Juneau students visited the Ainu Village. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan, only residing on Hokkaido.
Toby Collins, dressed in a traditional robe in a Sapporo hotel on day one of the group's trip.
Juneau students enjoy a dinner wearing traditional Japanese robes called yukatas at the Norboribetsu Grand Hotel.
Story last updated at 7/10/2012 - 1:17 pm
For decades, Juneau resident Annie Calkins has been at the helm of a unique relationship between Juneau and Nishiokoppe, a small community of 1,100 residents on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Since 1994 teachers from the Juneau School District have spent one to two years teaching in Nishiokoppe, often bringing their families for the experience. In addition, every other year, Nishiokoppe has sent groups of middle school students to Juneau for a few days, which includes a brief home-stay in Juneau residences.
From June 12 to June 23, 16 Juneau students ages 10 to 15 had the opportunity to travel to Japan to stoke the relationship. Though several smaller groups of Juneau students have traveled to Japan since the relationship was first forged 20 years ago, an exchange of the size of the recent group has not occurred in 17 years.
Calkins was one of the chaperones during the first trip to Japan.
"It profoundly affected those kids," she said. "One of [them] now owns a very successful Japanese restaurant in Chicago, one has worked at the United Nations as a Japanese translator and works (for a Japanese) stock exchange trading company."
After the last group of Nishiokoppe students left Juneau in the summer of 2011, Calkins and other parents and teachers, including some who have taught in Japan, figured it was high time to organize another trip.
Starting last September, a core group of parents and teachers began the planning process. Calkins explained it started with a series of emails.
"We got an initial group of parents together and delegated different aspects of the trip," said Joann Rieselbach, who spent two years in Japan with her husband Kurt, a Harborview Elementary teacher. Rieselbach took the reins of the planning logistics. She spent hours working with a travel agent in Seattle, and sent hundreds of emails to coordinate plane tickets, the itinerary and home stays.
"The dedication and the level of education and willingness to put this all together; there was a real quality and commitment by the people involved. That told me a lot right there," said Cecile Elliott, whose 12-year-old daughter, Gracie Lazar, was one of the Juneau students.
Fundraising was a key component leading to the trip. Rieselbach explained that it was a short time period to conduct the fundraising the group needed, and to not overtax the Juneau community.
"I really think that if we tallied the amount of money our community contributes through raffles, spaghetti feeds, we are probably one of the most generous per capita," Rieselbach said. "Whether it be sports, cultural activities, any type of extracurricular activity. I walked away with this overwhelming sense of generosity that I don't think the community recognizes they possess."
Rieselbach explained that the planning group started with rather idealistic goals, with the hope that they would bring a group of students to Japan that represent a demographic that captures the diversity that Juneau has.
"We had to take a different avenue to get the number of parents and kids to participate," Rieselbach said. In the final planning stages, there were eight female and eight male students committed to going, in addition to five adult chaperones, which included Calkins and Rieselbach's husband, as well as their 14 year old son, Anton.
The students had some cultural training in Juneau before they departed, led by parents and teachers who had been to Nishiokoppe. They covered some etiquette issues, like how to be aware of the intense generosity present in the Japanese culture.
"You have to be hyper aware of their hospitality," Rieselbach said. The customary exchange of gifts was also covered. "We were instructed not to give them an expensive gift, because they would feel like they needed to reciprocate."
For many of the students, it was their first international traveling experience, including Lazar.
"She knew it would be challenging," Elliott said. "We talked about coping mechanisms for her. I spent a whole week prepping her (for her departure). I was shocked at how hard it was be to let her go. When she called from Seattle to board the plane to Seoul, I felt like the floor dropped out underneath me. Or like my toe nails got pulled through my legs and out my stomach."
The group's first stop was Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, a city of 1.9 million people. They stayed in Sapporo for a day and a half and attended the All Hokkaido Shrine Festival.
For Lazar, the festival was one of her favorite parts of the trips.
"There were lots of different people," she said, and was engrossed with "What they wore, how they acted, what type of games they played. There's lots of different food we got to eat there. It was really fun."
Though most of the trip was meticulously planned, they squeezed in an impromptu visit to a baseball game between the Tokyo Giants and the Hokkaido All Nippon Ham Fighters. The game turned out to be a highlight for many of the students, including Lazar. Not only was it entertaining, but culturally enlightening.
"It looked like an American baseball game, but everyone was there was really supportive, and for the whole game they were standing up. When one team was cheering for their team, the other ones were quiet and didn't boo."
While in Sapporo the group visited a large fish market, and gave out hats donated by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. They also visited an eight-story shopping mall.
The group then traveled to Nishiokoppe, where, in groups of two, they had three-day home stays. Some of the families had translator devices and some of the Juneau students had smart phones with a translator application.
"Some (students) felt a little nervous," said 12-year-old Yosef Monsef," But I just knew that they would realize that we were from another country and weren't familiar with their customs. They were just amazing people."
"We played card games and video games, and dinner was fun," Lazar said. "We talked to them about Japan. Some of the family had been to Juneau, so they had some pictures they showed me."
Nishiokoppe has a wooden toy museum, which, according to Calkins and Rieselbach, the students devoured.
"The museum was really amazing, really cool," Monsef said. "It was like a giant indoor playground, and everything was made out of wood and everything was handmade. They had little wooden cars that you could actually drive."
The group had minimal contact with their families back in Juneau.
"There was a lot of communication between parents, exchanging messages about what their child had communicated to them," Elliott said. "There was some value in not being able to communicate. That was one way I comforted myself, knowing that the group had to rely on themselves and gel."
After Nishiokoppe the group had several side trips, including a visit to Monbetsu, located on the Sea of Okhotsk. In addition to being the home of the 100 Yen Store, (the equivalent of a dollar store), Monbetsu is the location of an extensive amount of polar ice research, and has a large port where numerous Russian exploration ships dock. The students visited a sea ice museum, which has a room that remains at 40 degrees below zero.
The group also traveled to Noboribetsu, south of Sapporo.
"We looked at hills and craters created by a 2002 (volcanic) explosion. It spurred conversations about the ring of fire," Calkins said. Noboribetsu is also a Mecca of onsens, or hot sulfuric, iron and salt baths, "On a large scale," she said. The group stayed in the Grand Hotel, where, "All the U.S. occupying troops stayed after World War II, from 1947 to 1952."
The hotel rooms were equipped with tatami mats for sleeping, and robes to wear to the onsens.
"You went into your room, put on your robe, and that's all you wore the whole time in the hotel," Calkins said." All the kids were running around in the bathrobes. It was great."
The next morning they went to an Ainu village outside of Sapporo, in the village of Shiraoithe. The Ainu are an indigenous group in Japan, only located on Hokkaido, with a shrinking population.
"It was extraordinary," Calkins said. "It reminded several of us of Hoonah and Icy Straights Lodge and the development in Hoonah. They had the equivalent of a traditional long house, and did singing and dancing. It was really interesting."
The group then returned to Sapporo before their departure back to Juneau. On very last day, five of students in addition to Calkins and another chaperone, Mary Tonkevich, went to the Hokkaido International Exchange and Cooperation Center. They met with the Secretary General and the staff of the center.
"We talked with them about the importance of the exchange, between Juneau and Nishiokoppe," Calkins said. "The vision, the original goal and the dream, which was to create lifelong relationships that foster cultural, economic, scientific, educational exchange between our countries. This relationship has been going on for over 20 years and it has born fruit. They were very intrigued by that."
They all had mandatory "reflective" journals, which Calkins reviewed. "For some it was a joy, and for some it was a pain," she said. Despite some pain, it appears the students were quite affected by their travels.
"The whole trip in general, every second seemed like we were doing something fun and new," said Monsef.
Lazar returned with a greater sense of qualities she would like to see Americans strive to achieve.
"Japanese are really respectful, kind, giving," said Lazar. Calkins agreed, adding that students "Talked about how incredibly warm and respectful the Japanese people were. The kids noticed that people were really respectful and nice, in banks and lines."
Calkins interviewed every student before they returned to Juneau, asking them what their memories were. She plans to compile her notes and sent them to their hosts in Nishiokoppe.
"There's this awareness, on a level that no text book can give, of an aspect of Asian culture," Rieselbach said. "I'm sure if you talked to every parent, they learned something about their child. They didn't have mom and dad around; they didn't have their friends, their computers."
Lazar felt the trip helped her to mature, and mother agreed.
"The experience definitely moved her towards who she's becoming," Elliott said. "We don't have many rites of passages for young men and women, and this was sort of like a rite of passage. And she did it well; she did it courageously, openly, responsibly. I know this because of what she came back with and how she expressed it to me. It made me incredibly proud and relieved."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.