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Mayor returns from 'whirlwind' trip to Japan

Over two days, Wilhelm-Morden tours, talks and has a run-in with the paparazzi



During a whirlwind, two-day trip to Whistler's sister city of Karuizawa, Japan last week, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden got the full paparazzi treatment.

The itinerary had it listed only as a 30-minute wine-bar opening at a train station.

"We pull up in the van and I see this plaza full of media people, like TV cameras and print reporters with big cameras with huge lenses, and there were about 30 of them," Wilhelm-Morden recalled.

"I said, 'how come all these people are here?' and (my interpreter) said 'oh, they're waiting for you.'

"So I stepped out of the van and all these people with cameras came running at me. It was bizarre," she added with a laugh.

A far cry from the lonely press table in the Whistler council chamber, to be sure.

The mayor also found herself addressing a crowd of more than 500 people — through her translator, of course — talking about the relationship between the two sister cities, and how its student exchange program might be broadened.

"I've never experienced that before, and I thought 'this must be boring for them to listen to me,' because after every paragraph or so then it would be interpreted," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"But I had numerous people come up to me afterwards and say that they were very interested in what I had to say, and in fact my remarks in printed form were circulated amongst a number of people who weren't able to attend, so they were very interested."

The trip included tours of local municipal facilities, a century-old, family-owned furniture company and several historical sites.

"They're very much promoting what they call a historical sites alignment tour, and it's something similar to what we do here with our circle tour," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"So that was very interesting, just to see what they're doing to promote and differentiate their tourism offerings."

At about 20,000 people, Karuizawa's population is double Whistler's, but the sister cities share much in common — both boast beautiful mountain terrain bordering a forested valley, both rely on tourism as a main component of their economy, and both have played host to the Olympics (twice in the case of Karuizawa — events from both the 1964 Summer Olympics and the 1998 Winter Games were held there).

The two cities became "sisters" in 1999 — the 67th such pair between the two countries.

Wilhelm-Morden has visited Karuizawa twice now; the last visit was in 2013 with her husband for the city's 90th anniversary and was paid entirely by Karuizawa.

For this trip, the Resort Municipality of Whistler paid for the mayor's airfare and one night in Tokyo.

The two cities, though culturally a world apart, have much to teach each other, the mayor said, right down to the details of bear management.

"One of the things they did when they went home after one of their trips here was implement our waste container design, to avoid bears getting into garbage cans," she said.

"This is a very important relationship both to us and to Karuizawa. The elected officials in Karuizawa are hugely supportive of the sister city relationship and the exchange, and they themselves are talking about coming over here again next summer, so we really are strengthening that relationship for sure."