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Muskox, miso and a meeting of young minds

At the back of the bus, Benoit Latour and Koichi Kunita shared some rice crackers and watched the animals outside the window.

At the back of the bus, Benoit Latour and Koichi Kunita shared some rice crackers and watched the animals outside the window.

“That one’s a male elk, see? The females don’t have horns,” 12-year-old Latour explained.

“Ah, so?” Kunita replied, seemingly understanding the gist of his host brother’s chatter.

Kunita, a 21-year-old university student of social science from Japan, was acting as a chaperone last week for the Ushiku Sister City student exchange.

Last Tuesday, the 12 students, their host brothers and sisters, and chaperones took a trip to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

The bus stopped to allow everyone to watch a young moose grazing beside the fence and the windows ignited with the flash of cameras.

“It’s very interesting here,” said Kunita picking his words carefully and sometimes pausing to consult an electronic dictionary.

“They speak English and French.”

The previous weekend the bilingual Latour family took Kunita and Kyosuke Nakayama, one of the students in the program, to the Copper Belt Railway Museum and to the community garden to pick raspberries.

Sharing some of his culture as well, Kunita made mochi (a Japanese rice cake), miso soup and green tea.

However he was surprised to discover that his host father already had an affinity for Japanese cuisine.

Their cupboards were fully stocked with sticky rice, nori (seaweed) and a sushi roller, he said as the bus pulled to a stop.

Everyone clambered out to get a closer look at some big horn sheep.

Some of the students grouped together with their new friends to take group pictures. The ever-popular V sign was displayed in full force.

The sister city exchange program began with a proclamation by mayor Don Branigan in 1986.

The program has grown and changed over the years and is now organized by parks and recreation.

How did it go this year?

“Fantastic! The feedback that I got was extremely positive,” said program co-ordinator Mia Lee. “We got a thumbs up from everybody.”

It was Lee’s first time organizing the event.

“I couldn’t have been luckier with the host families. They were all exceptional.”

The families took full advantage of the two weekends they had with their students to show them a good time.

One of the girls got to go horseback riding for the first time and a lot of the boys went fishing.

Some went ice-skating while others went swimming, and enjoyed the water slides at the Canada Games Centre.

Several families visited Skagway and one family even made a day trip out to Dawson.

And for a taste of Canadian cuisine, a host family whipped up a pot of moose-meat soup.

The week was packed full with group events, like the trip to the wildlife reserve, but rafting was the hands-down favourite.

It was the first time that the exchange program included the rafting and the students had a blast splashing each other all the way down the Tatshenshini River.

The 57-year-old Japanese chaperone had an especially good time.

“She was beside herself,” said Lee. “She was jumping off of the raft into the river, having the time of her life. It was awesome.”

Along with the exchange students, at least seven host family kids came out to nearly every event.

“It’s an excellent program, especially for the host brothers and sisters,” said Lee.

Besides enjoying the rafting, the young hosts learned something about Japanese culture while they shared their own.

They also learned how to communicate.

“For example, I know one student who was 12 or 13 years old and didn’t speak any English,” said Lee.

But the father noticed, towards the end of the program that his son and this boy were able to converse through a little English and a lot of sign language.

New friendships like these really made it difficult to say goodbye on Monday.

But the young people won’t be apart too long.

The experience made many of the host children very eager to go visit Japan next year.

“I know one kid, Max Parker, who’s packing his bags already,” said Lee.

You don’t have to be in a host family, she added; anybody who’s interested in going next year can go.

Sixteen-year-old Luke Henderson spent 10 days in Ushiku with the program last year.

He visited schools and cities, went to Tokyo twice and ate lots of delicious Japanese food.

He’ll soon be going to Russia on a Rotary youth exchange.

“Maybe I’ll go to Japan next year,” said Latour as he got back on the bus after viewing the muskoxen.

Kunita sat down next to him and took out some juice boxes.

Staring out the window, the two sipped on their straws in silence — and looked very much like brothers riding the bus home from school.