About 17 middle school-age children crowded around the State Museum’s Science on a Sphere on Monday morning, listening to their tour director explain weather maps and migration patterns. But these middle schoolers had traveled longer to get there than your average Dzantik’i Heeni or Floyd Dryden student. This group came from Nishiokoppe, a village in northern Hokkaido, Japan. The 17 kids make up their school’s entire middle school; Nishiokoppe is the second smallest village in all of Japan.
These students are part of a 20-year-old program now called Juneau to Japan, which sends Juneau middle schoolers to visit Nishiokoppe and hosts Nishiokoppe students in Juneau. Each year, the cities trade off on who visits who. This year it’s Nishiokoppe’s turn to visit Juneau. The students arrived Saturday and will return to Japan on Tuesday morning.
“Can you find where you are on the map?” Annie Calkins, former Juneau schools assistant superintendent and Juneau to Japan organizer, asked the Japanese students. “Can you find Juneau?”
One boy got up and pointed to the city on the large sphere, to the applause of his classmates and teachers.
Calkins and a few other Juneau teachers and students helped guide the Japanese students on a tour of the city, which included a whale watch Sunday and a visit to the salmon hatchery and State Museum on Monday. Later in the day the students would hike Mt. Roberts and take the tram down the mountain.
Calkins said the two cities became friends 20 years ago when a Japanese teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School connected with Nishiokoppe. The village’s school board “felt an affinity for the climate (of Juneau), and we’re separated from the rest of the country,” much like Nishiokoppe, Calkins said while students chattered with one another and snapped photos.
Since that connection, nine Juneau teachers have relocated to Nishiokoppe to teach English for one to two years. Suzie Gaffney, a former history teacher at JDHS, was the second Juneau teacher to spend time in Nishiokoppe with her family, back in 1995. She taught in the village until 1997. She said it was important to her for her children, now grown, to see the world, and the two years in Japan was a perfect opportunity for exploration and growth.
Maya Shimono, 12, is one of the Japanese students visiting Juneau this year. She said her favorite part of the trip was the whale watch, when she and her classmates saw 20 whales.
Gracie Lazar, 13, is a DHMS student who visited Nishiokoppe with 17 classmates last June through the program. She was helping out with the tour today, along with a few friends recruited by Calkins. She said the most memorable part of her visit to Japan was experiencing how vastly different the culture is.
“Everybody is very different — courteous and neat,” Gracie said. “It was very interesting to meet the people and see how different they are from Americans.”
Gracie and the other Juneau teens said they’d visit Japan again in a heartbeat.
Joseph Monsef, a 13-year-old DHMS student who visited Nishiokoppe last year, said despite the cultural differences, it’s still fun to do things as a group.
“There’s a huge language barrier,” he said. “But we can still do things together.”
• Reach reporter Katie Moritz at (907)523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.