By SHARON TUBBS
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000
CLEARWATER -- With a video camera in hand, five local students captured their recent trip to Nagano, Japan, on film so others can see Clearwater's sister city up close, albeit on a television screen.
"It was an awesome place," said one of the students, 13-year-old Ashley Dean, a Dunedin Middle School student. "Everybody there was extremely hospitable."
By the time school starts this fall, Ashley and her fellow travelers plan to present a video of their experiences to the Pinellas County School Board. They want the video to be used as a cultural learning tool in area schools.
Clearwater Sister Cities Inc. got a $10,000 state grant for the project. The organization used the money to give students $500 scholarships toward expenses for the trip, said Rita Garvey, the organization's president. Plane tickets cost about $850. The students, who left on June 14 and returned home on Sunday, stayed with host families.
The grant also paid expenses for Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst, who said he spent much of his time with Nagano executives and city council members touting Clearwater as a choice tourism spot. He talked up the Tampa Bay area as a possible location for a tofu plant one Japanese mogul wants to build in the United States, Aungst said.
Aungst presented the mayor with a sculpture of dolphins and council members with a cameo sculpted seashell. In return, Nagano officials gave Aungst a painting, a metal plaque commemorating his visit and other small trinkets.
Aungst said he did not have space in his luggage to bring the items back. He left them in Nagano, and they will be shipped here sometime soon, he said. The gifts will be displayed in City Hall once they arrive, he said. The students sometimes followed him around with their video camera, adding to Aungst superstar status in the Japanese city. As he entered City Hall, for example, every Japanese employee there stood and clapped.
"It was overwhelming," Aungst said. "I had to keep looking in the mirror each morning to make sure I wasn't Bill Clinton or Prince Charming or something."
Aungst was not the only one to catch a whiff of fame.
When 14-year-old Ryan Carter and two other students started singing a song by the Backstreet Boys, the Japanese students cheered.
"All the girls, like, they went crazy over us," Ryan said. "They thought we were the real Backstreet Boys and stuff because they had never seen them."
The boys issued no autographs, Ryan said.
The students expected the cultural differences -- taking off their shoes before entering the homes, eating Japanese foods and observing other customs. But Ashley said she was surprised by how well students seem to get along in the four middle and high schools the students visited. "None of them were ever arguing," Ashley said. "None of them were ever fighting."
The Japanese students greeted their teachers with a bow at the start of class. They had learned English songs to perform for their U.S. guests. There were no janitors; students changed clothes after school and cleaned up after themselves, Ashley said.
Those kinds of observances were exactly what organizers hoped to get. They wanted to "see a sister city from a 15-year-old's insight," said Richard Wisemiller, one of two teachers who accompanied students on the trip.
The Japanese students had been studying English, while the local students knew little Japanese, although Ashley said she has been teaching herself Japanese for about a year now.
Still, the students were able to communicate with each other.
Brian Aungst Jr., the mayor's 16-year-old son and the oldest student on the trip, got lost one day walking from his host family's house to City Hall. But people at a nearby gas station were able to show him the way, he said.
The students taught them games to play and began building friendships, Wisemiller said. That's what the video will show.
"Here are kids with a language barrier, but they were able to communicate with one another," Wisemiller said.