It started Sunday when the entire staff of Rikuzentakata City Hall made a path around the building, lined both sides and applauded as the arriving Crescent City delegation walked the path.
Delegates shook nearly every hand, exchanging greetings as they walked through.
The warm and hospitable treatment never wore off. For the duration of the five-day visit, delegates were the guests of honor and every effort was made to make them feel welcome, entertained, comfortable and fed.
From police and fire stations to public buildings to schools, the welcome mat was out. At many departures, groups of people waved until the bus disappeared from their sight.
After viewing the designated room in Takata High School where all the Crescent City memorabilia is displayed, delegates were given the honor of seeing a beautiful piece of calligraphy created on the spot by 15 female Takata High School students. In an artfully choreographed dance, the girls dabbed and swiped with giant brushes on a giant canvas before standing the approximately 10 by 15 foot tall poetry mural up to display it.
The giant creation ended with the words, “We have the gratitude in our hearts to move forward and we will become the bridges to the future.”
Senior Executive Advisor Kiyoshi Murakami explained that student groups have contests in the art of group writing and students from Rikuzentakata had won the contest for their prefecture and were going on to compete at a national level.
When it was announced the giant poem would likely be displayed for a while and disposed of, delegates asked that it be shipped to Crescent City for display at one of the schools.
Delegates were treated to traditional cultural dances and displays daily and around the city welcome flags were everywhere and many downtown businesses displayed Welcome Crescent City posters.
In the town’s newly rebuilt shopping center, a display featuring comparison photos of the two cities had been set up. It also featured a looping video of the signing of the Sister City agreement in Crescent City.
Buffets, drinks, entrees and even snacks were exquisite and vast, with all varieties of Japanese cuisine,and some occasional American food. Locations were also impressive, with one lunch served in a hilltop community cabin overlooking the neighboring city of Ofunato.
Del Norte County Supervisor Chris Howard seemed the most daring when it came to food, sampling almost everything before devouring it outright. From oysters to sushi to live abalone picked right from the shell, no food item was safe around him. Other delegates were almost as daring, devouring freshly steamed oysters on the docks where they were landed and processed.
Gifts were exchanged at nearly every stop, from police and fire departments, to city offices and dinners, delegates were presented with gifts and had many to return.
At the closing dinner, gifts took about 30 minutes to exchange between delegates and the 19-member Rikuzentakata City Council. Even in the lobby of the hotel on the final day, people were arriving with bags of gifts for every delegate. With her amazing energy and addictive enthusiasm, Tokai Shimpo newspaper reporter Eri Suzuki quickly became a well-known and appreciated visitor to delegate events. On the final day, Suzuki arrived with personal, candid photos take of each delegate during their visit.
Departing from the Capital Hotel in Rikuzentakata for the last time Friday, a parting farewell featured City Council members and others enthusiastically waving giant banner flags and yelling from the parking area.
Inside the bus, the excitement calmed in a few miles as delegates reflected on some of their favorite moments in Rikuzentakata.
Sheriff’s Commander Bill Steven summed it up, saying his favorite part had been the genuine smiles on every face in Rikuzentakata.
The delegation flies out of Tokyo tonight and due to a 16 hour time difference, will also arrive in Crescent City Saturday night.
Murakami has been one of the hardest working people on the ground when it comes to providing for Sister City delegations from either city. He has been the booking agent for hotels, train tickets, restaurant reservations and more. He has served three delegations as a tour guide, information center, problem fixer and translator.
Having talked extensively to both Japanese and American delegates, residents and officials, Murakami is probably most knowledgeable when it comes to how each city views the Sister City relationship.
Asked on the departing train ride to Tokyo how important the relationship is to the people and officials of Rikuzentakata, Murakami noted the relationship is the first of its kind for Rikuzentakata.
“It has been very nice to make the connection and support each other,” he said. “The people of Rikuzentakata now understand how important the Sister City relationship is. Of course, the friendship is one side, but also different areas, such as from a cultural exchange, even among the Japanese, they really need to know the other side of the culture too, but also the experience for the students. Kids of Rikuzentakata didn’t have much opportunity before, but now they have the opportunity.”
He said the relationship gives a global perspective to locals.
“From that perspective it has a huge impact for the people of Rikuzentakata,” he said. “In terms of industry, they also want to see the possibility of seeing that expand, and of course, it means the same thing to the people of Crescent City.” Murakami said the cultural, educational, and commercial possibilities are viewed in “a very positive way.”
“As you saw in the past week, everywhere you go, they put up signs, people are coming up and waving at us, and greeting us, even on the street, people recognize us. People know we are here, and they really want to have that good relationship and further deepen the bond together,” he said.
Asked if Rikuzentakata officials place a high value on the relationship, Murakami said Mayor Futoshi Toba and Council Chair Akihiko Ito have expressed that the cultural, commercial and educational opportunities are very important to them.
“This is a partnership,” he said. “This is very important to us, and from a city government point of view, sometimes you have to pay into an investment, but this investment is worth it.”
Murakami said the next exchange to come to Crescent City will likely be in January and will bring a group of seven teachers from Rikuzentakata schools.
Asked if he had anything to say to residents of Crescent City, Murakami smiled and nodded before speaking.
“We, the people of Rikuzentakata, really, really, really admire the people of Crescent City and Del Norte County,” he said. “As Mayor Inscore has mentioned, the boat, Kamome, actually wanted to go to Crescent City, I guess. So, is this fate, or predetermined or something really mysterious? But taking into account this event and that the people of Crescent City kindly offered the boat back and the kids started he relationship. People of Crescent City really supported this exchange. This is a great thing for us.”
Murakami said he is also aware than not everyone in each city fully understands what’s going on when it comes to the Sister City relationship.
“I really want everybody in Crescent City to know that this is worthwhile and creates mutual benefits,” he said.
Embassy offers support
On the way through Tokyo, the delegation stopped at the National Diet of Japan, which is its House of Representatives. There, the delegation was introduced to Murakami’s longtime friend, Kiyohiko Toyama, who just happens to be a member of Japan’s House of Representatives and the Chair of the International Affairs committee.
Toyama was interested in the Sister City relationship, but could only visit for a minute before he and staff members had to literally run to catch a flight.
Not far away, the delegation was then able to go into the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, for a 90-minute discussion with Michael R. Turner, the Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer.
Turner noted his department has been working hard to bridge the gaps between students of each country, saying enrollment of Japanese students in American schools has been declining for some time.
Turner was enthusiastic when hearing ideas presented by the delegates, such as broadening the exchange to include teachers and students, and the creation of a commercial exchange. He said he had not heard of such a relationship between sister cities before and asked that he be contacted if the embassy can help in any way.