Mari Bliss had visited Japan before, but this time, it was different. The 18-year-old Rampart High School graduate was “on her own”; that is — traveling without family. This time, she was in the company of her classmates.
“It’s eye-opening, to (travel) by yourself,” she said. “It was new, being on my own and staying with another family. You get to see the country almost on a personal level. Everyone was really friendly and it was nice spending time getting to know them. They want to show you everything.”
Bliss was one of five Colorado Springs high school students who, during the first week of June, visited Fujiyoshida, Japan, a high-elevation city about 67 miles west of Tokyo at the northern base of Mount Fuji. She and classmates — Alexa Huesgen Hobbs (Coronado High School), Olivia Novy (Air Academy High School), Adrien Rooke (Vista Ridge High School) and Minta Williams (Air Academy High School) — made the trip as sponsored members of the Japan-America Society of Southern Colorado, headquartered in the Springs.
The organization’s mission, said its president, Robin Lawrentz, is to share the appreciation for Japan with residents in Southern Colorado. It accomplishes this through promotion of cultural understanding, Japanese language and cooking classes, and larger programs like the Sister City Exchange program between Colorado Springs and Fujiyoshida, the Japan-America Grassroots Summit (Manjiro Summit) and the International Children’s Music Festival.
Since the sister cities program was established in 1962, Japanese junior high school students in Fujiyoshida have been visiting Colorado Springs for a week in August, said Naoko Bliss, Mari’s mother.
But thanks to a two-year, $60,000 grant awarded to the organization, American students were also able to visit their sister city. The JASSC sent eight Colorado Springs high school students and two chaperones to Fujiyoshida in 2016 and 2017, Lawrentz said. Then, to sustain the program, the City of Fujiyoshida fundraised $20,000 for American students to visit again in 2018 and 2019, allowing five students and two chaperones to visit Japan each year.
“The High School Sister City Exchange, or Tomodachi (‘friendship’) program, has been extremely successful,” Naoko Bliss said.
While in Japan, students lodged with host families. Some visited Kamakura, a seaside city just south of Tokyo, and the Great Buddha, a roughly 42-foot (13 meter) tall bronze statue of Buddha. Others visited the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park and the aquarium in Izu, where they fed fish to a seal and shook hands with sea otters. The group also toured Tokyo’s Sky Tree and the famous Harajuku and Asakusa districts, Naoko Bliss said.
The students also got an up-close look at Japanese education and civics, visiting Fujigakuen and Yoshida high schools, where they experienced a tea ceremony that was featured in Fujiyoshida’s local newspaper. Some of them tested their skills in Kendo, a Japanese martial art. All students attended English and calligraphy classes, visited the Fujiyoshida World Heritage Museum, and visited Fujiyoshida City Hall, where they met the mayor.
In all, Mari Bliss said, the trip spurred in her a greater interest in Japanese culture. Traveling to Japan is “a cultural experience … that you can’t get anywhere else,” she said.
“(The trip to Fujiyoshida) provides great exposure to a very lovely culture, people and a great education system. It’s eye-opening for (the students) to go and experience pretty much a new world,” Lawrentz said. “This isn’t just a fun trip to Japan. We really try to instill in (the students) that they are ambassadors. They represent our schools, our city and America. They were very well received.”
For more information on the JASSC, membership and programs, visit japanamerica.org.