent organ and stained-glass windows, or museums such as the Rijkmuseum, the Dutch national museum dedicated to history and the arts, and the Van Gogh museum, the art museum dedicated to the works of the revered Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries.
The endearing town of Provence is not only home to aromatic lavender fields (although the sight of it is enough to put you in Zen mode), it is also home to a majestic 16th century chateau and several renowned French painters. The mountainous countryside and cobbled streets winding through the cosy village add to its rustic charm.
For art and history lovers, check out the close-knit mountain community of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, which features a majestic Arc de Triomphe (a triumphal arch) in the country that dates back to the Roman ages and is seen as the original arc, sculptural fountains and medieval architecture that will transport you to another time and place. Plus, the fact that the region had inspired some of Vincent Van Gogh most celebrated works says a lot about its vibe.
With its many stunning white-sand beaches and lush rainforests, Sunshine Coast is the place to go if you’re looking to disconnect from urban life and reconnect with nature. There, you can have your fill of activities such as surfing, diving, hiking, rock climbing, and exploring one of the most popular holiday destinations in Australia. If your idea of Zen involves some heart-pumping activity (physical activity can, after all, release those mood-boosting endorphins), then this is the place for you.
For a slower paced holiday, apart from regular spa and wellness retreats, there are also many Zen yoga retreats in the area if you wish to learn new meditation mantras, or have Zen conversations with fellow retreaters. You can also take a solitary stroll along the coast or go bird-watching in this little slice of paradise.
If your idea of Zen is less temples, more beaches, then Bora Bora might be your answer. The South Pacific island northwest of Tahiti offers the delights of sun, sea and sand for a relaxing and restorative getaway. A stay in an over-water hut gives you the full view of breathtaking sunsets while being surrounded by expanses of aquamarine water. Craving some activity? Take a boat ride down the lagoon or hike inland and explore on foot, or go on a diving trip for a glimpse of Bora Bora’s teeming marine life.