Student exchange bridges Pacific 

Karuizawa teens visit sister city of Whistler

The smiles and excitement at the farewell pot-luck dinner may be a fair indication that the second Japanese exchange trip to Whistler was another success.

After an action-packed week of skiing, skating, swimming and English lessons, 10 young Japanese teens will be heading home with lots of pictures and stories to share about their time here.

They spent their last night in Whistler, March 25, munching on chips and lounging around the TV, relaxed and comfortable with their Canadian host families and friends.

For the second year in a row the teens from Karuizawa, Whistler's sister city, have made the journey here to catch a little glimpse of life on the other side of the Pacific.

They were not disappointed.

Looking back on their week, 14-year-olds Rina Kobayashi and Yu Hosaka agreed that their visit to Whistler's Secondary School was one of the highlights of the trip.

"The school was totally different," said Kobayashi.

"Canadian schools are more free. The students have more choice with what they want to study. And everyone is friends between the different ages."

Hosaka found the school very friendly and relaxed, especially the dress code. She was surprised the Whistler girls were allowed to wear earrings, something the Karuizawa girls are not allowed to do at their school.

The girls said they are excited to show their Canadian counterparts their school uniforms when a group of Whistler teens visits Karuizawa this summer.

"We're not proud of the uniform!" joked Kobayashi.

"But we want to show them."

Two other students, Miku Shimizu and Yo Miyao, were excited to spend two days on the hill.

Both are a part of the Karuizawa Junior Racing team at home and have been skiing for six years.

They were not expecting good conditions on the hill at this time of year because the ski season is almost over in Karuizawa. Instead, they were very pleased with the snow.

"(At home) the runs are shorter, the lifts are slower and it's really icy," said Miyao.

"It's nice skiing (there) but Whistler is better."

When asked to name her favourite run she said:

"All of it."

Both were excited they had made it up the Peak chair on the weekend.

Like Whistler, Karuizawa is a resort city. It mostly caters to summertime visitors who come there to play tennis, golf or go horseback riding.

Located about one hour away from Tokyo by bullet train, the city is one of Japan's most popular resorts, with over 8 million visitors each year.

"Coming here is a big thing for them, " said Mayumi Rankin, who volunteers as a translator when the teens come to Whistler.

"Seeing the families and the different culture is really good for them."

The counter exchange to Japan is just as good for the Whistler teens who get exposed to life Japanese-style.

Sarah Fenwick was part of the first bunch of Whistler teens who travelled to Karuizawa for one week last year. She said there were a lot of differences, from taking your shoes off inside, to the paper doors in some of the houses, to the Japanese cuisine.

"The food is different. I thought it would be a lot of sushi but sushi is a treat there," she said.

Both Canadian and Japanese students alike had something to say about the breakfasts in their host countries.

Maybe it's because stomachs are a little queasy in the morning. Or maybe it's because people are a little groggy in the early hours and less inclined to experiment.

"We had slimy seaweed one morning," said Fenwick.

"We don't like oatmeal," said Kobayashi.

The program would not be the success that it is without the generosity of local businesses.

"We have a really good community here with people who want to help out," said Irene Whitney, one of the exchange organizers.

"Because we're a resort community people already have a good idea about hosting people."

Whistler was extremely generous in its support of the exchange program.

The Great Wall opened early so the kids could try their hands at rock climbing, free of charge.

The Old Spaghetti Factory gave all the guests a free lunch.

Whistler-Blackcomb provided two days of instructors and passes and vouchers on the mountain and Affinity Sports provided all the gear.

The list of generosity goes on.

The students were also given English lessons from the Canadian Sports Business Academy.

The hour-long lessons were used to go over vocabulary and help the teens feel a little more confident getting around Whistler.

The Japanese students said their English had improved over the course of their trip, especially the colloquial, catching on quickly to expressions like "It's O.K."

"So when they go back hopefully they will study English harder," said Rankin.

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