By Jenn Watt
Published May 23 2017
The group from Haliburton arrived in Japan just as the cherry blossoms were unfurling on the trees. It had been a cool spring and the iconic pink flowers were late to bloom but right on time for the Canadian visitors.
Thirteen members of Friendship Force arrived on the island nation to experience the history culture and people for three weeks in April and found a welcoming country offering much to learn.
Rested after sleeping their nights on futon mattresses fuelled by a breakfast of salad and fish the visitors travelled between two fellow Friendship Force clubs one in Nara (roughly in the middle of the country) and the other in Shizuoka about 300 kilometres away at the foot of Mount Fuji one of Japan’s sacred mountains.
“You could see it from any direction” said Jack Jackson one of the Haliburton contingent.
The dormant volcano is more than 12000 feet high the tallest in Japan and is considered sacred.
“It seemed to loom over our heads” Lindy Smith said “It almost seemed like a person.”
Smith co-ordinated this trip for the Haliburton chapter of Friendship Force an international organization that promotes cultural exchange and respect. The group included her husband Barrie Smith Pat and Dave Reynolds Diane and Jack Jackson Marilyn Burton Lynne Johnston Rhonda Elstone Reet Murray Elli Armstrong Cathy Meades and Marian Langdon.
They were hosted by the two Japanese clubs and divided up into different billets making each person’s experience of the country a little different. However the trip was overwhelmingly positive for the group who gamely tried the various Japanese experiences as they were offered up.
Lindy and Barrie for example agreed to go to Japanese hot springs called onsen. “The main thing about it is no clothes” Lindy recalled. “That took a bit of breath holding shall we say. We walked inside and I was terrified.”
She required assurances that there would be no men in the public baths and said her host was kind and accommodating. In the end it was a relaxing day.
“We soaked in three or four different hot areas. It was quite pleasant” she said looking over at her husband. “Barrie said he didn’t know if he’d ever volunteer to do that again.”
Although there wasn’t a Friendship Force club in Hiroshima the Haliburton group went to the city for three days taking in the sobering lessons of nuclear war.
“There’s an A-bomb museum and it has displays of people who were injured and who were trying to cope [following the bombing]. It describes what it was like for everybody there. We ended up going with our friends from Friendship Force into a room and reading testimonials that were written by survivors – by children” Lindy said. “The stories were horrifying.”
On Aug. 6 1945 the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the city of Hiroshima killing 145000 people by year's end. Related illnesses ended up killing 350000 the group learned.
“If these governments could have a look at the aftermath of what nuclear war has done …” Jack Jackson said his sentence trailing off. “It’s very emotional there.”
Friendship Force was founded in 1977 by an American Presbyterian minister named Wayne Smith and embraced by President Jimmy Carter. Spending time amongst people from other cultures helps improve understanding and leads to better global citizens according to the Friendship Force International website. Engaging with people with other perspectives can broaden horizons and help people find common ground.
“Often people think of Friendship Force as being a travel group but it’s more than that” said Pat Reynolds president of the local chapter. “The idea is and the mission is that you meet friends and learn about their culture in other countries and they learn about you so you form friendships. And you don’t tend to fight with friends.”
The concept works well Jackson agreed.
“It’s personal; you’re in their homes you’re sharing their meals you’re sharing their ideas their views of their country.”
The Haliburton group said the Japanese people they met were polite friendly and respectful to their guests and each other. Everything seemed orderly and clean which surprised the Canadians especially in Tokyo which has more than 13 million in the immediate city and more than 37 million in the larger region. (According to the City of Tokyo’s website there are more than 6000 people per square kilometre.)
The Haliburton group marvelled at the public transit system which was so efficient and punctual that moving from one train to the next was made easy.
“There was no pollution” Lindy said. “There were not a whole lot of traffic jams. Compared to Toronto much less. It was the most advanced mass transit we’d ever seen.”
The streets were kept clean as far as the Canadians could tell because people took their litter home with them. There were recycling bins but no garbage cans.
Cooking origami and even a day to try on kimonos kept the visitors busy during their time in Japan.
While Friendship Force doesn’t work like a traditional exchange where communities or travellers take turns visiting each other it happened that the two clubs in Japan visited by the Haliburtonians had been to Haliburton before.
The previous connection made the trip even sweeter with several Japanese hosts expressing interest in seeing a Canadian winter.
“One of the things that was announced at our Japanese exchange is they really now need to come in the winter” Lindy said.
The three-week trip to Japan isn’t typical of Friendship Force. Usually the visits are shorter but because of the 16-hour flight a longer trip was planned.
“When we go out on one of these journeys typically we stay for a week and the club billet us …. They show us what they like about their area. Typically we have two out-bounds a year and two in-bounds” said Barrie.
The Haliburton chapter of Friendship Force started up in 2007 by Bob and Judy Cole.
“They advertised it in the Echo and it was at Fleming College great hall where we all met and there were so many people it was amazing” Lindy said.
There are 60 members currently but not all go on every trip. When visitors come to Haliburton some of the club members will billet them while others will take on other duties such as preparing meals for some of them or helping with day trips. Over the years Friendship Force members have gone to Costa Rica Australia New Zealand Hungary England Belgium South Africa and Germany.
The next in-bound group will be visiting the Highlands from Florida in June and then another group is coming from New Zealand in the fall.
To find out more about the local Friendship Force group you can go to ffhaliburton.org. New members are welcome.