Okuwa, Japan and Shelbyville became sister cities in 1993.
Twenty-five years later, two high school students, along with chaperones and program members, experienced the trip of a lifetime as they traveled to Japan in October.
Brad Davis, longtime participant of the Sister City program, said IHI Turbo was planning to expand in the U.S.
Somehow they were able to choose Shelbyville as their place of expansion, he said.
City councilman Mark Shanks said there are three IHI Turbo plants in Okuwa, and the company sponsors the program.
Alternating years, with some exceptions, delegates of Okuwa come to Shelbyville and vice versa.
Two high school students and one Lake Land College student had the opportunity to travel to Okuwa a few weeks ago with chaperones and delegates from Shelbyville. There was an informational meeting on the trip to Japan a year prior to the trip, according to Zach Hood, a sophomore at Shelbyville High School.
He said the requirement for students to go on the trip was to write an essay explaining why they should be chosen.
Abbi Hawes, a junior at Shelbyville High School, said she hosted a student last year and that encouraged her to apply.
Kim Davis, a Lake Land College professor, and her family hosted multiple students from Okuwa and have been over to Japan a few times. She said the bond between her family and host students formed immediately.
Kim Davis presented the idea of taking a Lake Land student to the board of trustees, and it was accepted.
Shanks said the three students went off separately to stay with different host families, and the adults stayed in a hotel in Okuwa.
Hawes said the night the group landed, there was a big dinner with the Mayor of Okuwa and other city officials.
"That night, Zach and I, and the Lake Land student, went with our families and we spent the night there for the first night," she said.
The host families took the students to different sights and the students went to school in Okuwa for a day and a half.
Hawes said everything was just so different.
She said the first day of the trip, the whole group went to two festivals in the park.
"After the festivals, we went into their nature area where they have water and it was really blue and really pretty," Hawes said.
Shanks and Brad Davis agreed the ravine going through the town was incredible.
The flowers and mountains were beautiful, Hawes said.
"They kept us busy the whole time," she said. "We did so many things."
Hood said he liked how his host family bought fresh produce each night.
He said, "I learned that green tea is very delicious. I brought back three bags of green tea kit kats."
Hood got to celebrate his birthday in Japan, and his host family helped him celebrate by surprising him with gifts and a cake.
The group visited the first Buddhist temple in Japan, Brad Davis said.
"It's about 1,500 years old," he said.
Shanks said it was very peaceful.
Brad Davis said the group visited a 600-year-old castle.
"There's nothing (in the U.S.) 600 years old," he said.
Shanks said the adults got to go to City Hall and spent time with the Mayor of Okuwa.
"They had City Hall staffers lined up there outside in nice uniforms, holding flowers to give to us as we came in," Shanks said. "The graciousness adds a level of lubrication to how smoothly their society runs."
The mayor served tea and they had nice conversation about the city, he said.
Kim Davis said, "They absolutely go above and beyond, it's so different."
When they walked up to City Hall, the employees came out and clapped, she said.
"They roll out the red carpet, and I think that's typical. It's not us or anything, it's just how they are," Kim Davis said.
Shanks said the Okuwa city employees deal with a lot of the same issues as the Shelbyville city employees.
The big difference was in Okuwa, there were 64 city employees at City Hall, he said.
"They provide a lot more for their people, and it's probably more government organized and than our more private enterprise," Shanks said. "It looked like they were providing a lot more services and doing more for the citizens."
The people of Okuwa hosted a banquet for the Shelbyville group on the last night, Shanks said.
"I got to try salted and fermented squid guts, which was quite unusual," he said.
Hawes said her host family ate fish for breakfast.
Lots of noodle-based food, seafood, chicken, beef and pork were served, Shanks said.
This trip created a lifetime of memories that the students will never forget, he said.
"There were several tears when people were leaving," Shanks said.
"My view before going on this trip was small, and it's broadened my view," Hood said. "Now I really want to, when I go into college, is study abroad and just travel because this is really cool."
Kim Davis said she wishes she could encourage more people to take part in the Sister City Program, whether it be hosting the Japanese students for a week or applying to go over to Okuwa.
"Students are never going to get an experience like this ever in high school," she said.
Brad Davis said the Japanese students who come over to Shelbyville want to see the daily routines of Americans. They want to see what we do and what we eat, he said.
Okuwa City Hall members want to expand the program, and send college students over, K. Davis said.
Hood said his biggest piece of advice after this trip is to travel.
"Don't just stay in one place, because you're not gonna learn from just me or someone else talking to you. You gotta go out there and experience it for yourself. That's one of the biggest things that I learned," he said.
Don't be afraid to try new things, he said.
Shanks said he is a "strong supporter for the Sister City Program to go forward, and I would like other people to have the opportunity to have that experience, because I think they would learn immensely from it and create lifetime memories. Good thing all the way around."
Kennedy Nolen can be reached by phone at 217-774-2161 ext. 1 or by email at email@example.com.