Those excited-looking Japanese teenagers you might have spotted running around El Dorado County last week were part of the 2011 sister city youth exchange hosted by members of the El Dorado County chapter of People to People International.
Members swap students and good will with families from other countries. The 2011 youth exchange brought 16 wide-eyed 13- and 14-year-olds, accompanied by a pair of eagle-eyed chaperones from Warabi, Japan to El Dorado County.
Warabi is located roughly two hours south of Fukishima, and experienced little of the direct impact of the earthquake and tsunami, the largest tangible reminder being 1,500 refugees temporarily housed in their town.
Pat Muhlbradt of the town of El Dorado was the home-stay chairperson for the exchange. She explained that Warabi and El Dorado County take turns sending their “youth ambassadors” back and forth every two years or so.
“We have friends to stay with whenever we go over there,” said Muhlbradt. “My husband and I have stayed with the same family several times, and now their son is living with us while he attends college.”
Host families mix fun individual activities with group outings. They toured the Gold Hill Wakamatsu Colony site and took a Japanese audio tour of Gold Bug Park in Placerville.
On Tuesday, Aug. 2, they visited the Grace Foundation in El Dorado Hills, where they played with rambunctious ranch dogs and later got to ride some very tame horses.
The local chapter of People to People is 37 years old. The youth exchanges with Warabi have a seven year history.
The local People to People chapter has roughly 100 members and 19 current host families, said Muhlbradt. Many members donated to the Japanese relief effort.
Raelene Herzig is the president of the local organization. She stressed that the hosting and visiting are not limited to Warabi. “I’ve hosted international visitors from all over, and exchanged many adults,” she said.
At Grace Foundation Tuesday, chaperones Yasufumi “Toko-san” Tokonami and Toshiko Aria served as interpreters while keeping a close eye on their charges.
Japanese students begin learning English in middle school, so the 13- and 14-year-olds were dependent on their chaperones for instruction.
George and Evelyn Turnboo were on hand with their gregarious son Cooper and nephew Stuart. They hosted Rin Ogata, 13. Evelyn reported Rin’s goals for the visit: “He said he wanted to see a supermarket and a place of scenic beauty.”
He got both and then some. They took him for a bike ride at Lake Tahoe … “It was overwhelming,” … the highlight of which was a visit to the local Safeway. “He was amazed.”
“They don’t have a supermarket in his town,” said Evelyn.
The family took Rin to San Francisco Monday, where he rode a cable car and went to a Giants game, the highlight of which was seeing Seattle Mariners player “Ichiro,” a legend in Japan.
The family was impressed by how courteous their guest was. “He’s got impeccable manners,” said Evelyn.
“Better than mine,” chimed in the affable Cooper, who became fast friends with Rin.
Rin reported that the earthquake and tsunami left “many people worried.”
Herzig confirmed that concerns over power shortages, radiation contamination and future quakes have left many Japanese citizens emotionally distraught.
George Turnboo reported that Rin was impressed at the size of the family’s 2,400-square-foot home, and the Sand Ridge ranch it sits on south of Placerville.
Rin reported that he was impressed that “everybody is so friendly here. When they get together they say hello and thank you.”
Interviews conducted through translator Aria revealed that most of the Japanese students were surprised at the size of American homes and the open space between them.
“Everything is so wide here,” said Kazuki Tomita, 14. “It is so spread out. I feel like I can relax here. [In Japan] everyone is so afraid because of the earthquake.”
Yoshifumi Aki, 14, was impressed that “America is free.” She explained through an interpreter that she was referring to the roads. “We have to pay to drive on the highway in Japan.”
Hana Shibata, 13, said she loved the animals. “So much nature and so many animals,” she said. “So cute.”
The oldest youth ambassador was Mami Yoshino, 17. He, too, was impressed with the expanses. “Nature here is so beautiful and so many stars.”
The group enjoyed a “sayonara party” at Barsotti Ranch in Apple Hill on Wednesday, and boarded a bus for San Franciso International Airport on Thursday morning with a lifetime of memories and one last “arigato gozaimasu,” a formal Japanese “thank you,” for their host families.