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Middle school students return from Japan

Christine McManus

SUMMIT COUNTY – When a dozen Summit Middle School students arrived in Japan Sept. 27, they realized they really better stick together the next two weeks because all the signs were written in Kanji characters and all the announcements over the loudspeaker were in Japanese.

As part of Frisco’s Sister City program, the students missed a couple weeks of classroom education in exchange for a different kind of learning experience.

They spent four days in Tokyo before traveling to Nishikawa, Frisco’s sister city, where their host families awaited them. After six days living in a Japanese household, they spent another three days in Tokyo before returning to Colorado on Friday.

“All of us knew Japan was different before we went. To actually experience it was very different,” said 12-year-old John Willis, adding that he’d love to return someday because people were very friendly.

Each student learned daily Japanese customs, such as the greetings said by everyone in the home when someone arrives or leaves.

They took their shoes off indoors and used bathroom slippers only in the bathroom. In chime with the host parents and siblings, the Summit students learned the proper Japanese phrases to say when beginning and finishing a meal together.

Japanese television game shows and commercial ads, the language, the food, the flora and the sheer volume of people in Tokyo made lasting impressions on the students.

Although the middle school students memorized introductory greetings, their phrasebooks and gestures were the keys to communication with their host families.

Even the bathrooms were a new adventure.

“Instead of bathing to get clean, you shower then you take a very hot bath. It’s to relax your muscles,” said seventh-grader Tommy Kleckner.

Some of the host families’ toilets were equipped with high-tech features, such as toilet seats that flipped open automatically and a panel with buttons that make the toilet flush or spray the user.

“It was hard to tell which button is which because they’re labeled in Japanese, so if you’re not careful you might get a surprise,” said Shelbie Ebert. “The technology they value is different: My host family had one computer, but many families in Nishikawa do not have computers in their home. But then many people have cell phones.”

Ebert, 14, was supposed to take the trip in fall 2001, but in the days following Sept. 11 she and her parents were wary of long plane flights. All Summit Middle School students have the opportunity to apply for the sister-city program because the trip is scheduled every other year.

This was the seventh year volunteers at Summit Middle School organized the two-week trip. One of the trip leaders, Betsy Croffman, is fluent in Japanese and lives with her husband in Summit County. Part of the year, they live in Japan.

Depending on an array of factors, the trip costs $750-$1,800. In addition to helping with fundraising efforts here, participants must take classes in Japanese culture and their families must host a Japanese student who visits Summit County.

One of the much-anticipated highlights of the trip was the money-washing temple. Some Japanese believe one’s income doubles if they visit the particular temple often enough.

The students hiked up 2,000 steps to one temple. They also visited Daibutsu in Kamakura, a 37-foot tall Buddha built in 1252. Although tourists visit the Daibutsu, it is primarily a religious site for the Japanese public.

“The temple that surrounded the Daibutsu blew away in a tsunami a while ago, but you can still walk around inside the Buddha. It’s huge,” Ebert said. “It’s kind of amazing to think about, that it’s been there so long. It’s hard to imagine they made it in 1252 with all the metal.”

Kleckner said he was most impressed by the high-tech business district in Tokyo, made up of five blocks of digital cameras, MP3 players, tiny video cameras, televisions and other gadgets. Students said they found the products to be much cheaper than here.

In Tokyo the students visited the main fish market, gardens and shrines. They tried new foods such as sushi (raw fish), miso (soybean soup), tempura (batter fried fish and vegetables), soba noodles, seaweed, crickets, saki yoki (soup with beef that is dipped in raw eggs) and of course, Japanese candy.

Traveling by subway and train, they went to Fuji Hakunaye National Park. And they visited schools.

“The seventh-grade Japanese students were studying math we won’t learn until 10th grade,” Willis said. “They just work harder and learn it more. Plus a lot of people take English after school.”

Willis said the country was very peaceful and that he noticed people respected their elders more.

The students interviewed said they’d definitely like to return.

“Hopefully, we’ll stay in touch,” Willis said of his host family.

Christine McManus can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or

cmcmanus@summitdaily.com..t


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