It’s been 45 years since The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” were on the hit parade. And that year, in 1972, Walla Wallans established a sister city relationship with counterparts in Sasayama, Japan.
Sister Cities International notes the purpose of these connections is to develop partnerships between cities, counties and states in America and similar jurisdictions around the world. It gives city officials and citizens opportunities to experience and explore other cultures through long-term community partnerships.
In this the 45th anniversary year of the sister-city friendship, a group of eight Walla Wallans visited Sasayama to celebrate.
Originally, a group of 26 planned to go to Japan back in March, said current Walla Walla-Sasayama Sister City Committee Chairman Franklin Dean.
“But as the year wore on, and tensions with North Korea made the news again and again,” several of the parents chose not to go, Franklin said.
Additionally, band members and family of Switchgrass bluegrass band from Waitsburg canceled because of a band member’s injury.
With North Korea a scant 600 miles or so from Japan, tensions were high, Franklin said. “Strong words of potential war” were coming from President Trump and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un, he said.
However, Robert Keatts, Brenda and Willy Breshears, Sonja Gooding and high school students Charlie Blethen, Amy Coburn and Beau Gibson joined Franklin. They left here Oct. 10 and on Oct. 12, about 30 hours later, arrived at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan.
The mayor and Sasayama-Walla Walla Sister City Committee Chairman Masayoshi Matsumoto and host families greeted the contingent at Sasayama City Hall. The American flag was flown there in the visitors’ honor.
“The mayor, the chairman and I all said a few words and spoke of peace and how the reason we continue our relationship is to promote peace and understanding between our two cities and countries,” Franklin said.
They gained a Japanese home experience by staying with host families.
Among many outings, tours and activities, they handmade traditional indigo shawls, led by a professor of textiles from Kobe University. They learned centuries-old all-natural cloth dyeing techniques that resulted in fashionable items, he said.
The youths in the group attended Sasayama Homei High School for a day and met many high school students while participating in classes. Students exchange their shoes for slippers inside the school and wear different footwear into the bathrooms.
Only the teachers change classrooms during the day and students clean the school eliminating the need for janitors. Most students bicycle to school, some as much as 1 1/2 hours one way.
An older elementary school they saw has been converted into a lunch cafe with traditional cloth- and leather-making shops. As visitors, they got to operate the looms and saw the cotton turned into cloth.
“The lunch was traditional rice, miso soup, a type of fried potato dumpling and jumbo shrimp,” Franklin said.
“All of the people who took us through this charming old school were warm and friendly, we all laughed at our mistakes — it was difficult to make yarn from cotton balls — and had a great time.”
Walla Walla Street runs in front of Sasayama City Hall just as Sasayama Drive greets visitors at the Alder Street entrance to Pioneer Park in Walla Walla.
During a free-time weekend, various host families took their guests to visit an aquarium in Osaka, Universal Studios Japan and Osaka Castle, a national landmark. Others went temple watching in Kyoto.
Franklin stayed in Sasayama for the annual harvest festival during which men carried heavy portable Shinto shrines/Omikoshi in which children ride and pound a drum.
“On each side of the timbers are about 20 men who pick up the shrine and carry it up and down the streets on their shoulders. They shake the whole thing every few blocks and take a rest to get some sake, beer and food every hour or so,” he said.
There’s a portable shrine for every neighborhood. At the end of the night they gather in the center of town in front of a 900-year-old shrine and compete to see who can make the most noise while townspeople watch.
“It is an awesome display of teamwork and effort. No one was able to say exactly how long this celebration has been going on, but at least for the past 500 hundred years.
“As the night wore on toward this competition, brightly colored festival costumes dotted the crowd and the smell of fried octopus balls (tako yaki) and fish shaped bread filled with sweet bean paste (tai yaki) filled the air,” he said.
The entire group had rare experiences in a country with deep history going back well over 1,500 years, he said.
Over the following week they visited a pottery studio specializing in famous Tamba-style pottery from Sasayama and saw Hyogo Prefecture Pottery and Ceramic Museum where treasures of ancient pottery are displayed and they could make pottery.
“Each day we enjoyed a different, beautiful and tasty lunch of traditional Japanese food rich with things like unique Japanese vegetables, interesting pickles, seaweed, sticky white rice and different types of buckwheat or flour noodles.
“Even the students enjoyed the food tremendously,” Franklin said.
He especially liked the ancient Daikokuji Buddhist temple, garden and small grave site. “It’s stunning and makes one feel as though he has traveled back in time a thousand years.”
The temple is just the spot for those into costume play. They dress as old-style samurai or animé characters and use the temple as a backdrop for photographs.
While there, they sampled a practice session of Za-Zen/Zen meditation, reciting an ancient chant while seated quietly.
Built in the 1600s, Sasayama Castle is one of the first of its style. It has two separate moats surrounded by a bamboo forest and thick thatch-roofed samurai quarters around the edge. It is directly across from city hall in the town of 42,000 people.
They enjoyed a traditional tea ceremony conduced by a teacher with 40 years of experience while at the Sasayama civic center and made traditional complex Japanese string decorative balls.
A personal favorite for Franklin was seeing a professional samurai sword maker’s workshop set along a hillside outside the city.
The man, who apprenticed for five years, said it takes about one month to make one samurai sword. He crafts about 10 per year that sell for about $15,000 each.
“As a martial artist myself, I never thought I would ever get to meet a genuine samurai sword maker and see his shop, it was a surreal experience. Until recently the techniques of the samurai sword maker have been secret. But now unless the secrets are revealed the art will die. We were fortunate to be able to see the real thing.”
A brewery, an edamame farm and agricultural and vocational high schools were among other places they visited. They had a lesson in calligraphy, another in cooking.
At one point Franklin visited a spa while a typhoon rampaged around him.
“I sat and soaked in a beautiful outdoor hot spring bath tub, and watched the raging storm feeling the cold rain on my shoulders and head and watching the trees bowing back and forth in the raging wind. It was an excellent once-in-a-lifetime-experience.”
Taiko drummers and modern music, doing a traditional heritage dance and enjoyed traditional food were part of the farewell party the travelers attended.
Wild deer walked the grounds of the ancient Japanese capital of Nara on Oct. 24, their last visit on their final day. There, the 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple Todaiji houses a 45-foot-tall statue of Buddha.
Franklin said 10 students from Sasayama are due in Walla Walla for a 12-day visit in March. Families in Walla Walla are currently being recruited to host the guests.
Students ages 14-18 and adults interested in going to Japan in October 2018 may email Franklin at email@example.com for details.