A group of visiting high school students from Red Wing’s Japanese sister city Ikata spent the past week sampling a variety of cherished local aspects, including rock-climbing, River City Days celebrations and tubing on the river.
The group capped off the trip Friday with a canoe trip on the Mississippi River with the Environmental Learning Center to Stockholm, Wisconsin, where the group stopped for lunch. Joining the Ikata students on their canoeing adventure were Willa Nagel and Riley Marty, who earlier this year traveled to Ikata with chaperone Dawn Erickson.
The exchange program through Red Wing’s Sister Cities Commission placed students from each country with a Japanese or American host family. Students gained valuable skills and experiences through the brief immersion into each respective culture.
“It helped them with a lot of confidence-building,” Erickson said. “I think one for sure is ready to travel again. I think they’ve learned a lot about kindness and how to treat other people without a language. They had no trouble with the language barrier — they discovered laughter and smiles and knowing how to say ‘thank you’: ‘arigato.’”
Tomoko Shinozawa, who teaches English in Ikata and lead the students on their trip to America, said Red Wing offers her students the chance to test their English skills and interact with different people.
“It’s so nice for the students,” she said. “They are a little shy, but I want them to talk to everybody. These are such precious times and it’s a good experience for the students.”
Maggie Thorpe, who works as a translator with the students in Japan, said the teens found creative ways to tackle the language barrier and connect with one another.
“Even if they can’t get the full grammar correct, they’ll have some vocab words, gestures and smiles — I think it’s on both sides, they do the same kind of thing,” she said. “There’s a lot of universal things: sports, music, activities.”
“And Pokemon Go,” added student Hyuuga Yamauchi.
A favorite shared interests among the students was volleyball — a sport taken seriously by the Ikata students.
“We had a lot of fun playing volleyball together because there were universal rules and we all got to play and understood what was happening most of the time,” Nagel said. “(The Ikata students) were really good.”
The Ikata students arrived in Red Wing in time for River City Days parade, during which they handed out candy, fans, toys and other goodies from their home town. Student Minami Abe said she enjoyed the parade-goers’ responses.
“I was really happy to hand over the gifts to the people and to see everyone else be happy, so that was really fun,” she said.
The visitors stumbled across a number of unexpected differences between cultures, including fewer traffic lights and “black rice”— wild rice. Abe said she was surprised by “going to the restaurants and seeing how big the portion sizes are” after a meal at Fiesta Cancun.
“It’s not only Fiesta Cancun, it’s been everywhere,” she said. “I’ve liked the food, but it’s a bit too much.”
Despite the adjustments to the new environment, Shinozawa said she was impressed with Red Wing.
“It’s a beautiful place and the people are so nice and kind,” she said. “I talked to a lot of people in the parade and the music festival outside, so it was so good. I enjoyed it very much.”
Erickson, Marty and Nagel experienced a similar welcome from Red Wing’s Japanese sister community, though navigating the cultural differences took some effort.
“There were a few things we had to figure out,” Nagel said. “I stepped on a few tatami mats. You’re not supposed to put your feet on any household floor, you’re supposed to leave your shoes at the door, and I always would forget.”
Like Abe, Marty had to adjust her palette to the new cuisine. After finding some new favorites — ramen and okonomiyaki, a cabbage dish — she said Japanese food became the highlight of her trip.
“They do it differently in different parts of Japan, so they made a (okonomiyaki)— the Ikata version was cabbage and I had the famous Hiroshima one, which had the noodles and egg in it,” she said. “I really liked that. There was some fish and some fish flakes (bonito flakes) that dance when they get hot.”
Throughout their experiences, Erickson said perhaps the most valuable thing each of the students gained was the chance to “build lifelong friendships.”