Hot Springs teen talks about her week in Japan

By Wayne Bryan Published July 31, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Mattie Nester learns to wear a yukata — a cotton, summer kimono.

Katie Garner, who will be in the 11th grade at Lakeside High School this fall, went on a trip this summer.

The trip included staying with a family for a week, sharing a room with a daughter Katie’s age, taking a shopping trip to a mall and attending a teen party one night. What made this trip different? Katie was on her first trip to Japan, and she was with a family she had never met.

Katie was one of 14 teenagers from high schools in the Hot Springs area to take part in the Sister City student exchange between the Spa City and Hanamaki, Japan. A group of students from Hanamaki will be in Hot Springs this fall.

“I had talked with some friends at school who have gone on the exchange trip before,” Katie said. “But I was nervous and a little scared, but they were nice people and seemed really happy to have us there.”

Several things were unique about Katie’s visit with the Aluariachy family in Japan. While Katie said the home was a very traditional Japanese home, the father of the host family is from Morocco. The second thing was that Katie shared her host family with another Lakeside student, Mattie Nester. Both the girls are 16.

“One morning we had a Moroccan breakfast that had a tomato soup with some other things that was so good,” Katie said. “Otherwise, it was very Japanese. They didn’t have beds; they had mats on the floor. But it was very comfortable.”

She said that her host family was the only one with two of the 14 visiting kids staying with them.

“At the beginning of the week, I told Mattie I was thankful she was here,” Katie said. “Mattie and I are in the same grade, and we take lots of classes together. It was great going to Japan with one of my best friends.”

The American girls had been matched up with Mie Aluariachy, whom Katie called their host sister, another 16-year-old.

“The first day after we got to their home, we went to a public rose garden,” Katie said. “We sat near a fountain, and we all had snow comes and got acquainted. It was so much fun.”

The Aluariachy family spoke pretty good English, Katie said. The two girls from Hot Springs would later help Mie with her English homework.

“We helped her pronounce some words,” Katie said, “helping her put the emphasis in the right place.”

On the second day, Katie and Mattie spent much of the day with Mie and about 15 of her friends from school.

“We met them at the mall in Morioka, a very large city (the capital of Iwate, the prefecture or state that includes Hanamaki), Katie said. “The mall was bigger than those I’ve seen in Dallas.”

Most young people in Japan take English in school, but while meeting with Mie’s friends, Katie said she found their skills with the language were not as good as her host sister’s.

“Mie is very serious about studying English and learning the language,” she said. “The other girls and boys had all taken English, but they had not taken it as seriously.”

That evening the host family held a party for their guests that included Mie’s friends from the mall and some other friends from school.

“We talked about all kinds of things,” Katie said. “Sometimes we were all reduced to pointing at things, but we communicated just fine.

“They asked us about what concerts we had seen, and I mentioned I had seen Bruno Mars, and all the girls squealed. Mattie said she had been to a Justin Bieber concert, and some of the girls almost fainted.”

Mary Neilson, coordinator of the Hot Springs Sister City program, accompanied the group of students on their eight days in Japan.

“This was my sixth trip to Hanamaki, but I have never been with the students before,” Neilson said. “The 14 young men and women were the largest student group ever, and we needed another chaperone. We always have a special group of kids. They go through an application process, and then they are interviewed, but these kids were special. They were engaged and engaging.”

This trip to Hot Springs’ sister city was also Neilson’s first time to stay with a host family.

“I was treated like royalty for the week,” she said. “They took me to the coast to the area struck by the tsunami several years ago. I would never have gone there myself. It is an area still only beginning to recover, but I was staying with the family of a president of a company who builds bridges and other construction projects in the region.”

Katie said she had been learning to use chopsticks and was ready for dining at a Japanese table, but one night she was caught with a problem she had not considered.

“One night we had pizza,” she said. “I didn’t know if I should just pick up a slice or try to reach it with the chopsticks.”

The high point of Katie’s trip was when the Hot Springs students visited three of the high schools in Hanamaki.

“They treated us like celebrities,” she said. “We would walk by a classroom, and everyone would stop what they were doing and wave to us. Even the teachers stopped class and welcomed us. Here, the teachers make sure we don’t stop working when the exchange students come by.”

Katie was one of five students from Lakeside High School on the trip.

On the last day of their visit to Hanamaki, Katie and all the Hot Springs students attended a regional festival. There she had a lesson in kindness that she said she will never forget.

“We were walking along in the rain, and I saw an elderly woman walking with two canes,” Katie said. “She stopped and was buying something from a vendor. As she was paying for her purchase, she dropped her canes and could not pick them up. I handed my packages to Mie, and I picked them up for her.

“She was so thankful, my heart just dropped. She thanked me over and over again until more people noticed. There was someone there offering blessings, and we were brought over, and they said a blessing over us. I was crying; I was so happy that I did something so small and everyone reacted.”

Neilson said organizers of the Sister City program want the exchange program and the trip to Japan to be life-changing events for participating students, and she said the 2014 class of students who traveled to Japan forged a special bond with their host families and with each other.

“They did a wonderful job representing themselves, their school and Hot Springs,” Neilson said. “They were a great group.”

For more information about the student exchange and the Hot Springs Sister City program, call Neilson at (501) 321-2027.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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