Halfway around the world, more than 80 people gathered to cheer, flourish American flags, and wave welcome signs when a group of Winonans arrived in their city earlier this month. For the last 15 years, the residents of Misato, Japan, have been pulling out all the stops for their Minnesotan visitors. Winona's latest delegation to the sister city confirmed: it is a big deal for Misato.
. Winona Middle School Student Falon Goede wished her new Japanese friends goodbye before returning to America last week. Winona students, teachers, and Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander were showered with hospitality on their recent trip to Winona's sister city of Misato, Japan.
"You can't say you like something or they'll buy it for you," said Winona middle school student Abby Kline of the people of Misato. She was among the group of Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) students and staff that returned from Japan last Friday. Classmate Falon Goede agreed; if she complemented something in her Misato host family's home, they would try to give it to her. "If you drop even a cent, they'll run after you and give it to you," chimed in classmate Sam Williams. The host families were so welcoming, "it's like they adopted us," said Goede.
Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander accompanied the WAPS trip continuing a 15-year tradition of city officials traveling to Misato. She mentioned Misato rice to her host family, trying to strike up a conversation about their agricultural products, and wound up being presented with a bag of it to take home.
"They were pretty much open books" for any questions about their culture, Alexander said. "They're very interested that you're interested," she added.
Williams and classmate Laney Rutkowksi commented on how strong the sense of culture is in Japan. "They love their culture and everyone knows a lot about it," Williams said.
Misato students showed off their skills at sumo wrestling, judo fighting, kyudo archery, and kendo swordsmanship for their Minnesotan peers; WAPS students gave speeches in Japanese and presented gifts of dogwood trees to Misato. The Winona visitors toured Buddhist temples and ornate gardens, were wowed by bullet trains, sang karaoke, and tried all manner of Japanese food. "I ate raw squid," said Williams, beaming. "It was good, but very strange."
"Each time I go, I am continually surprised by Misato's hospitality and their commitment to helping the sister city relationship grow," said Winona Middle School teacher Joe Lepley, who has accompanied WAPS students and city of Winona officials on trips to Misato for the last eight years. On his first trip, the hospitality overwhelmed him. Back then, he also did not know what the green paste next the soy sauce on his sushi plate was. He quickly learned about wasabi heat. Now, for eight years, some of the same dedicated hosts have been helping his students learn how to put on a kimono and use chopsticks.
The sister city relationship "is more pushed by [Misato and Bytów, Poland,] than it is by our city," commented City Council member Allyn Thurley. Thurley was part of the city of Winona's first envoy to Misato 15 years ago. Alexander was surprised at just how important the international friendship was to her hosts. When she met with Misato city officials she asked them how many had been to Winona. A proud bunch raised their hands. The others looked envious and quickly said that they were waiting for their turn to come. Misato students are selected for a trip to Winona on the basis of their English skills, and the Misato English teachers are fiercely proud when their students are selected; the city of Misato spent a fair bit of money constructing a replica of the Princess Wenonah statue in one of their parks; and during the trip, restaurateurs in Misato would stop what they were doing to walk the Winonans out and wave goodbye from the street, she noted. "They take it very seriously. I guess that surprised me. I didn't realize from the other side how important it is," Alexander said. "I feel it's a little less from our side and I'd like to improve that," she added.
When asked if he felt different upon returning to America last week, Williams joked that he realized "the rice is really bad here." In all seriousness, he said, "I feel more respectful." He explained, "They were respectful to us, so it rubbed off."
Respect is arguably more ingrained in Japanese life: students bow to their teacher at the end of every class and even strangers will bow slightly to each other on the street. "You bow so many times," Williams said, laughing.
Alexander said that her hosts commented that Minnesotans share more similarities with that venerating, reserved culture than other Americans. "They don't always connect so well with other parts of our country," but her hosts said that "we try to be more modest, that we don't puff up ourselves as much, and we're nice," she said.
Middle school student Laney Rutkowski said she felt more confident after speaking in front of hundreds of people in Japanese. After the trip, she said, "I want to be able to travel to more places and experience more cultures." Classmate Griffin Wolner added, "I feel like the world is closer."
"It behooves us to do more than Google about the other people in the world," Thurley commented, when asked about the value of the having a far-flung sister city. "Once you meet people from other countries, you understand more about the world… we should take those opportunities," he said.
Alexander said that her hosts told her that her visit was much more important than President Barack Obama's recent visit to Japan. "Yes, Obama was there, but Winona was there. To them that was far more important than a visit from the president could be … because we were touching individual lives," she said.
"Today we have 200 to 300 people who have had contact with our Japanese sister city," Thurley said. "A lot of conflicts in this world are the result of misunderstanding, so the more understanding we can have, the better off we'll be," he continued.