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Archive for the category “Japan”

What makes a happy year?

Happy new year! When we look back over the last year, we tend to focus on the big stuff. What changes took place? What adventures did we have?

Inari 6

For me, when I think about 2015, the highlight that stands out is definitely hiking into the crater of the Ijen Volcano on the island of Java, in Indonesia. I will never forget what it felt like to be there.

Even though it’s those big events that stand out, I know that it’s the little moments that matter most. Sharing a laugh with a student. Giving a hug to a friend during a rough time. Just being with people I love. Those moments might not be as memorable, but added together, those are the ones that make up our lives. This year, I got to watch my niece turn 2.

What little moments will fill 2016? Last summer in Japan, it wasn’t the lights of Tokyo or the beautiful temples that made the trip so special. It was spending time with friends like Ishida Sensei, who showed me around his hometown. It was seeing how much pride he feels in his city. Here’s to many more little moments of connection, close to home or far away.


The Stories Behind Our Food

It’s all too easy to wander the aisles of the grocery store and pick out our favorite treats without stopping to think about where our food comes from.

Unless you’re in another country. Wandering the aisles of a Japanese grocery store was like being a baby out in the world for the first time. Everything looked new and exciting.

The more time I spend in other countries, the more I appreciate how complicated it is to make food. Let’s take rice for example. You’ve probably eaten it thousands of times, in all sorts of varieties. Here you can see it pictured in a traditional Indonesian dish called Nasi Campur — basically, there’s always rice in the middle, with a bunch of little side dishes around it.


Have you ever stopped to think about how rice gets to your plate?

Rice Smile

This past summer, when I traveled to Indonesia and Japan, I got to see rice being grown. Did you even know that rice is a plant? I always think of it in the bread category and not so similar to my vegetables. Sure enough, when rice is growing, it looks like little seeds on very green blades of grass.

Rice up close

Rice needs a lot of water to grow, so people set up complicated irrigation systems to get the water to the fields. The rice paddies, as they are called, are absolutely beautiful.


Working in the Fields

These photos were taken in Ubud, Bali, which is actually a very busy, traffic congested town. However, if you walk off the main road, pretty quickly you’ll find yourself in a place like this:


Among the rice paddies was a strange mix of locals living their lives…

…and resources for tourists.


One minute, it felt like the middle of nowhere. And then, there was a restaurant that served fancy smoothies and yummy Indonesian food. What a view!

I really didn’t know what I was looking at, but I wandered into the fields and saw all sorts of trenches for directing the water. Some were made of dirt, and some were made of stone. These were clearly used to irrigate the fields.

Each field section appeared to have a temple that accompanied it. I imagined that it was the local way of wishing for a good planting season. Balinese people are mostly Hindu; pictured below is a Hindu god named Ganesha.


It looked like a lot of work to get the crops ready to be harvested.

Special Area

It looked like people cut the rice stalks by hand. These fields were huge, so I’m sure it took days.Cut Rice

And then they had to dry the rice out, sometimes in their driveways!


Wandering around, I learned a lot just by observing. In Japan, I even wandered into a store that had a rice mill in the back. Here’s a little video that will give you a better sense of what it was like.

I’m no expert, but the amazing crew at put together this fabulous video about the process of making rice. They filmed it in Malaysia, but a lot of the images look like what I saw in Bali, don’t you think?

So, the next time you eat some rice, remember how much work goes into making it. This is probably true for all of the foods you’ll gobble up on Thanksgiving, if you celebrate this American holiday.

Spread Out

What went into making your mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing? Did your turkey get transported like these chickens in Bali?

Chickens in Transit

When I looked into their eyes as we drove by, I didn’t want to think about it. But then again, seeing our food being made up close helps us to be grateful for what’s on our plate.

Japanese Fast Food

A quick meal in Japan, ordered on a computerized machine

And at least for one day, remember all the people who made it possible for you to eat. Remember the different landscapes all around this planet that made your meal a reality.

Japanese Rice Fields

Rice fields in Japan (photo taken out the train window)

You might be eating a bunch of local food, but some of it probably traveled far and wide to get to you. Now that’s something to be thankful for.

Note: Want to learn more about the Thanksgiving holiday and what it’s really all about? Click here to check out a fabulous interactive website about the first Thanksgiving, made by Plimoth Plantation.

Sleeping in a Temple at Koyasan

I’ve slept in many interesting places, from a cave in Turkey to a tent by the beach in St. John, but this summer was my first time sleeping in a Buddhist temple. At Daienin Temple in Koyasan, up in the mountains, visitors can live the monk life for an evening.

Front of Temple

To get there, many people hike up into the mountains, following these special posts, representing earth, water, fire, wind, and space.

I got there by train and car, thanks to my friend, Masa, who lives nearby. The journey was a little long, but we were grateful to be driving uphill into the mountains, where the weather was much cooler.


You see that I was reunited with my friend Tofu San, brought for a visit by my Japanese friend, Omi, who joined us for the adventure. I am lucky to have such great friends in Japan!

After arriving at the temple, we took off our shoes and headed to our rooms. The temple gave us special slippers to wear, so we kept the inside of the building clean. One size fits all?


Next, we checked out our room. It was beautiful! It was very traditional, but with some modern conveniences, like a TV.


When we first arrived, there were no beds! It is traditional in Japanese hotel rooms to have a futon mattress that is put out later. The mattresses were tucked away in the closet behind the black and white mural. While we had no beds yet, we did have welcome cookies, which were yummy.

Printed Cookie

Also, we had a view of the beautiful courtyard:


We also found a photograph in our room showing the Dalai Lama. At first, we were confused, because he leads a different branch of Buddhism. Then, we found out that the Dalai Lama actually stayed in our room! Here I am standing in the same place he stood in this picture.

Dalai Lama

Photos probably don’t do it justice! Here’s a little video tour of the room:

You might notice that there is no bathroom. That’s because in traditional Japanese hotels, they have shared bathrooms. There’s a toilet room that is separate from the place to bathe, called an onsen. Here’s a picture of the women’s onsen. It’s traditional to take a seated shower in front of a mirror, soap and rinse there, and then soak in the hot tub.


We didn’t relax in our room yet though! We did some exploring before dinner, checking out the local temples, where many years ago, a monk named Kukai founded this town as the headquarters for this particular branch of Buddhism. We had a lot of fun seeing all sorts of new things, like this giant bell. As you can see from Omi’s face, it was very big and loud.


Then we came back for dinner, and the monks had prepared a feast in our own private dining room.Dinner

All of the food was vegetarian, because the monks don’t eat meat. It had lots of different tastes and it was delicious! My favorite was the soup in a paper bowl, cooked right in front of us with a flame under the paper. I don’t know how it didn’t burn the place down, but it didn’t!

Dinner Close Up

While we were at dinner, the monks prepared our beds for sleeping. We got back to our rooms, and they were all ready for sleeping.


I decided not to wake up early in the morning for the morning prayer at 5:50 AM, and went to breakfast the next morning a little bit better rested. Again, there was a feast prepared, with no cereal or eggs. Instead, there was rice, miso soup, and some interesting veggies.


After breakfast, we got to explore more of Koyasan, going to hear some very prestigious monks chanting their ceremonial prayers. It felt very special to be there, seeing a real Buddhist ritual. There were no other foreign tourists there; only Japanese people knew to come see this ceremony.

Old Monks

Koyasan is a place where Buddhist people from all over Japan, and beyond, visit to connect with their spiritual side. I’m not Buddhist, but I made some wishes alongside the Japanese people there. Locals write their wishes on little strips of paper called O-mikuji and tie them to shrines.

Good luck wishes

Spending a night at Koyasan was very special, and I hope I was able to bring some of that good fortune back for you.

At Night

Yummy Japanese Desserts

mochiAfter reading Kerry’s post about sampling global treats at Epcot, my mouth started watering for all the delicious sweets I got to try in Japan. Here are three of my favorites:

1. Mochi ~ These little rice paste balls never really impressed me, until I had them freshly made. Check out the way they pound the mochi into these little balls, stuffed with red bean sweet goodness:

2. Printed Cookies ~ The Japanese don’t mess around when it comes to appearance. Everything is displayed so elegantly.

Printed Cookie

3. Shaved Ice ~ Such a great treat on a hot day. And they make them HUGE! Why don’t they do these more in the United States?

Want to read more to make your stomach growl? I have a post about Japanese fast food, but I’ve also written about sweets in posts from trips to other places. China has lots of strange flavor combos and foods that made me say yuck and yum. I also got to have some pretty special meals in Ukraine and cooking class in Turkey. Hungry yet?

10 weird things that I did not buy in Japan… but could have.

Shops in Japan sell everything under the sun… sometimes even items that made me laugh out loud. These were some of my favorites. And ok, some of them I wish I had bought.

10. Realistic Fake Food Bling

Want a cell phone covered with rice? Sushi earrings? One shop that I visited makes novelty items out of the plastic food items used in Japanese restaurant displays.

Plastic Food Bling9. Finger Sunglasses

I don’t think these offer a lot of sun protection.

Finger Glasses

8. “Will you be a cat?” Face Mask

Give yourself a facial at home with these fun masks. I guess you can also look like a cat while you are pampering yourself. Japanese convenience stores sold all kinds of face masks, with “flavors” like red ginseng, bee venom, apricot, avocado, and snail.

Will you be a cat?

7. Chocolate and Marshmallow Pizza

We passed this sign while not so hungry. Otherwise, I would have stopped. How can you go wrong here?

Chocolate Marshmellow Pizza

6. A Wooden Prayer Plaque Covered in Breasts

These wooden plaques are called “Ema.” Shinto worshippers buy one, write their wish on the wood, and hang it at the shrine. This particular shrine was made to honor women, and apparently the breasts symbolize a healthy childbirth. It was still a little funny to me to see a bunch of fabric breasts at a religious site.

5. Captain Santa Clothing

I never associated Santa Claus with boating, but I guess they make an interesting pairing!

Captain Santa

4. Really High Clogs

I’m not sure why I didn’t want to buy these 6 inch heels in American flag colors, but look! They were discounted from 20,000 yen to 2,000 yen (that’s around $16, on sale from $160). A bargain!

Giant Clogs

3. Trendy Toe Shoes

Speaking of shoes, I also got to check out these funky treads that bring a modern spin to an old Japanese style. That double toe thing is traditional footwear in various parts of Japan. I did get some Hello Kitty socks like this.

Trendy Toe Shoes

2. A Shirt with an Inspirational Tag

In case you can’t read it, it says, “I think fate cannot win the will of adamant. Therefore, I want to enjoy all the trial of life. Anything is possible if you can only change the negative into a positive thinking. And I want to live my life to its maximum where impossible will no longer be an impossible dream to accomplish. Because that is called happiness.” Deep, right? Too bad the shirt cost over $100 USD and it wasn’t that nice really.

Awesome Tag1. Tear of a Forest Girl

Last, but certainly not least, this costume item seems like a winner, right? It’s a “real fake tear.”

Tear of a Forest Girl

Would you have bought any of these things if you were in Japan? Maybe there’s something lost in translation on some of these. In any case, shopping in Japan is a blast even if you don’t buy anything.

A Million of Everything in Kyoto

Hot!For years, I had dreamed of visiting the famous city of Kyoto, which was once the capital of Japan. On this trip, I finally got that chance. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong time of year. It was really, really hot in Kyoto this August. It felt like a million degrees. At one point, it started getting dark, and it felt like it was cooling down a bit. I checked a weather app on my phone and it said “99 degrees Fahrenheit. Feels like 137 degrees.” No wonder we almost melted.

Despite the heat, I really enjoyed Kyoto. In particular, I loved seeing a million of each of these items below. (Ok, well, I didn’t count. But they seemed like a million!)

A Million Bamboo Trees: The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is like no other place I’ve been. I felt very small!

A Million Orange Shrines: At Fushimi Inari Shrine, visitors can walk through thousands of torii gates. These beautiful structures are used in the Shinto religion, and they follow a long trail up a mountain. I didn’t make it to the top (remember, it was a million degrees out), but still enjoyed a short hike.

A Million Paper Cranes: While visiting a little shrine just off a shopping street, I saw many paper cranes! This looks like a million, right?Paper Cranes


A Million Lights: I read online that it’s possible to visit the roof of the Kyoto Train Station. I didn’t know what to expect but followed the signs up escalator after escalator, until we saw this. A huge staircase lit up with images! We even went back the next night to walk the “sky walk.” It was very high up, and the view was impressive.

In the end, I know that I only saw a small fraction of the sights in Kyoto. My Japanese teacher friend, Omi Sensei, went there with her students on a class trip in June, and she brought our friends Tofu San and Flat Hawk. The students took them around and they get credit for all of these wonderful photos:

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So, now I know that I need to go back to Kyoto some day, right? Flat Hawk and Tofu San have been to more Kyoto sights than I have!

Before closing out this post, I want to share something special we saw on our last night in Kyoto. It reminded me of the dancing fountains we saw in Dubai, but these water droplets were lit up in a million colors. Or something like that 🙂

Wonders Viewed from a Plane

Aquarium at the Duty Free Shop

Aquarium at the Duty Free Shop

Yesterday I arrived home after a long day of travel, with over 20 hours of flight time! You’d think that I’d be an old hat at flying after visiting so many countries. I am used to it, but I still get nervous when we hit turbulence, even though air travel is very safe. I also get SO excited to look out the window, like that time I flew over Greenland. On this trip, I saw some pretty amazing sights from above:

1. The Great Barrier Reef — We had a short layover in Cairns, Australia between Bali and Tokyo, and we were able to see coral through the clear waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Great Barrier Reef

2. Skyscrapers Amidst Chinese Mountains — Flying home we stopped in Hong Kong, and I was surprised to see so many cities in mainland China surrounded by gorgeous mountains. I didn’t see landscapes like this when I visited Beijing and Shanghai! It looks beautiful!


3. Mount Fuji — I really wanted to climb Mount Fuji on this trip, but for a variety of reasons, we decided not to do it. Then, I hoped to see it from the train back to Tokyo, but it ended up getting too dark too soon. That meant that I was SO excited to literally fly over it when leaving Tokyo. We got an incredible view, which is only sort of clear in this photo:


4. The Arabian Desert — Flying into Dubai on the way to Bali, we got to see this vast desert of the Middle East.


5. Manhattan and Central Park — I live so close to New York City, so it’s not so foreign to me… but I have to admit that it’s pretty impressive to see Central Park and the island of Manhattan from above.

Central Park

Seeing so many of these wonders, it makes me even more in awe of this planet we live on! The journey home was tough, but worth it. I added it up, and I think the whole trip took about 43 hours:

  • 1.5 hours — Train to the airport
  • 2.5 hours — Hanging at Narita Airport near Tokyo
  • 5 hours — Flight to Hong Kong
  • 1.5 hours — Hanging at another airport
  • 16 hours — Flight to New York
  • 1.5 hours — Getting through customs, waiting for bags, finding the way to the rental car booth, etc.
  • 2 hours — Driving home before we realized that we were too tired to drive
  • 10 hours — Relaxing and sleeping at a random hotel in Connecticut, just off the highway
  • 2 hours — More driving
  • 1 hour — Dropping off the rental car at Logan Airport in Boston, and then taking a cab home.

SignSince we passed over lots of time zones between Boston and Tokyo, that 16 hour flight left at 4 pm and landed at 8 pm. Seems kind of magical, right?

We landed in New York City as the sun was setting, and it was truly a beautiful sight:

Sunset NY

Even though I’m home, there’s a lot more from this trip to share. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a bunch more stories, photos, and videos from this journey. Curious how I ended up staying in the same room where the Dalai Lama stayed? Or how I walked through the beams at the tippy top of Kyoto’s main train station? Check back soon for more posts. For now, this traveler has some jet lag to get over.

Instagram SignP.S. If you are a part of the Innovation Academy community and you have your own global adventure to share, please consider submitting a guest post! We’d love to hear from you.

Second Time’s a Charm in Tokyo

It’s very hot and humid in Tokyo. I can’t keep sunscreen on my body because it melts off with sweat. As I walk around outside, I’m always looking for cold treats and shady places to rest (at this spot, mist sprayed down on us from the canopy):

Even though August apparently isn’t the best time for a visit to Japan, I am so grateful to have made it back. Here are a few of the reasons why I love this country:

#1: Fabulous People

Last summer, I met the most generous and kind group of people. Our program, focused on ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) brought us together to talk about how to use classrooms to inspire our planet’s future leaders. Getting to see some of the amazing people I met last summer made the trip worth it already!Lunch

#2: Futuristic Experiences

Where else can you take a boat that looks like a spaceship? I kept thinking we would take off!

As we soared down the river on our mini Tokyo cruise, I loved seeing all the architecture that looks like we entered a time machine to the future. On the left, you can see the Tokyo Skytree, which is one of the tallest towers in the world.

SkyTree Etc.Even the subway stations are modern and funky.Mark City

#3: Food!

I want to order everything! In many restaurants, there are plastic models of all the dishes in the front, so it makes you even more hungry!

#4: Fun Everywhere

Sure, there are lots of busy businessmen and women in Tokyo, but there are also lots of places to have fun. Want to go to the beach? Go to an arcade with an entire floor of claw machines? Get your photo taken in the most trendy, hipster photobooth you can imagine? You can do all that in Tokyo.

#5: Finding Surprises Around Every Corner

It’s easy to get lost in Tokyo. We were lucky to stay in an Air BnB apartment that provided us with a “Pocket Wifi” device. Just stick it in your pocket and get wifi everywhere – very helpful for Google Maps! It’s so fun to explore, because you never know what you will find down any road.

You might even see the Statue of Liberty! A strange sight in Tokyo, but I’ve learned never to be surprised here.

Statue of Liberty

The best part of being back here is feeling how small our world really is. The sunset in Japan is just as beautiful as the sunset on the other side of the planet. SunsetAnd in this day and age, it’s possible to have friends all over the world. Here I am with some of my Japanese friends and three other travelers: Loki, Flat Hawk, and Tofu San. These little guys may seem like toys, but they’ve each traveled the world and served as a symbol for how connected we all really are.

ESD Friends

Kaiseki Cuisine — Small, Beautiful, and Delicious

OutsideWe have arrived in Tokyo and celebrated tonight with an amazing dinner thanks to my old friend Naoki. He and his wonderful wife took us to a traditional Japanese meal — Kaiseki, where there are many small courses, each arranged artistically on the plate. So many different tastes in each bite! It was truly a feast and a great way to kick off our time in Japan. Can you believe that these dishes were part of one meal?

KazuSo oishii (delicious)! This meal was extra special, because it was delivered with an adorable new friend. I am so happy to be here in Japan again. Like Kaiseki, it feels like everything here is thoughtfully done, from the way the subway runs to the way people greet one another on the street. I love exploring this beautiful culture.


rainbowsYesterday felt like a rainbow explosion, as news broke out that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that same-sex marriage must be legal in every state. I felt proud to be an American. As I’ve written about before, I want to live in a world where everyone gets the same rights regardless of who they are or whom they love. This isn’t the end of the journey, but it’s a big step for our nation.

In other happy news, I booked tickets for my summer travel yesterday. Drum roll please!

Flight number one:

Flight 1

Flying to Denpasar, Indonesia, on the island of Bali! If all goes well, we’ll have an evening to hang out in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. While I’ve been to Pakistan and Turkey, this will be my first time really in the Middle East, and Dubai is known to be a glamourous, oil-rich city full of skyscrapers and shopping.

Bali is known for its marine biodiversity, rich music/dance scene, and its status as a Hindu enclave tucked on the edge of a huge and powerful Muslim country. We hope to visit a sacred monkey forest and see rice paddies, among other adventures. From there, we’ll head out to…

Flight 2

Tokyo! I couldn’t resist heading back to Japan, where last summer I was so very blessed to participate the Japan U.S. Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development. The flight goes through Australia, though, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we’ll have time to see anything. The plan is to spend most of the visit to Japan outside of Tokyo. The details are still open, but I definitely want to visit Kyoto, and I’d love to climb Mount Fuji if it’s possible. There are so many places in Japan that I want to visit, so this will be a chance to see a few more spots. And finally, we’ll head home.

Flight 3

This map is actually totally inaccurate, though it does show the correct locations on the flight home: Tokyo –> Hong Kong –> New York. First of all, it’s a mercator projection, so the areas near the poles are stretched out. Also, the direct flight from Hong Kong to New York City will likely go up and over the North Pole, not across the top of Africa like this. That will take 16 hours, which I believe will be my longest single flight ever.

I’m so excited to go on this adventure! I leave towards the end of July, so there will be some New England adventures first. Right now, in fact, I’m headed to Vermont. Check back soon for more updates, both from me and some of the other Innovation Academy community members on upcoming global adventures.

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