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.

"They’ve managed to maintain the life of their traditional culture very well."

The Japanese tradition really captured Ben, specifically the special tea ceremony, which was held for the group at the community centre.

Although it was very formal and stylized, with traditional water boilers and tea, it was "very cool" nonetheless.

"That was my favourite thing to do because whenever I go somewhere on a trip I like to get all the traditional souvenir things and do all the traditional stuff," said Ben.

Among the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Olympic venues in Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

"They’re enormously proud of them, as they should be," said Kathy Podborski.

"They’re spectacularly beautiful."

The curling venue for those Olympics was in Karuizawa. The venue was built so that the floor retracts in the summertime to become a swimming pool.

"It was really neat," said Podborski. "I know for myself it was, but also for the kids to be able to go and see tangibly what the Olympics leave behind."

Their Japanese hosts were eager to hear all about Whistler too.

Charters and Brittany Kingzett were asked by one host mother to speak with her on the radio. She was a host for 77.5 FM Karuizawa.

The girls spent about 15 minutes talking on the air through a translator about life in Whistler and their experiences in Karuizawa.

Karuizawa is a resort town like Whistler, nestled near the foothills of the Japanese Alps, about one hour by bullet train from Tokyo.

There are restaurants and hotels, hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. But instead of all the bars, typical to Whistler, there are onsen or hot spring bathhouses.

Although wary of naked communal bathing, the Whistler students soon found out they loved it, said Kathy Podborski.

"You have to go in naked in front of everyone, divided boys and girls of course, and they were quite sure that it would be beyond their ability to be comfortable," she said.

"But in fact, you’re perfectly comfortable because that’s the only way to do it."

The teens stayed with the families of the Japanese students who came to Whistler at the end of March.

Just as the Japanese students spent time at the Whistler Secondary School, the Whistler kids paid a visit to the large Japanese high school.

Ben said they have long school days, sometimes going from 8:30 in the morning to 5 in the evening. For 25 minutes each day the students have to clean an assigned area. There are no janitors.

"Let’s keep the janitors here," joked Ben.

Podborski said that looking back on their experience, all the students agreed that they could have used more language lessons and more information about the culture, which is very socially structured, before their trip.

"It’s nice to know what you should be doing instead of blundering along," she said.

This is the second successful student exchange between Whistler and Karuizawa, giving kids from both cultures a chance to see beyond their regular boundaries.

"The things we know now," joked Podborski.

The exchange also promotes the relationship between the sister cities.

"The kids did a really good job of being ambassadors for Whistler," said Podborski.

A new group of Japanese kids are expected back in town in the winter.

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