The first glimpse of Japan was breathtaking. With my face pressed to the cold plastic window of the airplane, I gaped at its natural beauty. Nothing compared to the soft jungle of trees that smoothed the jagged mountains into dramatic and green rolling waves.

Japanese Student-Exchange
Summer Opportunity

Do you want to represent Santa Barbara as an exchange student to Japan this summer? Each year, the Santa Barbara Toba Sister City Organization invites four eighth- or ninth-grade students, ages 13-15, to be exchange students to Toba City.

During late July/early August, four Japanese students from Toba will visit four Santa Barbara students for approximately eight days. The following week the four Santa Barbara host-students will fly to Japan and share eight more days in the Japanese students’ homes.

The Santa Barbara students will be prepared for their experience with language and cultural lessons by members of the Sister City Organization.

For more information and an application, click here or call coordinator Mary Turley at 805.963.3851.

Application deadline:  March 31.

Moments later I saw Toba. It was a small city winding itself into the mountains. Even then, I did not realize this village would change my perspective and that I would have so much fun.

Before last summer, I was nervous about talking in front of crowds or attempting a foreign language, especially among fluent speakers. So going to a different country where I would encounter few people who spoke English posed a small problem. Needless to say, I was anxious to be meeting the Murases. Would they accept my sloppy attempt at their native language? Or, what if I accidentally said something terribly offensive?

By nightfall, however, I realized I had nothing to worry about. Living with the Murases, I realized how accepting Toba City was. Just their kind nature made this trip to Japan fantastic. I was encouraged by all the exchange students to attempt my Japanese for other Toba citizens, such as the cashier at Yukimi’s drugstore or the waitress at the sushi bar. By the end, I was usingt Japanese when I could without letting my mistakes stop me, and I had fun with my efforts.

Park Espana was one of the many highlights in Japan. It wasn’t exactly a Japanese culture theme park but it was still an experience to remember. And a tip to future Santa Barbara exchange students: Unless you hate going extremely fast upside down, go on the white roller coaster in the first row. It was definitely one of the best parts of Park Espana. But also there was seeing all the differences in things that seem international. For example, their haunted houses, like the Edo Wonderland one, was clever and funny. They had their own take on the idea of horror. I loved seeing the differences in their lifestyle and entertainment.

The Obon festival’s contrast with Yukimi’s quiet neighborhood was awe-inspiring. The swaying colorful lamps gleamed like tremendous fireflies against the dark rooftops and inky black sky. The sounds of the bold samisen and singing rang throughout the otherwise still block. And as we got closer we could hear the clamor of people laughing and chattering.

The festival was carefree and joyous. It was a party where everyone was invited. Then Yukimi, Nozomi, Olivia and I — with a little pressure from the parents — went dancing around the platform. It was so much fun! I had no idea what the dance moves were and I could see the eyes of nearly half the party on us, but that’s what made it so exciting.

At the end of the dance, bright red from blushing and almost hysterical with laughter, we enjoyed some shave ice together. Just being together and dancing at Obon was amazing. Even if I do not go dancing with them again, I will always have that memory of Obon with Yukimi and Nozomi.

Going to Japan was an experience I know I’ll remember forever. I am thankful — and amazed — about how the Murases and everyone involved in the program were so generous and thoughtful. I loved everything we did and I wish I could go back! This opportunity was such a gift.

Kimi Van Wickle is a sophomore at Santa Barbara High.