Japanese exchange program sparks friendships

The USF students who went to Japan with the Kakehashi Project had great expectations.

They expected to visit ancient Japanese shrines and modern museums. They knew they were going to meet students at Kyoto Sangyo University and meditate with Buddhist monks.

What they did not expect was the bond they would establish with one another – a bond that would continue long after their 10-day trip had ended.

“I’ve kind of added to my family,” said Andrew Machado, a humanities major at USF. “It puts a lot of things in perspective. You start to create connections that you would have never created here.”

The Kakehashi Project is an exchange program dedicated to students of the United States and Japan. The program is sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and is designed to elevate enthusiasm for the country of Japan, offering American and Japanese youth a diverse experience with the different cultures.

“The big purpose is youth exchange and to increase tourism in Japan because of the 2011 earthquake,” said Mako Nozu, USF professor of Japanese.

Nozu is from the city of Kochi in Japan. Her knowledge of the Japanese culture gave the American students a keen advantage in understanding the foreign customs.

“She is a central force in Japanese study on campus and has been the true source of inspiration to USF students seeking to learn about Japan and Japanese language,” said René Sánchez, assistant director of Education Abroad at USF World.

In Japan, guests are expected to bring gifts to their hosts. This tradition, called “omiyage,” gave the USF students an opportunity to share the life of a Floridian with the Japanese students.

Firdaws Ali and Courtney Marsh brought Oreo cookies in a gift bag decorated like the American flag. Luis Frieri, Jr. brought Florida memorabilia, including Tampa Bay Rays and USF Bulls key chains.

“We taught them a lot of Florida things, like the USF Bulls sign,” Isabel Pang said. “They loved that.”

The Kyoto Sangyo students were infatuated with the USF students and American culture. Their last moments together were full of tears and heartfelt farewells.

“We didn’t want to leave, and they didn’t want us to leave,” Pang said.

They will all meet again soon, however. The 23 Japanese students involved in the Kakehashi program will be venturing to USF on March 8, 2015. There will be a welcome ceremony presented by the Japanese Club and typical Tampa activities for them to experience during their stay. The USF students discussed agenda possibilities for their Japanese friends, including visits to Ybor City, Busch Gardens or the International Plaza and Bay Street.

“We’re super excited,” Pang said. “They’re literally the nicest people in the world.”

The Japanese students will spend three days in Tampa, where they will experience the life of a USF student.

The American visitors easily adopted a passion for the Japanese culture and people. Machado only slept 35 hours during the 10-day trip – not because of jet lag, but because he wanted to experience as much of Japan as possible.

“I would just wander,” Machado said. “I saw really awesome stuff because I just didn’t sleep. I kind of had these interesting interactions that I don’t think anybody else had.”

The relationships between the Kakehashi participants have remained strong.

“We all influenced each other,” Frieri said.

Machado now carries a hand towel with him everywhere he goes. Most bathrooms in Tokyo have no paper towels or method to dry hands, so people carry their own towel.

“It was really personal for me. I was a very different person on that trip than I am now,” Machado said. “That trip is shaping who I am becoming.”

Three months after the Kakehashi trip, Machado, Frieri, Pang, Marsh and Ali met for coffee and conversation. They reminisced over photos, memories and their experiences together. A Kakehashi Facebook page serves as a forum for the participants to communicate and stay connected.

“One of the coolest things was we made friends,” Machado said. “The things I did see and the things I experienced – I wouldn’t change them for the world.”