GREENFIELD — It didn’t take long for Honoka Yoshida to pinpoint the best part of her trip to Greenfield.
The animated 14-year-old was among a group of teens from Greenfield’s sister city of Kakuda, Japan, who spent the week immersing themselves in American culture.
While they visited schools, toured government buildings and even rode on a fire engine through downtown Greenfield, Honoka named a very simple American tradition as her top pick: her first sleepover.
“It’s just fabulous to experience normal American culture, having dinner and sharing a conversation,” Honoka said through an interpreter, vowing to ask her parents to host a sleepover when she returns to Japan.
The 11 students and three chaperones are spending their final days in Greenfield this weekend, with a 5K walk/run this morning to raise money for the program before a flight back home Sunday.
While each day offered a new learning experience, most teens named simple – and even surprising – memories they’ll take home with them.
Spending Friday morning at the Indianapolis Zoo, a group of girls giggled its way through the aquarium, walking like penguins and pointing out “Nemo,” the clownfish.
Yuumi Endo enjoyed her American adventure on a farm. Her host family has 3,000 pigs, so she helped check in on them every day.
Rin Watanabe, 14, had one word for her favorite experience in Indiana this week: “trampoline.”
Rin said a visit to Incrediplex in Indianapolis was a blast, but she also enjoyed the little things throughout the week with her host family. She made a tie-dye T-shirt with some new friends, played cornhole for the first time and was surprised that the food here wasn’t as fatty and fried as she thought it would be.
Rin imagined Americans as eating hamburgers and pizza every day, but she enjoyed the variety of American fare. That didn’t stop her from choosing a couple of junk-food favorites: hot dogs and cookies.
Impressed with souvenir penny presses, the girls made plenty of stops at the zoo. Their excitement over the stuffed animals at the souvenir stand was surpassed only by that for Dippin’ Dots.
Japanese teens are similar in many ways to their American counterparts, said Tony Campbell, a Greenfield resident who’s been a tour guide all week. While the program is partly designed to celebrate differences, many exchange students and host families find they have much in common.
“The girls, when they’re together, they giggle and have a good time; the boys just like to hang out,” Campbell said.
A group of Greenfield teens and chaperones visited Japan in June. Their trips mirror each other: the American students also visited city buildings, schools and tourist hot-spots. The sister city program has been running 23 years; Keihin IPT is the connection between the two cities. Keihin’s headquarters is in Kakuda.
This group of Japanese exchange students in particular, Campbell added, was a delight to be with.
“They listen very well; they’re very, very fun,” Campbell said. “They never complain. If an activity is boring, you would never know it. They would never say anything.”
Campbell has spent years with the Sister Cities program, hosting families and visiting Kakuda himself. This year, he hosted college student chaperone Kurumi Kato, who enjoyed the simple things like baking a cake with the family and even gazing in awe for a half hour at the candy aisle in Wal-Mart.
Sota Kikuchi, 15, enjoyed zip lining at Eagle Creek Park with his host family.
Dawn Hanson said it was nerve-wracking as a host mom because all of the instructions were in English, but they made sure Sota was secure on his adventure.
“He’s fun. He’s active and we’re a pretty active family, and he stuck right with us doing whatever we’re doing: hiking, zip lining, up the stairs of the monument, and he ran with the cross-country team,” Hanson said.
Hanson’s 13-year-old son, Cooper, enjoyed running with his new friend this week. Cooper said even when they weren’t doing something outside, the two bonded over video games.
While the students speak some English, communication can be tricky. Still, Sota felt like a part of the family from the very beginning. That’s probably because his mom stayed with the Hansons last year.
Kid-to-kid communication, Dawn Hanson added, is pretty universal.
“Playing video games or even playing board games with a family – it’s hard to explain,” she said. “We might not have a conversation, but we have great communication.”