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A contrast in cultures

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NORTH BEND - They like cool cars, but they'll pass on the cake.

Eight junior-high students from Kitakami, Japan, spent the past two weeks improving their English and experiencing life in North Bend through an exchange program sponsored by Cultural Homestay International (CHI). Since 1994, the informal partnership between the two cities, led by local CHI coordinator Kathy Ryan, has brought more than 150 Japanese students to stay with host families in the Upper Valley.

This year's batch landed at Sea-Tac International Airport July 29. They leave today, Aug. 9. In their short time in North Bend, the students did everything from attending a teen dance at Snoqualmie Railroad Days to cheering on fellow countrymen Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki at a Mariners game Aug. 7.

Ryan said the exchange program helps people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean learn about the other country's culture.

"When people don't know each other, they have a different impression of what they're like," she said. "They're people, just like us."

The students - Mai Sasaki, Tomoko Saito, Chiaki Sato, Natsuki Sato, Akane Endo, Junji Oyama, Tatsuya Sasaki and Mami Koide - attend Kitakami Junior High School and Aikawi Junior High School. They were supervised by three adults, Katuyuki Takeyama, who works for the city of Kitakami; Hiroyuki Sunohara, an employee of the travel agency that helped organize the trip; and Toshiyuki Abe, who is a shop teacher at Kitakami Junior High School.

In the mornings they learned English at North Bend Community Church. Afternoons were spent exploring. The group was shown an old-growth forest by Weyerhaeuser officials, and hiked to the base of Snoqualmie Falls for a tour of Puget Sound Energy Inc.'s hydroelectric plant. In addition, the students spent a day negotiating a challenge course, which promotes building relationships between team members, at Challenges Northwest in Snoqualmie.

Ryan said she's enjoyed teaching them English.

"The kids are so receptive, and they come over and try so hard," she said.

While in North Bend, each of the visitors stayed with a host family. Ryan said if not for the support of local parents, the CHI exchange program wouldn't be possible.

"Without the host families, I'd be nowhere," she said.

The students also met North Bend Mayor Joan Simpson, to whom they presented a ceremonial outfit worn by Kitakami fireman during New Year's celebrations. In return, Simpson provided them each with a pin of North Bend.

As soon as they stepped off the plane - which, because of the International Date Line, actually arrived in Western Washington a day earlier than when it had left Japan - the students noticed one immediate difference between Japan and America: food.

"The food is very big," said Chiaki Sato. Ryan explained that in Japan, food is served in much smaller portions.

"The host mothers feed them very well," she added, with a laugh.

They also weren't prepared for Americans' love of sweets. At a welcome picnic, Ryan said one student bit into a piece of cake and grimaced from the overabundance of sugar.

"They don't eat a lot of sweet stuff - mostly fruits and vegetables," she said of the Japanese diet.

Toshiyuki Abe, the teacher, said taking in the Upper Valley attractions was a memorable experience.

"North Bend is beautiful. Mount Si is beautiful. Snoqualmie Falls is beautiful," he said.

Junji Oyama was particularly interested in seeing Snoqualmie resident Russ Anderson's restored 1951 Chevrolet and his motorcycle.

"I like the very, very cool car and bike," he said.

Despite the differences, there are similarities between North Bend and Kitakami. The Japanese city's population is about 4,500, roughly the same as North Bend's. And Ryan said in terms of geography, the two cities resemble each other.

"I think that's why they chose North Bend in the first place," Ryan said. "They thought it was a safe and caring place to send their children."

However, unlike North Bend's proximity to Seattle, Kitakami is a two-hour car ride and two-hour bullet train ride - gliding over the tracks at speeds close to 120 miles per hour - from Tokyo, Japan's largest city. The nearest big city is the former home of Mariners All-Star pitcher Sasaki, Sendai, which is two hours away.

Ryan has been to Kitakami twice, with her most recent trip being this summer. She, along with local students Bethany Proudfoot, Nicole Henning and Lauren Paulus, as well as Ginger Anderson and her son, Casey, and daughter, Mindy, spent 10 days there.

"It's quite a culture shock. Everything is different," Ryan said.

The Valley entourage was treated like visiting royalty. Ryan and the others visited a samurai museum, a restored 250-year-old house in Sendai and took part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

During their stay in Japan, it was apparent Mariners' fever has spread far beyond the Pacific Northwest. With Ichiro and Kaz on the team, many Japanese have adopted the M's as their own.

"The day of the All-Star game, it was declared a holiday in Japan," Ryan said.

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