Tomomi Takiguchi has returned to Duluth several times since she spent the 1999-2000 school year attending Marshall School as an exchange student from Ohara-Isumi City, Japan.

“I’m so happy here,” she said. “It’s exciting to see people here.”

She’s in Duluth this month as part of a 19-member delegation from Ohara to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Duluth and Ohara, a city 50 miles southeast of Tokyo. Takiguchi said she believes residents from each city will continue to visit each other for years to come.

Duluth’s connection with Ohara began when a Buddhist temple bell was found in a Japanese shipyard soon after World War II and brought back to Duluth City Hall. Duluth returned the bell, cast in 1692, at Ohara’s request in 1954. A replica of the bell, known as the Peace Bell, was presented to Duluth in 1991 and is in Enger Park.

Duluthians gathered with the Ohara delegation Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation for dinner and a program of traditional Japanese dancing, a mock Japanese wedding ceremony and a sake demonstration.

A toast honoring the next 25 years for the sister cities was followed by the Japanese cheers “Kanpai!” and the clinking of sake cups.

Hundreds of adults and students have traveled between Duluth and Ohara in the past 25 years, said Gale Kerns, chairman of the Ohara Isumi-City Committee in Duluth.

“It’s a symbol of ongoing interest in the two countries,” Kerns said.

He said he hopes to send a similarly sized delegation to Ohara next year. Traveling between the sister cities fosters an understanding about the people, culture and educational system - and that knowledge promotes peace, he said.

“It’s really hard to hate someone” if you understand where they’re coming from, he explained.

As people were milling about before dinner, Wendy Ruhnke was among the Duluthians joining Ohara delegation members in performing a traditional laborers’ dance. Ruhnke learned the dance’s steps last year when she chaperoned Duluth students on a trip to Ohara.

Ruhnke pointed out that many Duluthians were attending Friday’s dinner to reconnect with residents they met while visiting Ohara over the past 25 years.

There isn’t a better way to visit another country than to visit with a delegation to a sister city, said Ruhnke, a member of the Duluth Sister Cities International Board. Ruhnke had friends who went with the first Duluth delegation to Petrozavodsk, Russia, which became a sister city in 1987. But it wasn’t until 2013 that Ruhnke traveled for the first time as part of a delegation. In addition to Ohara, Ruhnke also has traveled to Petrozavodsk and Duluth’s newest sister city, Rania in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ruhnke said she had a wonderful time visiting Rania and found the residents welcoming. She said she had a similar experience as part of the Duluth student delegation last year to Ohara. The Ohara residents were welcoming because sister cities are like a family, she said.

“You have friends when you get there,” she said.

Wakako Shoji, chairwoman of Ohara’s sister city organization, said she likes visiting Duluth because people here have “heart and soul.”

“I love people’s hearts. I have many sisters in Duluth,” she said. “A beautiful place. The nature is so nice.”