Students exchange culture, gifts with sister city 

Kendo swords, hot spring bathhouses and tea ceremonies part of Japanese experience

On the return trip from Karuizawa, Ben Podborski had a few more things stowed in his bags than he originally left home with.

Among the Japanese treasures he unpacked back home was a Kendo sword, a traditional door cover and a happi coat.

Each was given to him as a gift from his Japanese hosts during his weeklong stay in Whistler’s sister city.

The extent of this gift giving part of the culture came as a bit of a surprise to the 13-year-old Whistler native, even though this was his second trip to Japan.

"Whenever you stay at someone’s house you must give them a bunch of gifts and when you leave, they give you gifts," he said.

"It’s very traditional."

The gift exchange was just one example of the Japanese hospitality, which was extended to the Whistler group over the course of their stay.

Ben received his happi coat, which is traditional festival garb for men, after participating in a Karuizawa shrine festival.

The Whistler students paraded through the city streets carrying a shrine all decked out in the happi coats.

Then the three visiting girls were dressed in summer kimonos for the fair that night.

It was a great experience, said 15-year-old Sarah Charters, although the kimonos were not exactly comfortable.

She said there are strings inside the kimonos, which are pulled tightly to make the girls taller and skinnier. Despite the constricting outfits she said the festival was one of her favourite things about the exchange trip.

The happi coats and summer kimonos were then presented to the kids as gifts.

"That’s what I mean by their generosity being overwhelming," said Ben’s mother and trip chaperone Kathy Podborski.

"They could not have been more kind and generous and giving in both their spirit and gifts than they were."

The seven students stayed at three different home stays during their trip.

"Everyone wanted to host us," said Podborski.

"It gave us a chance to see how different people lived within their own culture."

While the homes were different from family to family, there were some very noticeable similarities. Each had combined the traditional Japanese way of life with the modern. There were futons and tatami mats and low tables.

Many houses had three generations living in them and the family spent most of the time together in the communal rooms.

"We really got a great education in just the life and culture of Japanese people and a combination of traditional versus modern day living," said Kathy Podborski.

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