Touring 14th-century castles, hiking through a bamboo forest and viewing a squirrel petting zoo fed students’ creativity during a nine-day tour of Japan with College of the Mainland.

COM art professors Mayuko Ono Gray and Mark Greenwalt and recent graduates Tyler Bland, 16, and Ashley Deanne Hill, 20, traveled through the largest island of Honshu as part of the COM Drawing I class.

From the gilded-tiered Golden Pavilion to the glittering steel Tokyo Tower, students immersed themselves in castles, culture and cuisine.

“I tried cow heart (Japanese barbecue)  which was very delicious,” said Bland. “After eating, we’d pull out our stuff and sketch.”

Touring historic sites, the group traveled via plane, subway, bus and “bullet train” (named for its speeds of up to 200 mph).

“If you weren’t looking out the window, you wouldn’t know you were moving, but if you looked out the window, it’s all just a big blur,” said Hill.

They met artists in Japan, including Jun Itoi, who recently showed his photography in the COM Art Gallery, and toured the museums including the Ghibli Museum and Tokugawa Museum of Art.

“My favorite piece was an intricate metal bowl that had flowers in it,” said Hill.

Hill, who earned an associate degree in education from COM and plans to continue for a bachelor’s degree, enjoyed touring Japanese schools.

“We went to Ogaki Women’s College for a day. We took a tour and sat in on classes – music theory, instrument repair, drawing, digital art, and dental hygiene” said Hill. “We talked with the president of Ogaki Women’s College about differences in the education system there.”

The group toured Tokyo and Kyoto on the largest Japanese island of Honshu.

“Kyoto is the old capital, and Tokyo is the new capital,” explained Ono Gray. “Kyoto is the Rome of Japan, with a lot of temples and shrines. Tokyo is modern.”

The trip blended an understanding of art with an appreciation for culture.

“Everyone was a lot more polite, a lot more ‘thanks you’s’ and ‘go aheads’ and bowing. When thanking someone, you give a small nod-bow,” explained Bland.

They also delved into 2,400-year history of the nation.

“We learned about different wars and shoguns such as Oda Nobunaga, the traders and the spies,” said Bland.

After nine days, Bland was captivated by Japan.

“I’m sad that I had to come back,” said Bland. “I wish that I could have stayed forever.”

For more information about the Japan Study Abroad Program, contact Ono Gray at or 409-933-8354.