Japanese host families extend warmth to Whistler students 

Sister city exchange provides insight into Japanese culture

"It’s not weird, it’s different" were the words to live by during the recent Whistler student exchange trip to Karuizawa.

So staying true to their motto, 10 local students put their North American reservations aside in early July and opened their hearts and their minds to the sites and sounds of Whistler’s sister city, more than 7,000 kilometres away from home.

They donned kimonos, participated in a solemn Japanese tea ceremony, spent a day at the local high school, lived with Japanese families, and tasted a wide-range of new foods.

They even shed all their clothes and their modesty for a dip in the "onsen," the public bathhouse.

"It’s pretty exciting when you get to organize programs like this because it opens young people to trying new things, a different culture, different foods, different experiences," said municipal youth programmer Sue Oliver, who along with Tim Wake chaperoned the recent trip.

"It kind of allows them to step outside their comfort zone and for me that’s very satisfying, to get them out of the Whistler bubble and have them have a more worldly awareness."

The students and their two chaperones arrived in Karuizawa on Saturday, July 3 for their whirlwind 10-day trip.

Their hosts didn’t waste much time immersing them in the culture.

By their second full day in Karuizawa they were exploring the art of "kado" or Japanese flower arrangement in brightly coloured kimonos and taking part in "sado", the traditional tea ceremony.

This day in particular sticks out for Kirby Chew, one of the two teenage boys on the trip.

"It was just a really good Japanese culture day and it was probably something that I’ll remember forever," he said.

But this group got to see much more than the Japan of postcards with its shrines, temples and kimonos.

They got a true insider’s look at the Japanese way of life.

Chew recalls one host family whose house was deep in the forest.

One night they placed watermelons around the house and before dawn the next day they awoke to find rhinoceros beetles right before their eyes.

These beetles are about 10 times bigger than the beetles here, explained Chew, and they have really big horns.

Lonnie Wake said the day at Japanese high school sticks out as one of the best days of the trip, even though she was called on to clean the school at the end of the day like all the other students.

She didn’t mind that at all, although she doubts it would work at Whistler Secondary.

"I don’t know how much would get done at our school!"

The success of this year’s trip may in fact be measured by the tough, tear-filled good-bye.

By the end of the 10 days there were fast flowing tears all around, both from the hosts and the students, who couldn’t be consoled for the first half hour of the trip home.

"You think you probably won’t see them again, right, and they’re your new friends," said Wake, who has vowed to stay in touch with the friends she made in Karuizawa.

Oliver said staying with the host families is one of the most special parts of the exchange because they get so close over such a short period of time.

"The host family really brings them into their lives and does everyday things with them and does really special things with them too. It’s just such a great opportunity for them to have the home-stay experience because they get the experience that an ordinary traveller would never get," said Oliver.

This is the fourth student exchange with Karuizawa. The Japanese students come to Whistler in the winter, and the Whistler students travel to see them in the summer.

The municipality donates $500 for the airfare of each student. Oliver said the rest of the trip costs each student between $800 and $1,000.

She said the program is gaining momentum every year.

"It’s becoming a more popular thing in the last couple of years and I think it’s going to be around for years to come," she said.

In fact, it’s so popular that Chew said he wants to go back again next year.

Students can start applying for next year’s program in October.

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