When Whistler established its first sister-city relationship with the town of Karuizawa in 1998, no one realized it would be nearly three years before a Whistler delegation visited Japan.
Karuizawa has sent business and political delegations to Whistler several times since the relationship was established, but it wasnt until last winter that members of Whistler council travelled to the Far East.
In March, 10 Karuizawa students visited Whistler in the first leg of the first student exchange, and last month seven Whistler students and a chaperone finally completed the exchange.
David Wiebe, Blair Richmond, Mark Mosher, Danielle OReilly, Christina McKean and Sarah and Kimberley Fenwick spent July 6-13 in Karuizawa, accompanied by chaperone Anne Fenwick. The trip was the completion of a circle, as most of the families hosted some of the Japanese students in March.
While the Whistler students knew members of their host families, Japan was brand new to most of them.
"It was somewhat what I expected," said Sarah Fenwick, who has kept in touch with Japanese friends she met in Whistler through Camp Jodyco and a Japanese TV show.
"I didnt know what to expect," her sister Kimberley said. "The schools were a surprise. I thought they would be stricter."
The Whistler students visited a high school, where they sat in on English classes, learned Japanese calligraphy and took part in a chopstick competition.
The also found that Japanese students have to spend 15 minutes a day cleaning their school. There are no janitors or custodians; cleaning is a school requirement of students.
But in addition to a mop and cleaning bucket, a cell phone is a part of most students school equipment.
Karuizawa, like Whistler, is a tourist town in the mountains. With a permanent population of about 12,000 which swells to 100,000 in the summer it is the only town to have played host to events in both the winter and summer Olympics. Karuizawa hosted the equestrian event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the curling events at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
"People enjoyed being involved in the Olympics, they have pride in their facilities," Anne Fenwick said. "But theyre now trying to find other uses for some of the facilities. There arent enough people to use some of them for what they were intended."
Nagano, a city of about 250,000, is up the railway line from Karuizawa. The Whistler students visited several of the Olympic facilities in Nagano, but more impressive were some of the ancient Samurai castles and the overwhelming sense of history throughout Japan.
From the communal slippers that were worn in every public building, to the elaborate tea ceremonies, the traditional dance and the food, the Whistler visitors were left with a sense of Japan that can only be fully appreciated through experience. Meals included lettuce at virtually every breakfast, seaweed and a ground-up mixture that contained fish eyes.
"I needed some Western food toward the end," Sarah said.
Whistler shipped 100 trees to Kaurizawa prior to the student exchange as a living reminder of the sister city relationship. The Whistler students helped plant the trees while in Kaurizawa, and now hope the exchange will grow as well as the trees.
Anne Fenwick says they hope to make the exchange an annual event, but it depends on funding and getting Whistler students interested in the opportunity. Karuizawa students are ready to come to Whistler any time.