Students ‘fall in love’ with culture, people on Japan trip

Jill Mahler

For The New Era

After nearly two years of hard work, fund-raising and patiently waiting, it was time to fly to Japan as part of the Sweet Home High School Josai Exchange Club.

The Josai Foreign Exchange Program has seen many different excited, young students come and go. It has also changed many lives over the 28 years it has been operating. This program is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Students are able to discover a different culture and make new friends and memories.

I was able to take part in this exchange and I feel very fortunate for being able to visit a place as beautiful as Tokyo among other places in Japan. After all the hours spent selling concessions at football games, and other activities like selling poinsettias for Thanksgiving, it was finally time to pack my bags and fly across the country to a place very different from my own.

We met at the united counter in Portland on June 11. We left a day before school was out. After everyone got through security and customs, we said goodbye to our families all before most students in Sweet Home were even awake.

We boarded our plane to connect to the San Francisco airport. Everyone was excited it being for some their first time on a plane. After we landed in San Francisco , we were off on a nonstop flight to the Narita Airport in Japan, which took about 10 hours. The plane was cramped and after the excitement began to wear off all there was left was to wait.

However, the hours passed and we landed down at the Narita Airport on June 2 with our bags stuffed and our hearts full of excitement at what would lie ahead of us in the next 13 days.

Takeshi Kiyomi, the Josai program coordinator, met us at the airport. We loaded up on a bus to the Josai High School. As we passed through the cities we were amazed at all the different sights. All of the buildings looked as if they were one with each other. What Tokyo lacked in vegetation, it made up for it with concrete.

The architecture was very interesting. Their gardens were on terraces. When we got to the Josai High School , it was so big it had elevators. We met our host families that we would be sharing this experience with. In the house I stayed, my bedroom was lined with a traditional Japanese straw mat. You showered on the floor outside of the bathtub, which was reserved for soaking.

There were many cultural shocks. It was overwhelming how welcome we felt and how people treated you as if you were nothing short of a celebrity. We met every day besides on Sundays (reserved for our host families).

On our first day in Japan, we took a marital arts class in Aikido, which teaches you how to use your opponents’ energy against them.

The cafeteria definitely put most high schools to shame with how authentic the food was. We were privileged enough to be a part of a few English classes at the high school. We went to a shrine then took a train to Ikebukuro. We were immediately introduced to communicating through body language, suffocating trains, and towering skyscrapers.

The next day we gave a speech telling a little about ourselves in Japanese in front of the whole school. It was a bit nerve-wracking but an accomplishment all the same. We learned how to make traditional Japanese tea, using a bamboo whisk. We took a class in calligraphy and wrote our names in kanji, the Japanese characters that originated in China.

On the first Sunday with my host family, we traveled to the Mount Fuji Safari Park where I got to pet a kangaroo and a wallaby. It was definitely a first experience for me. On the 16th, we went to the Great Buddha in Kamakura . The statue was 13.35 meters (43 feet) tall and weighed 121 tons.

On June 17, we attended the 90th anniversary celebration of the Josai High School. Afterwards we were free to go spend the rest of the day with our families. I posed for photos, taken by a professional photographer, in a traditional Japanese robe known as a kimono.

Our stay in Tokyo included a tour of the emperor’s palace, a Japanese play, a trip to the Tokyo Tower (the tallest self-supporting steel frame in the world at 333 meters – 1,082 feet, taller than the Eiffel Tower), and visits to Disney Sea and Edo-Tokyo Museum, a place well known for its sumo-wrestling tournaments. We explored the Perry and Harris Exhibition, which celebrated the dawn of U.S.-Japanese relations.

When we returned to the school we were given certificates and gifts in an early good-bye ceremony. On the day before we left Josai held its annual sports festival. It was huge and everyone was very enthusiastic. There were dance competitions and races, some involving jumping through a hula-hoop. Some of us took part in a relay race in which two teams ran about 300 meters around the gym. All of us lent a hand in a huge tug of war. It was a lot of fun.

That night we packed our bags and spent our last night with our host families. It was very sad to say goodbye to such wonderful people after just arriving. We waited two years for these two weeks in Japan and in a flash time was up.

It is no surprise how easy it was for me, along with others, to fall in love with the people and the culture of Japan. Although we were sad to leave, homesickness had set in and we could not wait to get back home and share our experiences with our families and friends. However short the trip felt, I returned with a lifetime of memories.

Celena Westfall, another participant, said she went on the trip because she wanted to “try something new and I thought it would be fun.

“I liked it a lot,” she said. “It was very different than Sweet Home or any other place I’ve been.”

Bob Burford, one of our chaperones, was on his second trip after visiting with the Josai group in 2002.

“I am fascinated by Japan,” he said. “The city of Tokyo is full of energy. Everyone we met there went overboard to welcome us and accommodate us in everyway possible.”

Cynde Burford, another chaperone and coordinator for the Josai Club at the high school, said she enjoyed watching friendships develop during the school year between the students here and the exchange students from Japan and seeing it continue over there. “Students in Japan are planning to come next year because of those friendships,” she said.

She goes because “I like different cultures and languages. I like to travel and I love to go with the students and see them experience new things for the first time,” she said.

Bob Burford said that the Josai program provides “a wonderful opportunity” for Sweet Home students. He said he’d like to see a Japanese language program offered in the school district so more students could take advantage of the opportunity and enjoy their trip more.

Cynde Burford said that parents of eighth- and ninth-grade students should take advantage of the Josai program “because your kids will experience an exchange with Japan that not many could do on their own – not just traveling and staying in a hotel but totally immersing themselves in the culture with a host family.”