Teens were instant celebrities, welcomed by student counterparts, leaders and the media
While walking down the streets of cities in Japan, there were times when locals on the sidewalk would point to the group of six Del Norte High School students and excitedly exclaim "the boat kids!" In English.
"You couldn't turn on the TV without seeing the kids. They were on every news channel and in every newspaper," said Cindy Henderson, Del Norte County's emergency services manager, who recently returned with the six students and four adults from a "very high-profile" trip to Japan.
The "boat kids" and their adult counterparts finished a five-day trip to Japan last week, completing the cultural exchange that started when a 20-foot fishing boat was sucked to sea from a Japanese high school during the March 2011 tsunami and washed ashore in Crescent City more than two years later.
When Lori Dengler, a geologist professor and tsunami expert from Humboldt State University, traced the boat's origin back to Takata High School in Rikuzentakata, Japan (a story that Dengler retold in Crescent City on Wednesday night), the town that had experienced nearly 2,000 fatalities said it would like to have the boat back.
A group of students from Del Norte High volunteered to clean the vessel and work toward returning it to the city that had experienced the second-highest death toll from the tsunami in all of Japan.
The Del Norte delegation's trip was mostly funded by the TOMODACHI Initiative, "a public-private partnership, born out of support for Japan's recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake, that invests in the next generation of Japanese and American leaders through educational and cultural exchanges as well as leadership programs," according to the group's website.
What started as one group of American high school students doing a good deed for another high school across the Pacific turned into a grand show of diplomacy.
"One of the biggest things about this trip is that it became so political," Henderson said. Instead of a school-to-school, city-to-city exchange, the U.S. Embassy paid a visit to the Del Norte delegation in Japan and said, "'you are truly ambassadors of America'" and "'this is a really good grass-roots bridge between Japan and America,'" Henderson recalled.
Due to the complexities of flying out of weather-delay-prone Northern California, the "boat kids" are lucky they even made it.
Planes, trains, automobiles
After the plane from Crescent City to San Francisco was delayed several hours on Valentine's Day, the Del Norte delegation missed its connecting flight to Tokyo by 45 minutes.
Henderson and Del Norte Sheriff's Office Commander Bill Steven took turns waiting in line for hours to arrange new flights, but there were only enough seats for six people on Saturday's flight to Tokyo. The rest took a chance on the standby list, and luckily all were given seats 10 minutes before the 11-hour flight took off.
Upon arriving in Tokyo, the group was chaperoned by Amya Miller, an American who has served as the public relations representative for Rikuzentakata since before the tsunami. Miller's handle on the local language proved priceless when the group had to talk its way onto a bullet-train heading north from Tokyo, after missing their scheduled train.
After the three-hour ride, the Del Norters transferred to a smaller rail for an hour ride before being loaded into a passenger van to drive to Rikuzentakata through an unseasonal snowstorm, finally reaching a hotel at 3 a.m. Monday, Japan time.
Day in the life
Less than five hours after checking into their hotel, the only hotel yet to be rebuilt in Rikuzentakata where almost all of the buildings were destroyed, the "boat kids" went to Takata High School to meet a student body thankful for having its boat returned.
A round of applause delivered by highly organized rows of uniformed Japanese students and a dozen reporters and television cameras greeted the Del Norters,
who took turns at a podium to explain the gifts they brought.
A basketball, baseball, football, soccer ball, etc., signed by the entire respective Del Norte High sports teams were among the gifts, as well as bracelets for each of the 500 Takata students with the name of both high schools, symbolizing a bond between them.
The Del Norters also received bracelets from the Japanese students, but theses were created with pieces of pine trees that had been killed during the tsunami and engraved with a picture of the "miracle pine."
Like the "Miracle Boat," the 88-foot tree was another symbol of hope for the Japanese town, as it was the only one out of 70,000 pine trees that was left standing after the tsunami. When the tree started to die later from seawater damage, Rikuzentakata city officials cut it down, treated the wood with preservative, inserted a metal skeleton, and replicated the leaves and branches using synthetic resin.
Takata High School's student council presented the "boat kids" with thank you letters from the marine sciences department, which owned the boat.
Then the Del Norte High students got to experience a day in the life of a Takata High School student, including cooking traditional Japanese dumplings in cooking class, learning how to sing in Japanese for music class, playing table tennis, badminton and volleyball in physical education class, and even attending an English class to practice with Japanese students learning the language.
Bill Steven, a sheriff's commander and father of one of the Del Norte teens, John, said that the students from each country were rigid at first, but it didn't take long before they were bonding like any teenagers would.
"Many of these students had never seen an American before - let along an American teenager, someone their age, so watching their interaction was just priceless," Steven said.
On Tuesday, the second day at Takata High School, the Del Norters learned how to draw in calligraphy and then heard a presentation detailing the destruction from the tsunami:
One teacher and 22 students from Takata High School died. All students from Takata lost a parent, grandparent or someone else close to them. Eighty percent of the students' families are still living in temporary housing, nearly three years after the destruction. The building that was Takata High School has been demolished, and the school is now operating in an old agricultural building more than an hour from the school's original site.
The Del Norters then went to the museum where the "Miracle Boat" is currently kept. They presented the museum's keeper with a tapestry of Battery Point Light Lighthouse donated by the Del Norte Historical Society.
During the boat visit, the group was informed that there are plans in the works to have the vessel moved to the Japanese equivalent of America's Smithsonian Institution.
After the visit to the museum, which is also inland from Rikuzentakata, the Del Norte delegation went back to ground zero of the tsunami to take in more of the devastation.
Before rebuilding, the city is raising the elevation of Rikuzentakata by 29 feet using dirt from the neighboring foothills. Giant conveyor belts and cranes that are used to transfer dirt dot the skyline.
On Tuesday night, the group holed up in a hotel in Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture, before encountering the governor of Iwate on Wednesday in a very formal meeting.
The group was handed directions on how many steps to take before bowing toward the governor, what paths to walk, and where to stand for pictures.
The group traveled to Tokyo on Wednesday night for Thursday's meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, which proved to be much less formal.
Although Henderson has had her fair share of meeting with politicians, she said her favorite part of the trip "by far" was meeting with Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, because Henderson grew up following the famous family. She was struck by the easygoing nature of the meeting, sharing cookies with the ambassador.
The group presented Kennedy with a varnished redwood box holding a stretch of rope that was attached to the "Miracle Boat" with a caption that reads: "This rope was the last connection between the Takata High School Boat and Japan before the boat was ripped away by the March 11, 2011 tsunami."
Kennedy was excited about the gift, which was put together by the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group. It will be displayed at the U.S. Embassy, Henderson said.
"She gets that symbolism, so she understands what it meant," Henderson said of Kennedy.
And in Japan, whether it be a rope, a pine, or a boat that landed in Crescent City, symbolism goes a long way.
The delegation included Del Norte High principal Coleen Parker, Henderson, teacher Joyce Ruiz and her husband Ed Ruiz, sheriff's Commander Bill Steven and the six Del Norte High students: Halie DeArman, Connor Field, Dakota Ford, Juan Ramirez, John Steven and Griffin Walker.