Encinitas group visits sister city of Amakusa, Japan

Just about a month ago, Nick Buck was high above Amakusa Japan, seeing all of the islands and waterways that make up Encinitas’ sister city.

But for the Encinitas Recreation Director (and Sister City Program coordinator), that was just one of many moments that stood out from his trip as chaperone for three local teens participating in a sister city exchange program in early August.

“I was hiking through the mountains and I happened upon (some people paragliding) and they asked me if I wanted to do it,” Buck explained. “What an awesome way to see Amakusa, seeing it from 3,000 feet and then landing in a rice field.”

Buck, who took Encinitas resident Aiden Paul — a 16-year-old who attends High Tech High in San Marcos — and 15-year-old San Dieguito Academy students Lily Kreps and Ian Dewart, was the first city staffer to go on the weeklong trip in about a decade. The kids are usually chaperoned by a volunteer picked by the Sister City Commission.

“It was a really good personal experience and I think it was a really good thing for me to go as a city staff person because I think it was meaningful to them on their end,” said Buck, who has overseen the city program for more than three years. “Getting to spend time in Amakusa, with their staff … it was really eye-opening and gives me such a better understanding of what the program looks like from their end.

“They take it seriously over there, it’s a big deal. When it comes to our week of activities, the mayor is present a few times, their city council is really involved and their city staff put a lot into this program.”

Buck said it was important to their hosts to show the American visitors about the interesting history of Amakusa. Located in the south of Japan, the area was visited by Christian missionaries in the 1500s and many of the residents converted. After the Emperor made Christianity illegal, many in the area practiced in secret or fought rebellions for their rights.

The group from Encinitas toured historic sites, museums, ancient Christian churches and Buddhist temples.

“Tourism to Amakusa is a lot about that, people want to visit those churches and those sites, and they make a big point to show us that history,” Buck said. “That’s really cool … we enjoyed seeing some of that tradition. We had traditional dinners and tea ceremonies, listened to traditional styles of music.”

The local delegation also went to a middle school and learned Origami, saw a Kendo demonstration and, at a Buddhist Temple, joined Zen masters for a mediation session, among many other culture experiences.

Buck and the students stayed with host families and spent time doing activities with them as well. While Buck was hiking, swimming, biking and paragliding in the mountains, the Encinitas kids experienced family fun like bowling, video games and shooting off fireworks with their host families, which included the families of students who came to Encinitas last year, and the family of a teacher who came three years ago as a chaperone.

“They treated us like family and that made it very special,” Buck said. “They really go out of their way to treat us well. This group that we had this year, these kids were all game to do anything, to eat anything — we all ate horse, every kind of fish and even sashimi chicken — just to experience it all. That made it fun for us and made it fun for our hosts.”

Kreps, who competes in synchronized swimming back home, got to swim under a waterfall and Dewart, who is into track and field, got to run with some local athletes. While Kreps stayed close to Hondo City, Dewart was on a farm and Buck was in a rural area called Sumoto, which was mostly rice fields and fisherman.

Buck and the students also brought gifts for their sister city, including a skateboard signed by legendary skater (and Encinitas resident) Tony Hawk.

Outside of the surf and skate culture of Encinitas, the two cities actually have a similar recent history. Encinitas incorporated in 1986 and entered into a relationship through Sister Cities International with the Japanese city of Hondo in 1988. The connection at that time was that the two cities had similar triathlon events and citizens would travel back and forth to compete in Hondo City and in the event in Encinitas.

In 2006, Hondo, another city and several small towns incorporated into Amakusa. While Encinitas is a beach city, Amakusa is made up of two main islands and six smaller island sets.

“They are both coastal towns, they both have kind of a funky, unique respect for culture, arts, sports, the ocean and the environment, so there are a lot of commonalities,” Buck said.

What started as a nonprofit, the Sister City program eventually earned funding from the city in 1999, when an exchange program was added. Since then, Encinitas has sent some city staff, firefighters, teachers and a lot of high-school students to Amakusa for weeklong trips in alternate years. In the in between years, middle-school aged kids from Amakusa have visited Encinitas.

“We try to show the kids who visit from Amakusa what it means to be a teenager in Encinitas, to teach them about our culture and the uniqueness we have here,” Buck said. “Culturally, it’s a world apart but there are a lot of commonalities and uniqueness to their city and uniqueness to Encinitas and a lot of magic in between.”

The city officially took over the program in 2005, but a Sister City Commission made up of volunteers — some of which have been with the program from the beginning — provides advisement, meeting on an as needed basis.

In addition to the exchange program, the two cities send proclamations and other greetings on important milestones, such as Amakusa’s recent 10-year anniversary of incorporation.

Another event, the Encinitas Library’s Japan Festival, has grown to intermingle with the city program and has become very popular in town. The timing of this year’s Japan Festival worked out perfectly as Buck and the students had just returned and were able to talk to residents about their trip at the Aug. 13 event. The 2015 festival was timed to run when the kids from Amakusa were visiting.

“It’s a really cool thing and I think it’s going to continue to grow,” Buck said of the Japan Festival. “And the library really does it all on their own. I’m so proud of their staff, I think they are doing a tremendous job with it.”

Coming up on the 30th anniversary of the sister city relationship, Buck plans to push the city of Encinitas to explore options such as a bigger celebration in Encinitas and maybe even sending a city council member or mayor to Amakusa in addition to the students. A delegation of the city council and department heads from Encinitas visited the sister city in the mid-2000s.

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