Tour of Japan | Cary Academy Goes to Japan – Kyoto

Sep 06 | Evan | No Comments |


Here is the last report about my tour of Japan with a small group from Cary Academy. After the line below this paragraph, the rest of this report on our trip to Japan is written by Katie Taylor, a 6th grade teacher at Cary Academy and Japan enthusiast.  Check out Katie’s previous post about our time in Tokyo and Hiroshima and Miyajima if you haven’t read it yet!

We finished our trip in Kyoto at another lovely hotel within a block of a covered shopping district and close to a scenic canal. One of the most memorable things about this hotel was the very quiet festival music that started playing throughout the hotel on July 1. Gion Matsuri, which is one of the most famous shrine festivals in Japan (if not the most famous) takes place in mid-July, but the Kyoto celebrates for the entire month. The music in the hotel was so quiet that at first we couldn’t tell if we were hearing someone’s alarm going off through their hotel door! It’s interesting that the entire town gets into the spirit of the festival, even down to their version of “Muzak” pumping through the halls and in elevators!

Ancient Temples

Unlike Hiroshima and Tokyo, Kyoto was basically untouched by bombs during WWII. It was a famous tourist destination before WWII, of course, but has only grown in popularity since because of its even more unique status within Japan. Part of our focus in Kyoto was on visiting many of the ancient shrines and temples which have been standing for as long as 1200 years.

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First we visited Toji, a Buddhist temple. Toji is the site of a famous five-storied pagoda and mandala. The mandala is actually made out of statues instead of painted on a scroll. Our guide in Kyoto, the incomparable Maso-san, told us that the monks decided to create a mandala out of statues to help laypeople understand the concept. It reminded me of the stained-glass windows in Christian churches that depict scenes from the life of Christ. The mandala is meant to help Buddhist practitioners actually see how Buddha rules heaven.

We saw another interesting set of statues at Sanjusangen-do, another Buddhist temple complex. At Sanjusangen, there are 1001 statues of Kannon, who is a version of Buddha known as a goddess of mercy. Each of the statues has many arms which are holding various objects that Kannon could use to help people in trouble. We all really enjoyed hearing about the archery competitions held outside of the building, probably even more than we liked seeing the statues. The students were particularly impressed by one young archer who almost beat the records of the adult archers at only age 11!

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The students also liked the “moss garden” temple, where we were able to sit in on a session of sutra chanting done by the monks. The garden itself is also beautiful, but a lot of the peacefulness and effect of the garden is lost in the crowds. The moss garden temple is one of Kyoto’s most popular, but it is also small and still a truly functioning monastery. To help control the crowds, the monks require you to apply in advance for tickets and then come at the time they offer. The students and I agreed that the chanting was our favorite part!


Another Buddhist temple that is a must-see tourist stop for anyone visiting Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It quite literally has a golden pavilion, which is a pagoda that most tourists can only view from the outside. Our guide told us a great story about how he was able to tour the inside of the pavilion with one of his very famous guests. We’ve been sworn to secrecy, but we were impressed! We had a lot of fun with the stories that went along with the golden pavilion. The students liked to hear about the snake who was buried out back; the second owner wouldn’t disturb the snake’s grave out of fear of upsetting its owner!

I could go on and on about other temples we visited, as well as shrines large and small, but there’s more to Kyoto than just ancient religious life and gardens!

Arashiyama Bamboo Groves and Monkey Park

Arashiyama, or Arashi Mountain, is an area of Kyoto with lovely parks, high-end homes, and quiet neighborhoods. It’s also home to a lovely old bamboo grove and a monkey park. The moss garden temple is in this area as well. After our visit to the bamboo grove and the temple, we ate lunch at a fantastic little café that serves tonkatsu sandwiches. Tonkatsu is a breaded pork cutlet, or as we call it here in the southeastern US, a “fried pork chop.” A tonkatsu sandwich would be right at home on a local NC menu.

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The monkey park was our favorite part of this area of town. To reach the monkey’s natural habitat on the mountain, visitors climb for about 15 minutes. The view itself is totally worth the climb, but the monkeys are so much fun! Unlike a traditional zoo, in the monkey park the humans are the ones who use a cage. The “human cage” is a small building with fencing along three sides where the monkeys can climb. The human visitors inside can buy bags of cut-up apples or peanuts to feed to the monkeys through the fencing. It’s so much fun to have a monkey reach out and take something from your hand, especially a tiny baby monkey. These monkeys seem to be respected and cared for by the staff of the park. There are many rules about dealing with the monkeys, including admonitions not to talk to them or look at them or feed them outside of the enclosure… These are actually wild monkeys, folks! I made the mistake of talking to one on the way up the mountain, and while he didn’t hurt me at all (injuries are rare), he made sure that I knew he didn’t like me!



Experiencing Traditional Culture

If you have any interest in traditional Japanese culture, Kyoto is THE city to visit! We were able to have quite a few interesting experiences while in Kyoto. Particularly memorable to the students were our samurai sword demonstration and our visit with a maiko, a Kyoto geisha-in-training. In 6th grade at CA, we study Japanese culture and learn the story of the 47 Ronin. Students were so excited to realize that one of the stories that the samurai actors presented was this story! Getting to actually practice with samurai swords was fun too.


Our maiko didn’t use a sword, but she did share with us a traditional dance and fun games. In Kyoto, geisha are called geiko, but the concept is the same. These young women completely leave their academic schooling at age 15 to learn traditional Japanese entertaining, such as how to play traditional instruments, properly wear kimono, and serve drinks. Our maiko is quite famous and in demand as she is one of the few who speaks fluent English. One of our students was a natural at the little game that the maiko played; she even beat the maiko at it!



We also had the opportunity to practice the traditional Japanese arts of calligraphy and flower arranging. In Japan, calligraphy isn’t just for communicating words, but also emotions. Artistic expression and interpretation is just as important as actually making the shapes of the characters carefully. After practicing different styles of characters, we painted a favorite character on a fan. I have mine hanging in my classroom! The group who practiced flower arranging (“ikebana” in Japanese) learned how different elements in an arrangement represent different aspects of the world, both natural and spiritual. We couldn’t keep our flower arrangements, but we have the photos to prove that we made beautiful creations!



Shopping in Kyoto is also an experience in traditional Japanese culture. We enjoyed visiting an old tea shop, a very high-end fan shop, a lovely little antique shop, and a silver jewelry shop that has been in Kyoto since the 1700s. One of the neatest shopping experiences was walking down a covered arcade full of food shops with our guide, having him point out the special cuisines of Kyoto. We saw loose tea, vegetables pickled in leftover sake rice, and lots of seafood—octopus, fish bones, and so much bonito!

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Tour of Japan | Cary Academy Goes to Japan – Hiroshima and Miyajima

Sep 04 | Evan | No Comments |

Besides family and friends, Cary Academy and Japan have influenced my life more than anything else. Combining the two of them was a lot of fun for me and a very special experience and tour of Japan to plan! After the line below this paragraph, the rest of this report on our trip to Japan is written by Katie Taylor, a 6th grade teacher at Cary Academy and Japan enthusiast.  Check out Katie’s previous posts about our time in Tokyo  and also in Kyoto if you haven’t read it yet!


From Tokyo, we traveled by shinkansen, the famed bullet trains, to Hiroshima. Our hotel there was connected to the station, so it was an easy indoor walk past the shops and restaurants in the station. It’s hard to describe the quality of subway and train stations in Japan. They’re clean (really clean), safe, and have lots of access to quality shopping. It can be kind of hard to find your way around in the stations if you don’t know any Japanese, but luckily the signs most relevant to tourists will also have English or at least the Romanized Japanese that is more accessible to foreigners. I wasn’t ever scared to get lost, as I figured worst case scenario I could walk up to someone and say the name of the hotel since it was connected to the station. Two of our student travelers and I had a fun morning trying to find a Mr. Donut in the station and ended up buying an assortment of breakfast items and some souvenir cookies at a convenience store.

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Miyajima is a small tourist spot near Hiroshima that is famous for the 1000-year-old shrine named after the island it sits on, Itsukushima. The shrine itself and its famous torii appear to float. (The shrine is basically built on a pier or dock and the torii’s actual base is often hidden by the tide, so neither actually floats.) The view from the shrine back to the mainland is particularly beautiful, as you can see through the torii to the coastline and mountains beyond. All of us, but the students especially, loved the deer on Miyajima. No, you’re not supposed to pet them, as they can be aggressive. We saw one deer chewing on another tourist’s clothing and chasing after her bag of snacks. However, this didn’t stop us from petting them a little bit and taking entirely too many selfies with them.


The shrine is right on a beach, and we had fun walking around looking for shells and sea glass. One of the best things about traveling with teenagers is that they ask interesting questions. We asked our guide the next day about several large pieces of driftwood that we saw at the shrine, and she told us that they were kept at the shrine because of the Japanese belief about ancient objects from nature being imbued with strong spirits.


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The Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Museum

When the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, it detonated in the air directly above what was then the city of town and the prefectural government center. The building which housed the government offices, like a town hall, was gutted but did not fall down. It looks as if the dome was rebuilt later, but it wasn’t. The dome of the building was still intact in 1945, and the building remains today as a monument to peace and a reminder of the horror of war. Visitors can walk around it and spend time thinking or meditating at several spots nearby. A large park sits near the dome, as well as a museum that is similar in tone and contents to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It was a very difficult and sobering visit. The students connected with the story of Sadako, and I was surprised to learn that they weren’t familiar with her story. We’ll definitely read it before our next visit. It’s hard to say a lot more about this part of our trip because it feels like a visit to a sacred space. The museum has an excellent website with pictures of the artifacts it holds.


Hiroshima Castle and “Shrunken Scenery” Garden

After the Peace Park and lunch, we visited Hiroshima Castle and a famous “shrunken scenery” garden nearby. Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt after the bomb, but is still located in the same place where it originally stood from the 1500s until 1945. The tower was rebuilt as a tourist destination in the late 1950s. Like most castles in the Japan, the interior of the tower is a museum with exhibits about and artifacts from samurai-era Japan. There is a lovely view of the castle grounds and the town from the top. We particularly enjoyed seeing a hawk from above as he (or she) sat in a tree next to the castle tower moat.

The garden was one of my favorite places that we visited, as well as a favorite of the students. “Shrunken scenery” does not mean miniature trees or plants, but the garden is meant to be a miniature version of the landscape or scenery of Japan. The landscaping is designed to mimic the mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, beaches, pastures, and other common scenes in Japan. Visiting this garden is supposed to be like visiting the entire country of Japan in one go. The group enjoyed seeing the beautiful koi fish in the pond, passing by the tiny rice fields and tea groves, and learning about how the daimyo (feudal lord) visited this garden to have privacy. The garden is beautiful and serene, but it is also a sad and somber place to visit because it was also the final resting place of dozens of people in 1945. People sought relief from their traumatic burns in the lake in the center of the garden, and their remains were discovered when the lake was being redone years later. A small concrete bridge in the shape of an arch remains from the time before the blast and is visible in pictures from the time immediately following the bombing.


Hiroshima and Miyajima Cuisine

Most places in Japan have a signature food item (or ten) that tourists will try when visiting, and many of these items will be offered in attractive gift-giving packages in souvenir shops and convenience stores. In Hiroshima and Miyajima, I noticed oysters, Seto lemon, and momiji manju in pretty much every store. The kids loved the “momiji manju”, which are jam-filled, maple leaf shaped cakes that come in lots of different flavors. The maple leaf shape is significant because of the famous maple tree forests and parks around Hiroshima, particularly on Miyajima Island. One student bought a package of Seto lemon custard cookies, which were a big hit. He wasn’t sure what the flavor would be exactly, but he knew he wasn’t allergic to anything and decided to go for it. (That attitude tends to be the best one to have in convenience stores in Japan: Avoid your allergies, but otherwise just try something and see what you think.) Seto lemons are grown near Hiroshima on islands in the Seto Inland Sea, and are a little less sour than the lemons I’m used to. I liked the Seto lemon yogurt that our hotel restaurant served.

We also visited a restaurant in Hiroshima famous for its okonomiyaki, which is prepared in a unique way in Japan. Some restaurants here in the US (and Japan too) refer to Tokyo style okonomiyaki as “Japanese pizza”, but you couldn’t really use that description for Hiroshima okonomiyaki. The base is the same kind of simple crepe dough that you’ll find in Tokyo, but thinner, then lots of cabbage and noodles are added, and everything is grilled on a hot, flat griddle, before it’s finished off with Hiroshima style okono sauce. Depending on your mood for the day, you can add eggs, pork, cheese, oysters, shrimp, or lots of other fillings and toppings. It’s fun to sit at the main griddle and watch the chefs work, but all the tables at the restaurant we visited had a small griddle to keep the dish warm while you ate.

Up next our final stop, Kyoto!

Tour of Japan | Cary Academy Goes to Japan!

Aug 28 | Evan | No Comments |

Cary Academy is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year and as a proud alumnus from the early years, I couldn’t have been more excited to arrange and escort a group from one of my favorite places to another of my favorite places, Japan!  Besides family and friends, Cary Academy and Japan have influenced my life more than anything else and combining them was a lot of fun for me and a very special experience and tour of Japan to plan!

After the line below this paragraph, the rest of this report on our trip to Japan is written by Katie Taylor, a 6th grade teacher at Cary Academy and Japan enthusiast.  I came to Katie with the idea of bringing a group to Japan late in 2015 and certainly could not have done the trip without her support, advice, preparedness, kindliness and patience.  Thank you very much Katie!

I had the pleasure of first traveling to Japan in 2012, and I’ve wanted to return ever since! I enjoy sharing my love of Japanese culture and history with my students, and I was so glad to have four of them and two of their parents travel with Evan and me to Japan.

Outside a ramen restaurant in Kyoto

Outside a ramen restaurant in Kyoto

We began our trip with three nights in Tokyo, right across the street from the Tokyo Skytree. This is a much less busy area of Tokyo, which made it ideal as a home base for traveling with students. The famous part of the Skytree is of course the tower itself, but beneath it is a nice shopping area with lots of good restaurants. There’s a whole floor of Made in Japan souvenirs which are of high quality, which was a major bonus! The subway station underneath the Skytree made the rest of Tokyo easily accessible as well.



Cooking Lesson

On our first day in Toyko, we connected with a fantastic local chef, Kyoko, for a cooking lesson. We learned all about special ingredients used in Japanese cooking and little tricks for making difficult dishes “just right”. After cooking, we stuffed ourselves with all of the delicious food: gyoza, tempura, sea bass, gyunomiyaki (beef rolls with vegetables inside), fresh pickles, and delicious spices and sauces to go with each.


My favorite was the gyoza, which I’ve actually made twice since I’ve been back in the US following the recipe Kyoko gave us. I’m not exaggerating when I say these gyoza are the best I’ve tasted!


While the food was delicious and fun to make, the most interesting part of the visit was getting to spend time in Kyoko’s home. We were able to see how the Japanese make excellent use of small spaces, as well as several ways that Buddhism and Shinto are integrated into modern life. Kyoko and her husband were both so hospitable and helped make our first day truly memorable.


Edo-Tokyo Museum

Appropriate for kids and adults, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is an excellent way to learn about the history of Tokyo and how it developed from the village surrounding Tokugawa’s castle to the metropolis it is today. There are models of various sizes and interactive exhibits as well. You can actually sit inside a kago or test your strength carrying buckets as peasants would have 400 years ago. There’s a life size traditional house, Kabuki theater, and recreation of Nihonbashi. Our students loved seeing models of so many buildings that we’d talked about when studying Japan in History class.

Jump Theme Park: J-World Tokyo

J-World caters to fans of old school anime like Dragonball, new classics like Naruto, and the newest popular shows like Kuroko no Basket or Haikyu. There are sections dedicated to various shows with interactive games, videos, and a few rides. This is not a theme park like Six Flags, but more like a “themed” set of activities. Our favorite part was all the opportunities to take fun photos and pretend to actually be in the anime.


Checking Out a Few of Tokyo’s Many Wards

One of the joys of Tokyo is just walking around and looking at buildings, watching people, and finding neat little shops and cafes to enjoy. We spent some time doing this in Harajuku, stopping in a cute candy shop on “Cat Street” and checking out a retro café that is a favorite of our guide. We also shopped and people-watched in Akihibara, mostly in the enormous Yodabashi Camera store.


We did the tourist-required crossing at Shibuya station, but first we watched the crowds cross. A crosswalk seems like an odd tourist destination, but it actually gives an interesting insight into how Japan works. The crossing across from the station in Shibuya is one of the busiest and most congested intersections in the world, but it runs smoothly and politely day after day because of the Japanese focus on “gaman,” or patience.


The Skytree

Tokyo Skytree celebrates 5 years of operation this year, and it still looks brand new. The views are beautiful, the maps and guides are useful, and the staff are friendly and helpful. We all enjoyed looking at the map and finding various famous places in the views around us. It reminds me of the Space Needle in Seattle, but much bigger! The owners and designers have put a lot of effort into connecting the Skytree to Japanese culture. The color, height, location, and even elevator themes all have connections to Japanese culture and history.

Next stop, Miyajima and Hiroshima and then finally Kyoto!


Private and Custom Tour of Japan | Flowers and Swords in Kyoto

Aug 19 | Evan | No Comments |

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The Japanese Summer was getting hotter and hotter but our custom tour of Japan would continue!  After spending a few days in Kanazawa and Shirakawago, we headed to Kyoto, my favorite city in Japan.  Part of the reason why I love Kyoto so much is all the wonderful experiences that can be had in the area!

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First we visited a Japanese sword smith that I had arranged for some private experiences in previous years.  It’s always fun to visit with and watch this master demonstrate his art.  Not to mention, we can create some really interesting photos with the sparks from his hard hitting efforts!

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Though even better than that, is the experience talking with such a master sword smith about his art.  It’s easy to see his passion through his kind and welcoming personality.  Guests traveling with me in Japan that are come here always tell me that visiting with the sword smith was one of the highlights.

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Having spent time learning about the sword making process, it was time for another great experience in Kyoto, Ikebana experience and course.  Ikebana is Japanese flower arrangement and is the form of art creating, yes you guessed it, arrangements of flowers!

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We first got a short introduction about different types of flower arrangements and the history of Ikebana and then had a hands lesson to create our own flower arrangement with fresh flowers from Kyoto.  The class is in an old style Japanese home, machiya, which really adds to the atmosphere of the ikebana experience and makes for great photos as well!

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