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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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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Private and Custom Tour of Japan | Shirakawago and Kanazawa

Aug 17 | Evan | No Comments |

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After spending a great couple of days in Kamikochi, our private tour of Japan continued to Shirakawago and Kanazawa, by way of Takayama.  First up, we would stay the night in a gassho-zukuri which translates to built like praying hands for the triangle shaped roof that are suppose to look like a Buddhist monk’s hands as during prayer.

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There are a few of these small villages throughout Japan though the ones in this area are, largest to smallest, Shirakawago (Ogimachi), Gokayama (Ainokura) and Suganuma.  We spent time in all 3 and slept in one of these traditional grass huts in Ainokura.  As these villages have become world heritage sites, especially Shirakawago has become very popular and crowded during the day.  We were happy to stay in Gokayama which was much less crowded and allowed for better photography opportunities.   Of course like many places that get crowded, early in the morning is best to take photos if you can wake up!

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After a night in Gokayama, our tour of Japan continued to Kanazawa.  Since last Autumn, this was my third time visiting Kanazawa, going to Kanazawa with a private tour of Japan just a week or so earlier, and enjoying Fall leaves in Kanazawa in 2015.  Since the opening of the new Hokuriku Shinkansen in April of 2015, Kanazawa tourism has picked up quite a bit with easier access from Tokyo.

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Instead of staying in a hotel, we stayed 2 nights in Kanazawa in a machiya, a traditional style home.  If traveling with a small group or family, I think it’s a great experience a little what life is like in a traditional Japanese home.  In addition to checking out the DT Suzuki museum, 21st Century Art Museum and of course Kanazawa’s famous Kenrokuen, we spent some time with a Japanese certified guide that helped us plan a special and private meeting with one of the gardeners at Kenrokuen!  A trip to Kanazawa wouldn’t be complete without visiting the old samurai district, Nagamachi, and old geisha district, Higashi Chaya, so we made time to visit there as well!  Next up, a private experience with a Japanese sword smith and a flower arrangement class!

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Private and Custom Tour of Japan | Kamikochi

Aug 11 | Evan | No Comments |

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After short stay in Tokyo, the private (hiking) tour of Japan would continue onto one of my favorite places in Japan, Kamikochi.  Kamikochi is located in Nagano Prefecture and is only open from April through October and can only be accessed by bus or taxi, not private car.  It’s a great place to escape the crowds of Japan and get in touch with nature.  Though nature is about all that there is in Kamikochi and they intend to keep it that way with their five rules, or as I like to say, the Kamikochi Five (nice ring to it).

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Basically, you aren’t allowed to feed the wild animals, you cannot take anything away from or bring any foreign species into Kamikochi, you cannot litter and keep on the paths.  Speaking of the paths, they are mostly flat either raised wood, dirt or gravel.  Easy to walk for all ages.

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Kamikochi really is a photographer’s and perhaps hiker’s dream.  For this private tour of Japan, we stayed in Kamikochi for 2 nights, but easily could have stayed longer to take more photos of the mountains, lakes and streams as well as exploring by foot the natural surroundings.  While we stayed on the flat terrain, as that was enough hiking for us, there are more challenging paths up the mountains.

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And did I mention there are monkeys?  Monkeys always make for some interesting observing and photographic opportunities!  A few more monkey photos from our private tour in Kamikochi and then a gallery of more monkeys and a few photos of Kamikochi.

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