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COLUMN: A story of friendship

Mayor Deb Kozak reflects on her recent trip to Japan.
Mayor Kikuchi of Izu-shi

Thirty years ago former Mayor Gerald Rotering was steering Nelson through a time of renewal and change. Gerald seized the opportunity to befriend the city of Izu-shi and so began a sister city relationship that exceeded all expectations. Over the years, delegations from both cities travelled across the ocean to learn more about each other. Nelson’s campus hosted Japanese students, friendships were forged, marriages happened and people learned more about each other. Over time, the visits lessened, and people moved on to other things.

A few years ago Jim Sawada from the Izu-shi Friendship Society made a presentation to council. Jim has been instrumental in developing and maintaining the Japanese friendship gardens at Cottonwood Falls Park. He was worried because the once robust society membership had dwindled in recent years and Jim, entering his 80th decade, needed someone who would take on this legacy. That presentation sparked the interest of people in the community who stepped up to join the society. John Armstrong became president and others joined. Jim, and we, were very happy.

Renewing old friendships in Izu-shi

This year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of this special friendship. A delegation of 15 people from Nelson have just returned from a visit to Izu-shi. The trip was sponsored by the Nelson-Izu-shi Friendship Society, and I joined the group as the city’s official representative. We renewed old friendships and began new ones. Some of us had visited Japan or had been born there, while for others it was their first time. For everyone, it was one of the most powerful experiences that anyone could remember and has injected new energy into strengthening our ties.

Gerald Rotering joined us in Japan. He, too, was amazed at the power of what was happening. The people of Izu-shi have not forgotten Nelson or Gerald! For example, we were greeted by Toru and Hisae, a couple who have been welcoming people from Nelson for the past 30 years. Toru shared his memories with us. He has saved every picture, letter and pin from the people he’s met over the years. He and Hisae opened their home and their hearts to homestay me, and told me how important this lasting friendship was to them.

Mayor Kikuchi also warmly welcomed us. He believes that this sister city relationship is even more important in these unsettled times. He spoke about the recent U.S. election, and the turbulent times the world is experiencing. He said the world is changing and if we are to promote peace, understanding each other is essential. We agree.

Visiting other cities

The delegation took the opportunity to explore other cities and included the Canadian embassy in our travels. Our youngest delegates Ronnie White and Mirabelle Kolmel, were eager to learn new things and to experience everything they could. These two were incredible ambassadors for Nelson and Canada and made a strong impression on the people they met, including embassy personnel. When we met with the embassy, we discussed progress in Onagawa as well.

You’ll remember that Onagawa was particularly hard hit by the recent tsunami. Their mayor is committed to rebuilding and supporting his community and the Canadian Navy meets regularly with him. Things are slowly progressing. The embassy personnel were most supportive of our connection to Izu-shi and are interested in continuing to develop more relationships within Canada.

The embassy building itself is an amazing piece of architecture. There is a Japanese garden designed to represent the provinces of Canada. It is incredible. As well, the embassy provides a well-used library that includes Canadian authors and absolutely anything you’d like to learn about Canada. It was interesting to see displays that included hockey sticks, a table hockey game, Anne of Green Gables and a curling rock.

Old friends met along the way and their reunions were a joy to see. Mayu went to school in Nelson and now teaches English in Japan. She met us twice to guide us and to connect with old friends. The Spearmans were enthusiastically welcomed by people who hadn’t seen them in 12 years. New families stepped forward for homestay placements and new bonds were forged.

Taiko drumming, archery, and origami

Our hosts organized as many activities as they could and we appreciated each experience. We were moved by the students who demonstrated taiko drumming and archery. We hiked high into a pass to get a glimpse of elusive Mount Fuji. We learned how tofu is made, visited wasabi fields that are recognized worldwide, tried on kimonos, attempted calligraphy and origami. We visited a shitake farm, sang songs, were bedazzled at the array of foods and how they were presented. There is a miniature Nelson located in a theme park, complete with city hall and train station. You’ll find maple syrup for sale there along with many treasures picked up on exchange visits. At the end of each day we were welcomed home and some of us enjoyed a glass or two of sake. Our attempts to speak Japanese were met with smiles.

The trains are on time

I was impressed at the sheer efficiency of public transportation. If your train leaves at 12:02, be sure to be on time, and don’t take the 12:06 because it’s going somewhere else. This country is able to move a tremendous number of people efficiently, and well. People are soft-spoken, generous, polite and the cities are clean. Women may choose to wear kimono just because they feel like it that day.

I don’t think anyone can predict the long-lasting impacts of friendship. Here are a couple from this one. Gerald’s son Keith went on an exchange in high school. He eventually married a Japanese woman and is living in Japan. His Dad was grateful that Keith was there to translate his speech. Matt Spearman also went on an exchange, and was inspired to return to Japan and study for two years at university. He needed no translator. It makes me wonder what the future holds for Ronnie and Mirabelle and others who experienced this for the first time. We are grateful to the society members who continue the legacy and organized an amazing trip.

Izu-shi visits Nelson in August

In August, it will be our turn to host a delegation from Izu-shi. When our guests arrive, I know we will show them the same generosity as they did us. If your interest in the Society has been piqued, get involved. There will be upcoming activities, beginning with Nelson’s own cherry blossom festival. The society would welcome your involvement.

I met a man named Yuta when I was downtown this past week. Yuta is from Japan, near Tokyo. He knew about my trip and asked me how I liked Japan. There was just so much to say and all I could muster was that I was blown away. Yuta said he was looking forward to my article. This one is for you, Yuta.