Trip to Japan shows Sweet Home students a whole new world

Scott Swanson

Ian Wingo knew he wasn’t in Oregon any more when the Japanese man behind him on a crowded train in Tokyo said something, then gave him an aggressive tap on the back of the head.

“I’m standing in the metro and it stops and lots of people want to get off,” Wingo said. “There were a bunch of people in front of me and this guy is trying to get past me. I was standing there and I didn’t want to push others because it’s rude. There was nowhere for me to go.”

A Japanese teacher on the train with Wingo and other members of Sweet Home’s Josai exchange group told him that “it’s apparently disrespectful to not push the crowd,” Wingo said.

They got jammed into subways, they ate octopus, they attempted to figure out toilets that had more buttons than a switchboard, they experienced a typhoon.

Cynde Burford shows a commemorative plate presented to the Sweet Home Josai visitors, marking the 30th year of the exchange program.

They survived and members of the bi-annual Sweet Home exchange group, who visited Josai High School in Japan June 9-24, say they came back with a real sense of what life is like in a country with a very different culture and language.

The trip marked the 30th anniversary of the exchange program between Sweet Home and Josai, a private college-preparatory high school and junior high located in Tokyo.

“While we were there, they had a cere-mony marking the 30th year,” said Cynde Burford, who directs the Sweet Home Josai program. “They had the entire faculty attend and they invited one of the original host moms. The superintendent of the school and the principal spoke and they presented us with a beautiful glass plate. It was a really nice presentation from them.”

She said she was “impressed” at the significance the exchange program has for Josai faculty and students.

“They send students all over Oregon, Australia and South Korea on short-term exchanges, and have another sister school in Australia, yet it is the Sweet Home students who are the only ones who get invited to Japan for the two-week home stay. We have a very special relationship with our friends at Josai High School.”

The Sweet Home students left June 9 in company of Yoshiko Tomono, a Josai exchange student who spent last year at Sweet Home High School, and chaperones Burford and her husband Bob. The students in the group were Hannah Mather, Michael Tolle, Kyle Rose, Grant Kauffman, Josh Juza, Judy Alexander, Ian Wingo and Travis Petersen.

During their two-week stay the eight helped teach English during their visit and spent a lot of time sightseeing as a group or with the Japanese host families they stayed with, whose children were part of the International Club at the school.

“Sweet Home is a big deal to them,” Mather said. “They have a bunch of things in their library about Sweet Home. They made a big deal of us being there. Walking down the hall, they were constantly saying ‘Hi’ to you. The eighth-grade girls loved Ian.”

During their stay they participated in a sports festival, in which the entire school was divided into teams that included the Americans.

“It was like a huge May Day,” Mather said.

“They had so many events in which you thought somebody would break something,” Rose said. “It was scary to watch. They had this relay thing in which they’d run across other people’s backs.”

The visitors competed in two events, one a four-person relay in which they won their heat, Wingo said.

They also visited a grade school, where they played basketball with the sixth-graders.

“I ran over kids,” Rose said.

Cynde Burford said the trip was a radically new experience for the Sweet Home students, some of whom had never been in an airport or on a plane before – let alone getting the red-carpet treatment.

“They were treated so nicely. I don’t think they expected to be these celebrities at the school,” she said. “They blend in here. I think, as their adviser, just exposing them to all these brand new firsts is really exciting. They learned a lot. How to manage money, the exchange rates.”

“I think the students learned that there’s another culture out there that they can accept and fit in and learn new ways of doing things.”

Here are some observations by the students on their experiences:


Mather: “They are organized. There are traditions. Everybody lines up to get on the subway. On the escalator they stand on the right. You never walk and eat at the same time. You sit down and eat.”

Rose: “There’s no trash on the streets.”

Tolle: “There are no garbage cans.”

Mather: “Everything is really clean.”

Wingo: “They followed the rules a lot more. It was a private school, but they all cared a lot more about school than we do. It was more of them caring about their schooling than their parents.

“They have to get to school on their own – one side of Tokyo to another. They have a lot of independence.”


Rose: “They know basic English skills.”

Mather: “Everybody could at least say ‘Hi.’ You could tell the kids who could speak English. Some had been to Australia (where Josai also has an exchange program). They’d try to talk to you. You could definitely tell that it’s like when we learn Spanish – not many people are devoted to it.”

Rose: “Little kids would talk to us in Japanese. They’d expect us to understand them. You have to nod and act like you understand.”


Rose: “The toilets are insane for just a toilet. They had a four-in-one toilet of some kind, with buttons all over the place.

Wingo: “It was like a Swiss Army knife. I was never brave enough to push the buttons to find out what they did.”

Mather: “One was like a bidet. Another played music.”

Tolle said the privy in his host home was a combo sink and toilet.


The Sweet Home students said they were impressed by the skills of Japanese drivers on streets that often offer only inches of clearance on each side of the car.

Rose: “They are very risky drivers – how fast they go, weaving through cars and stuff. There’s no speed limit in Tokyo.”

Wingo: “On the whole trip I only saw two cops.”

Also, they said, people tended not to drive very much.

Mather: “They would walk to the nearest train station to where they lived. They would pretty much go to the train station close to their school.”

Rose: “My family didn’t even have a car.”


Wingo: “There’s no difference between breakfast and dinner for them. We had hamburgers for breakfast one time.”

Mather: “I liked the food. It was good. I loved my breakfasts. I got chicken McNuggets and other stuff for breakfast.”

Tolle: “Octopus – I just kind of downed it.”

Wingo: “I actually ate the hormonal gland from a cow on the last day I was there. It was a little gritty.”


Tolle: “The house was shaking all night.”

Wingo: “One day it would be muggy and hot. The next day, a typhoon. The next day after that, sunny and nice.”

Mather said the clean-up after typhoons was “real quick. They picked everything up.”

The return

Some students on both sides knew each other from past exchange visits by Japanese students.

Wingo: “It was fun seeing kids you stayed with. The only problem was saying goodbye forever to best friends you’ve made.”

The 17-hour difference between Japan and the West Coast time zones had a big impact, they said.

Rose: “The jet lag sucked the first couple of days. I was going 2 to 2 at first.”

Wingo: “I’m nocturnal now.”

Tolle: “The morning I was going to get my driver’s license (after his return), I stayed up till 3.”

Community support

“I wouldn’t have been able to go without contributions from neighbors,” Mather said. “The community basically helped us a lot. If it were not for the school having this program, we never would have gotten the chance.”