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Students prepare for Japanese exchange trip

Dawn Erickson (right) helps Brianna Beck (left) adjust her kimono, a traditional Japanese dress. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
Weston Wyatt (left) and Graham Achen (right) try on styles of Japanese clothing they will wear in Ikata. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Mulitmedia2 / 3
Brianna Beck (left) and the other students tried their hands at practicing with chopsticks for their trip to Ikata. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

Five local students will have the opportunity of a lifetime in July to travel to Ikata, Japan, for the annual student exchange program.

Gretchen Anderson, a retired elementary music teacher who taught in Red Wing for decades, will chaperone the teenagers on their two-week trip. She believes the cultural experience will be far different from what the kids have experienced in the United States.

"Learning to navigate the food and bathroom experience will be quite different. It will be about tolerance and trying new things," Anderson said.

The "Friendship Delegation" will consist of five local teens between eighth and 10th grades: Weston Wyatt (10th), Julia Palmetier (ninth), Brianna Beck (eighth), Graham Achen (eighth) and Brecken Hill (eighth).

"They are nice, well-balanced kids that are independent. I don't think there will be any problems with being home-sick," Anderson said.

The group will see a variety of sights before they even reach Ikata to stay with their host families. Their first stop is Tokyo on day one. From there they will they take a train to the island of Kyoto and additionally visit the Hiroshima Memorial before arriving in their destination of Ikata.

Ikata is the sister city of Red Wing, which is a small fishing village in southern Japan. The city even has a Red Wing Park, where there is an annual tree planting ceremony by the arriving students. The park has a miniature tepee in model of the tepee in Bay Point Park.

The exchange program has its roots dating back to 1995, with both cities having the connection of containing a power plant. It began with engineers traveling to examine tests, but has developed into a strong program of immersing teens in a culture very different from their normal routine.

"Any time that you can go out of the United States it broadens your horizons. It makes us a better individual because we understand that people look different than us or have different customs, but we're all that same human being on the inside," Anderson said.

The Red Wing ambassadors will depart for Ikata on July 20 and will remain in Japan until Aug. 2.

"I'm excited to see a new culture and have new experiences," Palmetier said. "I hosted last year (when the Japanese ambassadors came over) and that was really fun, so I'm mostly excited to see what it's like to go the other way too."

With the date fast approaching, steps are already being taken to prepare the students as best as possible for what they will experience on their trip. They've begun a series of cultural meetings to go through topics about what to pack, tea ceremonies, etiquette, past trips and even a taiko drum number to present to their host families.

This series continued earlier this month at United Lutheran Church, with former chaperone Dawn Erickson giving lessons on chopsticks and handing out helpful wisdom from her past experiences. Erickson is a textile designer who has traveled all over the world for her job, and has been the chaperone on numerous trips to Japan.

The students had a variety of questions concerning when to wear certain styles of clothing and what was appropriate. Erickson described the weather as hot, humid and sweaty, and gave important insight on the proper time to take shoes off and waiting to eat and enter rooms.

"(Americans) tend to walk in and just say here we are, but to stay back and watch (will be important)," Anderson said. "As a former teacher I'm used to being in charge and taking over, and that won't be my place. Physical touching is also very different."

All of these adjustments will have to be made by the group in their time in Japan. They may have to rewire how they usually operate in such a foreign setting.

"I've heard they're very accommodating, and I want to see new places and different cultures," Beck said. "It can get boring over here with having the same culture, so I want to have the thrill of doing new things."

Putting together a trip of this magnitude isn't easy, with plane and travel tickets costing a few thousands dollars for each student. Other than the $500 the city has generously given to each student, many efforts have been made to offset the cost of the trip.

They've bagged at Econofoods twice already, with four more sessions scheduled. They've also participated in two fundraising sessions at Perkins, where they held doors for patrons and had name tags and posters to describe the trip. Ten percent of the restaurant's proceeds from the night will go to the trip.

Red Wing can also expect six Japanese students arriving for their part of the exchange program in August, with the group prominently displayed during the River City Days parade.

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