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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 smashing the students with big sticks. Kamaria was too kind to hit anybody hard, but Sophia enjoyed hitting the kids with unnerving relish!

After a quick chat back in the meeting room with the principal, we boarded the bus and returned back to the office to bid each other good evening for another day. With the worst timing in the world, I had received a pretty big translation job that afternoon which needed to be completed by the end of the week…so I stayed late trying to make some headway into that. Thankfully, there was not too much to prepare for me for the exchange programme over the next couple of days.

The rest of our week would be spent travelling further afield to show the delegates some of the big sightseeing spots in the southern Shiga area. On the Thursday morning, in spite of heavy rain, we stuck with our original plan of visiting Biwako Terrace, a facility on the top of a mountain overlooking Lake Biwa. The cable car ride up the mountain was fun, but unfortunately, due to the weather, we couldn’t see further than 5 metres, let alone see the promised beautiful views of the lake… This was one of the occasions when I really was impressed by the delegates though. There weren’t any complaints at all, just laughter at the situation, and a huge amount of positivity. In spite of the rain, the younger delegates found a climbing wall and set to climbing it (I stood underneath ready to break a fall if necessary!). They really tried to make the best of any situation; something I was very thankful for, and something I will strive for myself as well.

Another bad point of the rainy weather was that the restaurant we had booked for lunch was closed. No sane people go to the top of the mountain in such weather apparently (yes, I know what that indicates of us!). Instead we stopped at a shopping mall halfway to our next destination and found a nice restaurant to sit and eat for a while. With our remaining time we all separated for some shopping time, before reconvening to head to the Lake Biwa Museum in the afternoon.

I am something of an expert of the museum, having been an annual pass holder for the past couple of years (I often bring my children on a rainy day). This time we walked around slowly looking at all the various exhibitions (Takeda-san explaining a lot for the delegates), then into the aquarium. Some of the delegates must have felt we had too much time in the museum, as they were waiting in the foyer for a while before we left, but others enjoyed taking everything in slowly. I suppose there are different speeds at which to enjoy a museum, and it is difficult to cater for what everybody prefers in that regard.

The next day also saw us heading further afield. In the morning we took the long(ish) bus journey to Hikone to see the famous Hikone Castle and have a tour from the expert American tour guide that volunteers with them. In this case, and elsewhere, I must say that having guides and other people to help and explain is a real feature of this programme. Just walking around a castle grounds would be quite nice, but receiving the expert historical facts and stories from our guide that morning made the whole experience a lot more illuminating for us all. That morning too was a little rainy, but we still enjoyed walking around, and I suppose the rain that we had with us for most of the programme was, in a way, preferable to the usual heat of July in Japan.

Following a lunch in a very nice traditional restaurant, we visited a sake brewery. This was a very interesting visit for us all, as this sake brewery has a very long history (several hundreds of years), and they maintain the original traditional techniques and equipment to this day. My interpreting skills were not at their best on this occasion; I was told that the owner would guide the delegation in English, but minutes before I was brought in as interpreter. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if it was a topic I was somewhat knowledgeable in, but sake brewing is unfortunately not so. Preparation is a very important part of interpreting, particularly if you have some limitations in vocabulary. Either way, between us all, we managed to convey everything to the delegates, so the job was done, even if I didn’t look too clever!

By the end of the walk around the facility we were all ready for a drink, and they lined up all their best bottles of sake for us to try. I just had two or three, but couldn’t really tell the difference between them. I don’t drink sake day-to-day, so it’s difficult to know what’s good or bad (all tastes fairly bad to me to be honest!). The delegates all tried a lot (not the minors though of course!) and some went and bought a bottle or two as a souvenir. After a quick view of the art exhibition in the gallery upstairs, we boarded the bus and had a sleepy journey back to Yasu.

The next day was the day of the Yasu Summer Festival and fireworks display, where—as every year—YIFA had their own stall. This year we decided to sell American hamburgers, and thanks to the great help of the huge number of volunteers, we sold out within a couple of hours. The mayor had promised to join us for a burger for his dinner, and we had to put his aside due to how quickly they were flying out of the stall! If I recall correctly, we sold 260 burgers, but I feel that we could have sold at least 100 more had we shown a bit more optimism. Either way, the plan was to sell out early and be able to sit and enjoy the fireworks, so, on that score: job done!

The whole event, and working together at the stall, was a fantastic way of promoting interaction between the American visitors and Yasu locals. The delegates all worked hard to help out at the stall. They stood at the front to sell the hamburgers or walked around the vicinity with sandwich boards to advertise for us. They helped to create a wonderful atmosphere for everyone, and I was particularly impressed with their confidence in such a new environment surrounded by strangers.

Sitting down together at the end of the evening, thoroughly exhausted, to watch the beautiful fireworks, is one of my nicest memories of this year’s programme. To think, leading up to the day itself, we weren’t confident that the festival would have been able to go ahead due to the amount of rain. Part of the joy of that evening was the feeling of luck that the rain broke for a few hours to let us enjoy that special time together.

The next day, Sunday, was a well-deserved day-off for everybody, before we met again on the Monday morning, for the last regular day of the programme.

The day started with a rainy visit to a rice paddy. Rice growing is not so prevalent in America of course, and, with rice fields being such a feature of Japanese rural scenery, it felt very appropriate to add it to the programme. Our guide this time was the manager of a company who manage about twenty percent of the rice fields for residents in the local area. Apparently, due to the aging population, and the growing working hours for most people, people are less and less able to tend to their land, hence the need for such companies to do it for them.

After our brief time at the rice paddy we walked over to a community center where we were to prepare our own lunch. Organised by (long-time) YIFA members Iwahara-san and Atsuta-san, the delegates took part in a takoyaki workshop, where they prepared their own takoyaki before we all sat down to enjoy them together. It was a fun morning, and I was surprised by how adept they all were at cooking. Food is such a great way of encouraging cultural interaction, and, just in a general sense, the simple act of sitting down for a meal is a nice way of facilitating conversation. This event was the epitome of that, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours spent together.

Our afternoon took us to Hyozu Shrine, where we also had an opportunity to sit down for some food together; the priest had laid out some of the local delicacy, funazushi, for us all to try. Funazushi is a traditional form of sushi whereby the fish and rice are fermented for anything up to one year. The taste is… unique. It was eaten in varying amounts—I proudly managed to finish mine! —but I don’t think any of the visitors will be craving for it on their return to America…

We did see some amazing, once-in-a-lifetime things at the shrine. On arrival, though it was raining lightly, we were able to climb to the roof of the main building which was under reconstruction (as it apparently is every 10 years or so), and see the thatch-work up close. It was quite something; layers and layers of miscanthus grass, up to 10cm thick in places. It was a bonafide work of art masquerading as a work of construction. Either way, according to the priest, it was very costly work indeed.

Back inside, the priest showed us some of the precious things stored by the shrine for use on special occasions. There were unbelievably shiny 800-year-old swords, great tortoise shells, deer antlers, and ancient mirrors. These things were so precious we were told to be careful not to even breathe on them! It was very kind of the shrine to let us see their amazing collection, and it was much appreciated by everyone. It ended up being a real highlight of the programme for me.

On leaving the shrine we stopped off at a nearby shopping centre for the delegates to do some last-minute shopping (BORING), before jumping back on the bus back to the office. Incredibly, in the blink of an eye, the main programme was over with. Tomorrow we would have our sayonara party, and then, the following day, be saying goodbye.

At the sayonara party we were finally blessed with the sunshine that we could have done with on one of our outdoor days. It did make for beautiful views of Lake Biwa though, as our party took place at a lovely facility on the lakeside. It was a very fun time together for our last day. We had a performance of Nankin Tamasudare (a traditional Japanese street art), a line-dancing performance by the delegates, speeches from the mayor and others, a bon dance led by the city council chairman, a slightly overlong game of pass-the-parcel, and, to top it all off, some delicious food to enjoy together.

On returning to the office that afternoon, I felt a range of emotions. We’d all become good friends during our short time together, so I felt sad that we were to part the following day. On the other hand, I was also glad that we’d had such a successful programme this year, having spent such a lot of time preparing for it all, and a lot of time worrying about it while they were here. I don’t often ‘take my job home’, but work was always on my mind while the delegation was with us. I was worried about my interpreting, about preparations for various parts of the programme, the happiness of everyone involved, and so many other things, not to mention other parts of the job which I had to keep up with. So, I must say that ‘relief’ was probably the overarching feeling for me once the programme had finished!

The last day—departure day—had us meeting at the city hall at eleven o’clock for a short farewell gathering. City officials, YIFA staff and members, host families and delegates were all together for one final moment. Some tears were shed, lots of photos were taken, and some fairly unnecessary official speeches were made. I had a little tear in my eye as well seeing the delegates saying goodbye to their host families. In the end, the bonds between them were the strongest and most important element of the exchange programme. It was a sad separation.

The bus to the airport brought me back to the bus we had taken in the other direction a week and a half prior. The feelings were very different this time, though everyone was still in perfectly good spirits. In fact, I’m sure they were looking forward to being home with their families again, in spite of being sad the programme had come to an end. There wasn’t really time for any emotional moment at the airport. The delegates checked-in to their flight, walked over to the customs area and, unlike the drawn-out farewell of the morning, our time to say goodbye hit us very suddenly.

On the way back from the airport, and over the next couple of days, we all reflected a lot on this year’s programme. Though there were things which could be improved in future (flexibility of schedule to allow for making the most of good weather days, more prep/ research for interpreting work, pre-book the first night dinner, alter duration of certain parts of the programme), it was overall a huge success. Although initially we had a lot of worry about the size of the delegation that came (I believe it was the smallest delegation that has been sent over the last 26 years), the smaller nature of the group made it that much easier to become close with each other. I’m very thankful for the time I spent with the five delegates. Through this experience, and from the visitors, I have learned a lot and grown as a person. I have no idea how many exchange programmes I will participate in, but however many it might be, nothing will compare to this first one. I’m sure that these are memories which will last a lifetime for me.

As for my own personal contribution, I think I did a good job in helping the programme along, though do feel that my interpreting must improve. To be frank, of all the skills necessary for my job, interpreting is the one which I feel least confident with. But I wasn’t interested in making excuses, and tried to prepare the best I could to help the programme run as smoothly as possible. Interpreting in my job usually involves meetings with parents and teachers, or helping people with procedures at the city hall. These are situations where you can stop and clarify/ confirm meanings, ask people to repeat themselves, or even check Google without a problem. During the exchange programme though, I was put into situations where I had to interpret a bit more officially for the mayor, the city council chairman, and others. This put a bit more pressure on my shoulders, but I tried to prepare for what language could be expected, and largely was able to convey the meaning in English for the American visitors. Other interpreting jobs came as the programme moved forward, at the museums, sake brewery, chopstick workshop, and many more. Of course, there was a lot of specialist terminology which I wasn’t au fait with, in spite of any preparations I did, but generally I think I helped things along quite well. The whole experience did reinforce to me the need to keep improving my language skills though. I plan to still be working here the next time the delegation come here (in two years), and I would like to be able to deal with the demands more confidently and professionally at that time.

In the unlikely event that anyone has read all the way down to here… thank you (and well done!). It’s not very well written I know, but I just wanted to get some words down for anyone who is interested in reading about the exchange programme in future. I’ll try and keep my writing a bit shorter and sharper in future! August in the office is a little lighter than other months, especially for me with the schools taking their summer vacations, but we have plenty of events going on throughout the summer. I guess I’ll write a little update about that sometime soon. Thanks for reading!



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