Three Encinitas high schoolers and a chaperone received a taste of a different culture on a recent visit to Amasuka, Japan.
"It was like what you would see online but just 10 times better," said Hannah Berggren, one of three incoming San Dieguito Academy sophomores who was chosen as a delegate for the trip sponsored by the Encinitas Sister City program from July 25 to Aug. 4.
Landon Southark, another student delegate, expressed his amazement with the rice fields that dotted the neighborhoods.
"Seeing those was so incredible because it's just not a thing I'd ever seen," said Landon, who stayed in the agricultural community of Sumoto. "It just made my experience 10 times better getting to live in a very rural, small village rather than living in the city. It was such a wonderful, beautiful place with such a tight-knit community."
The third student, Benjamin Deak, recalled being impressed by Amakusa's green environment and the people's dining habits at low-sitting tables.
The visit, which happens every two years, was part of Encinitas' sister city program, which was established in 1988. Last year, six students from Amakusa visited Encinitas.
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.
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.
Despite the population and cultural differences, the visiting students and their chaperone, Janeen Baylon, said they noticed striking similarities between Encinitas and Amakusa.
Both areas are comprised of rural and coastal communities and have palm trees, they said. The people in Amasuka are also as friendly as those in Encinitas, they added.
Baylon, who was in charge of the Encinitas students and some Japanese students on group excursions, said all the teenagers had similar personalities.
"Those kids are just kids like these kids are," said Baylon, a first-time visitor to Amakusa who has been on the Sister Cities committee for six years. "I might not have been able to understand what these two boys in my group were saying to each other, but they were goofing off and not doing what they were supposed to be doing, just like you would find with any other teenagers."
The chaperone, who equated Amakusa to the "Pacific Northwest of Japan," considered the three Encinitas students as model delegates to represent the city.
Students interested in going to Amakusa as part of the Sister City program must be an Encinitas resident and a freshman or sophomore in high school. Applicants also submit essays on why they should be chosen and partake in interviews with four panelists.
Ideally, Baylon said the students must show adaptability, flexibility and an open mind to new experiences.
"They will need to problem-solve, think on their feet and not be told what to do every step of the way," she said. "These three exhibited through their interviews that they could handle those kinds of situations."