MUKILTEO — Tall trees. Big houses. Big hamburgers.
Those are some of the words used by the 23 students visiting from southern Japan to describe their first impression of America to a class at Kamiak High School.
Hideto Furugen, 15, found joy in water vapor.
“I got to see my breath,” Hideto said. It’s a rarity in the subtropical region of the island of Okinawa where he lives.
Another high point: People came up to talk to him.
“Love it,” the teen said. “We don’t do that in public.”
The students were part of the Kakehashi Project — “The Bridge for Tomorrow” — a friendship program promoted by the Japanese government with the United States, in this case two cultures, 5,700 miles apart.
A group of students from high schools in the Edmonds School District visited Tokyo and northern Japan with the Kakehashi Project in July.
During the December winter break, 23 students from Yoshitaka Inoue’s Japanese class at Kamiak will visit the Okinawa school.
“My students are so excited they can try Japanese language skills and make lifelong friends,” Inoue said. “For both ways, it is important for this age to see somebody from a different culture to open up their minds, especially nowadays to appreciate the differences.”
Students from both countries were at varying levels of language fluency.
As Kamiak senior Brian Lee, 17, put it: “We were able to work with what we knew and what they knew in order to communicate. We tried to find middle ground.”
Added classmate Jasmine Jones, 17: “We learned that language is more than just perfect grammar with communication. It’s about finding words that can work. We are excited to use these tools when we go to Japan next month.”
During their weeklong visit, the Japanese students made the rounds in Seattle, visiting the Japanese consulate, Nisei Veterans Committee, the University of Washington, Alki Beach and Pike Place Market.
They stayed with host families in Mukilteo for several days of immersion in Pacific Northwest teendom.
Okinawa, known as the Japanese Hawaii, is 400 miles south of mainland Japan, about the same distance off the coast of China, and 300 miles north of Taiwan.
It’s about 1,000 miles from Tokyo. Unlike Tokyo, which many Americans associate with anime, fashion and food, Okinawa is remembered for its decisive role in World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest. About 110,000 Japanese soldiers died, and possibly as many civilians. About 12,520 Americans were killed in the battle.
About 25,000 U.S. military troops are stationed in Okinawa, which has 1.4 million residents.
The students are from Naha Kokusai Senior High School in Naha, the largest city and the capital of Okinawa.
At Kamiak, the students from Okinawa, in hoodies and jeans, blended in with the Mukilteo teens swarming the halls. Uniforms are required at their home school. In a slide presentation, they showed Kamiak students pictures of the dress code attire, mostly plaids and navy blues.
“I wish I could wear regular clothes,” said Okinawa student Yumeno Sueyoshi. “I like my own clothes better than uniforms.”
At her school, students attend all the same classes together, rather than get to choose which gym class they want. In Japan, students stay in the same classroom and teachers change rooms.
The Japanese students were awestruck by the size of the theater department, indoor swimming pool and weight room.
Lockers were among the other things that American students take for granted that their Japanese peers found fascinating.
Sakura Hentona and Aoi Uehara, both 17, were amazed not only by the size but also that they locked. Their school has small cubbies with “No privacy,” they said.
Another thing that stood out: chairs attached to desks.
They also found it fascinating that the class periods didn’t start and end on the hour, as in Japan, but at odd number combinations.
A class starting at 10:24?
Weird, they said. Very weird.