• Phil

Sister City Exchange 2019

I suppose the last couple of weeks are as busy as it gets for the YIFA office, as we’ve just had a visiting delegation from our sister city of Clinton Township, Michigan. For me the whole experience has been exciting, nerve-wracking and full of new experiences. I’ve always felt a keen sense of responsibility in my previous jobs, but this time there was a huge reliance on me, particularly in terms of acting as interpreter.

Waiting at the airport on July 13th I was, to be honest, feeling a little nervous. Most of my worries centered around as to how demanding the delegates might be. I imagined a worst-case scenario whereby the visitors were not happy with anything and put a lot of pressure on us at YIFA. The reality was literally the polar opposite! All the pressure of the situation, and the hard work that we needed to do was made much, much easier by the kindness, the excitement and the openness of the group. Forgive me this huge generalization, but it occurred to me that the character of American people is more extroverted and open than Japanese or British people. In this case that character helped to ease everybody’s nerves, I think. The delegates’ joy and excitement at being in Japan (“We’re in Japan. Whoooo!”) was contagious!

We had been somewhat worried about jet-lag, and tiredness after the long flight. Though I’m sure the visitors didn’t feel 100% right away, they showed so much energy and joy to us from the first day to the last.

On that first day we took the bus back to the hotel and got everybody checked in. Gave them a pathetically short amount of time to get showered before heading out all together for something to eat. So, our YIFA staff and members (many of whom had waited at the hotel with a big banner to welcome the Americans), were standing around in the foyer at 7 p.m calling around trying to find a restaurant that could seat 15... Not an easy job, but a family restaurant a short drive away was eventually able to accommodate us. The meal was fun and a good chance to get to know each other a little bit over some food and drinks. I felt nice and relaxed on my way home after saying good night back at the hotel; I was still nervous about the hard work to come, but knowing that I was to spend that time with such a nice group of people was a relief.

The next morning, we all reconvened at the hotel to make introductions between the delegates and their host families. Seeing how they greeted one another, it struck me that the host families and visitors already seemed to know each other quite well! I guess they had made some contact before the programme started, and, as it was their first face-to-face meeting, tried to be extra friendly. Following the usual (in my opinion) overly-official customs and speeches, the meeting was over quite quickly, and we took a group photo in front of the building. Waving goodbye to the guests, they were off to enjoy their first couple of days in Japan with their hosts. We staff had what remained of the three-day weekend to enjoy, before our jam-packed schedule started in earnest on the Tuesday morning.

Under-slept, sub-fevered, and quite nervous, I arrived at the office early on Tuesday to get myself prepared. The day yawned ahead of us: orientation meeting, official introductions at city hall, elementary school visit, fire station visit. First things first though: hoover the office!

My hoovering was interrupted by the early arrival of Geno, seasoned veteran of the sister-city exchange programme on his sixth visit to Japan. He disappeared off to grab a coffee from the nearby 7-11, and I sat down to gather and look through the documents I would need for the various engagements through our first day. One-by-one the delegates came into our little office with smiling faces and stories of their exciting first days in Japan. Kamaria, a very impressive 12-year-old girl who joined the delegation alone for the trip, had been to game centers and enjoying lots of different foods. Clifford, a young cook who had experienced the programme from the American side as a host family last year, had been out to visit Taga Shrine and joined his host father to an onsen. Mother and daughter, Veronica and Sophia, had enjoyed visiting Kyoto with their host family. The energy and excitement had not notably changed since the moment they had arrived; something which boded well for the busy day ahead!

First order of business, I had to inform a little about Yasu and talk the delegates through our programme schedule. Usually this little prep meeting would take place in one of the meeting rooms across at city hall, but due to the small delegation this year, we all sat around my desk in our scruffy office for it. Once that was all done, we went across the car park to the city hall and up to the mayor’s office for the official greeting from him/ the first test of my interpreting powers.

I basically managed to interpret what the mayor said into English for the delegates and helped the meeting go along smoothly enough. The opening statement of the mayor was very long though, and I must have missed something out (which the mayor clarified in his own English), but he then kindly spoke in shorter sentences for me, and I was able to convey the meaning quite comfortably. Interpreting Japanese-English is not too difficult for me (as long as what is said is not too long; I’m not a trained interpreter and my short-term memory has its limitations!), but English-Japanese is a different story. When it comes to my Japanese, I often have times when I find it difficult to convey what even I want to say; conveying what someone else wants to say is a challenge at times beyond my capabilities…

After the meeting with the mayor, we moved upstairs and visited the city council chambers, where we were treated to a Bon dance performance by the city council chairman, then back downstairs where we had a meeting with the education superintendent. All this rushing around the city hall took us to the late morning when it was time for the day’s main event: the elementary school visit.

The programme that the elementary school provided was very interesting, and the delegates all really enjoyed their experience there. They all said how nice it was to be treated like a celebrity while they were there—a feeling that I can just about empathise with, but having worked in schools for the best part of ten years in Japan, I think I’ve become immune to the excitable attention of kids! The delegates variously toured the classrooms (joining in an English class for a short while), played traditional Japanese games with the second-grade students, ate lunch with the children (the ‘shishamo’ fish were welcomed variously—Kamaria even went up for seconds!), and joined a calligraphy class. It was a fantastic few hours spent, and in the delegates questionnaires that they wrote before leaving, it was very well received, if not the one experience which left the most lasting impression.

To finish our first day, we went to the fire station to receive a lecture from the fire chief, be shown around the facility and vehicles, and watch the (incredibly athletic) firefighters perform their rescue training. Both the facility and the work of the firefighters was very impressive, but what made the greatest memory must have been going onto the earthquake simulator. We went on three at a time (myself included), and they built it up from level 4, to 5, to 6, to 7, and all the way up to the same level as the Tohoku earthquake of 2011… at which point my chair tipped over (or would have done were it not for the quick hands of Clifford!). It felt strange to be laughing, joking, and (in my case) swearing during what is supposed to be an educational experience (indeed the earthquake simulator is a part of the emergency drill curriculum in Japan—all children must go onto one), but either way none of us will forget what the earthquake of that level felt like, and will be more prepared should we encounter a real one in the future.

After all that it was back to the office for a sit down/ run over the road to an antique shop I’d never before noticed (Geno such an expert on everything!). And the day was done, save some paperwork and prep for the following day.

The next day was also spent in Yasu (other days our trips took us further afield), and we set off on our bus to the Dotaku (Bronze Bell) Museum, one of the biggest sightseeing spots in Yasu. I had never realized it before starting my job in Yasu this year, but in two separate archaeological digs a number of years ago, a large amount of Yayoi-era (300BC-300AD) bronze bells were unearthed. Apparently, these are the greatest examples of such bronze bells (used in religious rituals related to the rice harvest) found in all of Japan, and the museum had them all in a beautiful display room. One lovely display showed the biggest bronze bell ever discovered, and on closer inspection, alongside it was a tiny little bell—the smallest one discovered! After plenty of time in the museum and with our guide, we then stepped out into the sunshine to view some replicas of Yayoi-era dwellings (they look a lot like straw teepees!), and then get back onto the bus to go for a tour of Yasu City library.

Yasu library is…functional. There’s not a great deal to recommend it to visitors, but it is an important element of these delegation visits that visitors are shown around public facilities. Not everything has to be fun, fun, fun…it is supposed to be something of a learning experience as well. Having said that, our guide was a very kind and friendly gentleman who made our short visit very interesting. The two areas which we really wanted the delegates to see were the statue (placed at the entrance) gifted to us from Clinton Township on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of our sister-city exchange, and the Michigan corner where we have a display of photos of recent exchange programmes (this year’s has already been added!), and a number of books about Michigan given to us from our counterparts in Clinton Township.

Just as we were leaving the library we bumped into our friend and YIFA member, Yuka, who was teaching a children’s English class in one of the rooms in the library. We quickly ran into the room to some cheerful if slightly perturbed faces, and joined in with a couple of songs. It was a nice way to finish the morning, and then we were off to lunch.

We took lunch at a very nice sushi restaurant where a couple of the visitors took the plunge and had a raw sashimi dish. I’m not sure if they all liked all the food (not just in this restaurant, but throughout the trip) but everybody was very brave in trying different things, and they all expressed a lot of interest in Japanese food culture. They were all able to use chopsticks really well too, which surprised me. I guess they are a lot more cosmopolitan than I was when I first came to Japan…

Not only were they able to use them, but by the end of the afternoon they were pretty adept at making chopsticks as well. The main part of our afternoon was spent at a chopstick-making workshop, where the delegates spent two and a half hours following the step-by-step instructions of the teachers. They all did a great job, making some ‘unique’ chopsticks as one of the teachers happily pointed out, but especially I must say that Veronica took to it very quickly and easily. She must have a very artistic background or something…I envy her for one!

The day finished with a visit to Yasu Junior High School where we had a look at the club activities around the school. I think the culture of club activities—for better or worse—is quite different to clubs and teams in western countries, so it was probably quite eye-opening for the delegates to see it, and they also had a very nice chance to join in a little with the school kendo club. It was very hot in the gym (think sauna turned all the way up to the hottest temperature), but it didn’t prevent the visitors from putting on the full garb and s