As they surrounded Mayor Catherine Blakespear at city hall on Aug. 1, the visiting teenage students from Amakusa, Japan smiled in delight as Blakespear handed them cups of something foreign to them — kombucha.
"What do you think?" the mayor asked.
"Oh! Very good!" the visitors replied, asking for more of the Wild Tonic brand drink.
The tasting of the fermented beverage on Aug. 2 was the first of a week of Encinitas experiences for the six students and their teacher.
The visit, which happens every two years with different students from Amakusa, was part of Encinitas' sister city program, which was established in 1988. Currently, Amakusa — which has 83,000 residents compared to Encinitas' 63,000, according to online records — is the coastal San Diego city's only sister city.
Originally, Encinitas was sister cities with Hondo, Japan. However, Hondo combined with other Japanese cities to form Amakusa in 2006, explained Nick Buck, Encinitas' special events and project supervisor, who heads the sister city program.
The five 15-year-old students, one 13-year-old student and their teacher arrived Aug. 1 and will stay with host families in Encinitas through Aug. 7.
Buck said the Japanese students tell him they always look forward to visiting Encinitas.
"Having been there now and learning more about the structure of the exchange program on the Amakusa end, I’ve seen that many students dream of coming to Encinitas," he said. "From what I have seen and heard from the students of Amakusa, a trip here really expands their world view and exposes them to our culture, plus Encinitas is a really fun place to come as a teen. They love doing many of the things that we get to do all the time. They really enjoy all of it."
The experience is also rewarding for teenagers from Encinitas, who get to visit Amakusa, also a beach city, every other year, Buck said.
"The city of Amakusa and the people of the city really go out of their way to make their guests feel welcome and special," he said. "When our Encinitas group goes there, we are exposed to so much of the culture, customs and history, and we’ve all made strong bonds with the people we met."
On Aug. 2, the Japanese students toured city hall and visited downtown landmarks, including the 1883 Schoolhouse and boat houses, with Buck as their guide.
Buck said the students throughout the week will enjoy activities like a Coaster ride to Petco Park for a baseball game, horseback riding in Olivenhain, surfing lessons at Moonlight Beach and eating American delicacies, like pizza, hamburgers and smoothies.
To cap off the week, Encinitas will host the public Japan Festival at the library, 540 Cornish Drive, on Aug. 5 from 1 to 4 p.m. The event will include food, a tea ceremony and live performances.
Tomoko Ohira, the students' English teacher who was also visiting from Amakusa, appreciated the weather in Encinitas, which she said is not as hot and humid as her home city.
She said she was especially looking forward to watching a baseball game and eating an "American-sized" pizza.
Blakespear said the sister city program is important because "we all live in an international world."
"Our recognition and appreciation of the highly developed and refined Japanese society, which is so different from our own, is tremendously valuable," she said.
Rimga Viskanta, an Encinitas resident who is hosting a Japanese girl, agreed, adding she believes understanding other cultures is important.
"Hosting a student from another culture makes something foreign feel familiar, and you witness up close how similar we all are," she said. "Travel is a great way for young people to understand the world they will soon be shaping."