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Students, chaperones set to visit Japanese Sister City

With the Ohara Peace Bell in the foreground, Glenn Peterson talks about the sister city program, the bell and the Japanese garden at Enger Park on Monday as part of a send-off ceremony for 12 local students going to Ohara Isumi-City, Japan, on a sister city exchange.Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Gale Kerns (from left) Liz Taylor and Katarina “Kat” Korman make rootbeer floats at Enger Park Monday evening during a send-off ceremony for 12 local students -- including Korman -- going to Ohara Isumi-City, Japan, on a sister city exchange. The flags in the foreground are from the nations were Duluth’s sister cities are located. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

During a chilly sendoff at Enger Park on Monday for students and chaperones soon heading for Duluth's Sister City of Ohara Isumi-City, educator Mary Hoffman said she knows from her own travels what the group can expect there.

"It's going to be very hot," said Hoffman, an art teacher at Holy Rosary, St. James and Queen of Peace schools. "Hot and humid."

At that moment, though, it was 9 a.m. in Ohara under sunny skies, and the temperature was 73 degrees. This might have sounded nice to the (mostly) jacket-wearing kids and adults gathered in front of the Japanese peace bell under pudding-thick clouds in 48-degree weather at 7 p.m. Monday.

Conditions may change by June 26, when the dozen mostly middle school-aged students and their chaperones leave for the biennial visit by a Duluth delegation to Ohara. They return July 4.

The exchanges have been going on since 1992, said Gale Kerns, chairman of the Duluth Sister Cities Japan Committee. That's almost as long as the two municipalities have been Sister Cities.

The Enger Park location was chosen for the sendoff because of the peace bell, which anchors a Japanese garden, said Liz Taylor, president of Duluth Sister Cities.

The bell is a replica of Ohara's original bell that came to Duluth after World War II and was returned to Ohara in 1954, Kerns said. The garden was designed with help from an Ohara delegation, said Glenn Peterson, who was involved in the effort.

"We want (the delegates) to see what's in Duluth so when they get to Japan they can relate — 'Oh, we have that at home,' " Taylor said. "So they can connect with it."

Hoffman, whose five children all were involved with Sister Cities as they grew up, is coordinator for this year's student exchange.

As many as 16 students can make the trip, she said. More than that number applied this year, but some of them had to drop out because of family conflicts or for financial reasons.

Among those who will make the trip is Katarina Korman, 15, a junior at Harbor City International School.

"I've always wanted to go to Japan," Katarina said. "It will be an awesome learning experience, because their culture is so different."

Her mother, Margarethe Ferguson, is going as a chaperone and said she sees deep value in the interchange.

"I think kids and adults as well need to see and meet people from other countries to realize we're all in the same boat," Ferguson said. "You're not as likely to go to war with somebody you understand."

Miranda Emme, 13, a well-traveled eighth-grader at Hermantown Middle School, said she was following the path of an older sister in making the trip to Japan.

"I thought it would be a cool experience to experience Japanese culture and do what my older sister did," she said.

Her friend Annika Wennberg, who will turn 12 on Thursday, said she was inspired by her grandmother, who worked for Sister Cities. "I thought it would be a cool learning experience," said Annika, a seventh-grader at St. James School.

Hoffman said she agreed to coordinate the program this year because it had meant so much for her children. "They got an interest in culture at an earlier age than most kids do," she said.

The trip usually takes place in August, she said, but the hosts from Ohara asked for a June visit this year — partly because it won't be quite as hot.

The schedule change was one of the reasons a few potential delegates had to pull out of this year's visit, she said. But that also provides a head start for two years from now.

"We have a list going for 2018 already, with six on it," Hoffman said.