Four Clearwater students brought back more than memories and souvenirs from their monthlong trip to Japan.
"I had the most wonderful summer ever, that changed my life forever," said Grace Chi, 16, who will be a junior next month at Countryside High School.
The group, three young women and a young man, returned Wednesday from an exchange program in Clearwater's sister city, Nagano, Japan. They were accompanied by Linda Damsky, education exchange program coordinator. Dr. Shelby Harvey, director of middle school education, joined them for half of the trip.
Damsky said the students' visit widened their global perspectives.
"They got to see something that few people have," Damsky said. "And as insiders, they have an appreciation of how people live, their kindness and their customs."
Chi, who had moved to Florida from Shanghai, China, three years ago, agreed.
"I think every student grew more mature after this trip," she said.
Clearwater and Nagano became sister cities when Nagano's then-mayor, Itaru Kurashima, visited the United States and was impressed by Clearwater.
The relationship began in 1959, and Clearwater and Nagano began exchange programs involving students, teachers and residents.
The four foreign-language students interviewed for the program, which was funded by the city of Nagano. To be considered, they had to write essays, provide letters of recommendation and maintain 3.0 or higher grade point averages.
The exchange students kicked off their trip with a sightseeing tour of Tokyo, and midway through the trip they ventured to Kyoto. Most of their trip was spent visiting schools and sharing cultural experiences with Japanese students.
At each school, they made presentations about family life, school life and pop culture, and the Clearwater students were treated to presentations by the Japanese students as well.
Sixteen-year-old Nikki Marinake, who will be a Countryside High senior, said she was surprised by how organized the Japanese school ceremonies were. "The kids lined up in rows. It's really amazing. It looks like an army of soldiers," she said.
Each student stayed with host families in a variety of accommodations, from high-rise apartments to spacious homes. They also built strong bonds with the families.
Kelli Cheeseborough's host family was so gracious it gave up the master bedroom for her. Cheeseborough, 14, called her host mother "Mom," and her host mother called her "Sakura," which means cherry tree.
Marinake's host family spoke very little English, but she made do with hand gestures and drawings. "I had the most fun out of anybody," she said. "I got to play charades."
Angelo Perrino, 18, who graduated from Clearwater High, said his host family invited him back. "They said bring my mom. They call me their American son now."
All of the exchange students gathered unique souvenirs of their trip.
Marinake snatched up Hello Kitty items. Perrino visited 16 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and stamped a tiny booklet at each stop. Chi collected cloth charms and tiny sticker photos. And Cheeseborough bought several T-shirts with unusual phrases in English.
Most of the students were fans of Japanese food, but they put school lunches on the bottom of their list, especially the meal at their first school visit. They were served a couple of whole fish (scales, heads and all), rice and soup.
"It was fun to poke at," Marinake said giggling. "We all ended up going to McDonald's afterward."
Marinake said she found the Japanese people "very gadget" oriented. She saw people fidgeting with cell phones equipped with e-mail and video capabilities, but said she rarely saw anyone talking on them.
Perrino was in awe of the bright lights and huge video screens on the streets of Akihabara, the electronics capital of Japan. He had a few rough days when he came down with a severe stomach bug and dehydration. He bounced back after a three-day stint in the hospital and nine intravenous bags.
His mother, Jill Perrino, said she was worried at first.
"I knew he was in good hands," she said. "But being so far away, I couldn't help it."
Marinake said she didn't suffer from jet lag and still has fresh memories of the day before she left Japan, when she had awakened at 4 a.m. and biked for half an hour to get a final glimpse of the Zenkoji temple.
"I'm so ecstatically happy. I think I had to unscrew my smile," she said. "I'm still awake. I've just been on this high. I'm so glad I put in the effort to go on this trip."
The exchange students are documenting their adventures. Perrino shot a video and plans to edit it for the sister city program, and Marinake is putting together a Web site.