Kenta Tanaka, from Ushiku, Japan, right, poses with his Whitehorse host family, Denali Lemphers, from left, Justin Lemphers and Brigitte Parker. (Submitted)

Whitehorse starts getting ready for Japanese students

This summer 13 Japanese students are slated to come north

An international student arrives in Canada and the first place he wants to go is the nation’s beloved coffee joint where he is served that long-awaited hot beverage — the scene has all the makings for a coffee shop commercial.

That was exactly what happened a couple of years ago when Riverdale residents Brigitte Parker and her husband Justin Lemphers showed up at the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport to meet Kenta Tanaka.

The first place the teenager from Ushiku, Japan wanted to go was Tim Hortons.

The visit was part of the Sister City Exchange Program with Ushiku which began in 1985. The program alternates between Whitehorse families hosting Japanese students for 10 days in the summer and Yukon students getting a chance to visit overseas the next year.

This summer 13 Japanese students are slated to come north.

Over his 10 days, Tanaka took in countless Yukon experiences he wouldn’t likely get back in Japan, and Parker, Lemphers and Lemphers’ teenage son Denali learned about Japanese culture while also seeing their own community in a whole new way.

“It’s eye-opening and mind-blowing for both parties,” Parker said in an April 10 interview.

She and Lemphers are planning to host again this summer. Ushiku will take its turn hosting Whitehorse students in 2020.

Four Yukon families have signed on as hosts for this year with others in the process, program coordinator Lindsay Agar said.

For Parker and Lemphers, Japan had been “on the list” of travel destinations for a long time. Two years ago, it didn’t look like they would be able to get there, at least not any time soon.

Having heard it was Whitehorse’s turn to welcome Ushiku visitors, the couple signed on as a host family.

Along with a mandatory criminal records check and training/cultural information sessions, prospective host families are asked about their own activities, pets and other details to ensure there’s a good match between host family and student or visiting chaperone.

“They really do work on matching properly,” Parker said.

For Tanaka and the Parker/Lemphers family, it was a great match.

“We had a lot of adventures,” Parker said.

She and Lemphers laughed as they recalled Tanaka’s excitement catching his first fish early in his stay.

“He just wanted to keep fishing,” Lemphers said.

It left such an impression that on Tanaka’s last night in the territory, he and Lemphers were up until 2:30 a.m. fishing one last time before he left.

That’s part of a long list of memories for the Yukoners: Tanaka’s scream walking into the frigid water of Kluane Lake; watching the sunset from Haeckel Hill after an extremely bumpy drive up that Tanaka somehow managed to sleep through; visiting the Yukon Suspension Bridge; a stellar variety show staged by the Ushiku delegation at a final banquet; and the generosity of the Ushiku students who arrived with many gifts for their Yukon hosts.

And there were quiet moments around the house.

Tanaka and Denali could be found most evenings playing games (chess, crib, war) and trying to figure out a puzzle box Tanaka had brought with him.

“That’s really how they started to connect,” Lemphers said.

Through the weekdays both teenagers took part in the organized city program: visiting First Nation cultural centres, canoeing the Yukon River, seeing the animals of the Yukon Wildlife Preserve and more.

Tanaka discovered a love for First Nations art during his stay, taking home pieces printed to T-shirts and a phone case featuring a design by a First Nations artist.

Weekends were also busy, with the family activities led by Tanaka’s interests while also keeping in mind what would be offered through the day program.

An overnight camping trip for the group was a definite highlight for both Ushiku and Whitehorse youth.

Tanaka came back to the house telling joke after joke he had learned around the campfire, staying up with the other youth.

Just as the Parker/Lemphers family enjoyed sharing the place they call home, they were also pleased to learn about Tanaka’s home.

Tanaka was happy to answer their many questions and help expand the family’s menu options.

Japanese recipes for the family now extend beyond the homemade sushi Parker made for Tanaka when she thought he might want something more familiar. Looking back, she said that sushi was probably nothing compared to what he was used to back home.

These days the family’s recipe repertoire also features okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake; korokke, a deep-fried potato dish; and ramen.

As Parker described, volunteering as a host family is a “good way to visit the world without leaving the house.”

Lemphers and Parker did eventually get their “trip of a lifetime” to Japan last year where they spent some time visiting Tanaka’s family.

The visit was a highlight of the trip as they got to know Tanaka’s family, get a glimpse of his life and the important places to him in his hometown.

It is one example of the friendships that have been forged between host families and youth since the program began.

Details and applications to become a host family are available on the City of Whitehorse website.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at