Menlo Park has a new crop of young ambassadors. In July, 10 Menlo Park teens, with three chaperones in tow, spent seven days exploring the city of Bizen, Japan, a "Friendship city" of Menlo Park.
While there, they visited an artisan soy sauce factory in Bizen that has been making soy sauce by hand for more than 100 years, traveled on a day trip to Hiroshima, visited the first public school built in Japan and attended a clay-making class from a Bizen Yaki clay master.
Menlo Park hosted 10 students from Bizen last year, and hopes to continue the cycle by having 10 students from Bizen visit Menlo Park next summer.
Menlo Park currently has one sister city, Galway, Ireland; and three cities with which it has "friendship" agreements to facilitate business, cultural or educational exchange: Bizen, Japan; Changchun, China; and Kochi, India.
A "Sister City" a is more formal, long-term partnership, and is operated by Sister Cities International, a nonprofit diplomacy network, that Menlo Park joined in November 2015.
According to Jim Cogan, Menlo Park's economic development manager, a typical comparison for these relationships is that a "friendship city" agreement is like dating, and a "sister city" agreement is like a marriage, with clearer roles, commitments and expectations.
This past spring, Menlo Park students, ages 13 to 15, were invited to apply to go on a cultural exchange trip to Bizen, Japan, for seven days. Up to 10 teens and four chaperones would go. Catherine Carlton, a member of the Menlo Park City Council, promoted the trip for Menlo Park students after her own visit to Bizen last year.
There was an essay contest to decide who, out of those who applied, would be selected. As it turned out, all students who applied went on the trip.
Although the students paid for airfare, the food and lodging were free, provided by the city of Bizen, just as Menlo Park had done for Bizen's students in 2015. Facebook covered airfare expenses for one of the students.
The students attend La Entrada, Belle Haven and Hillview middle schools, Menlo-Atherton High School, and the private Nueva School in Hillsborough. The 10 students who took the trip were Lauren Hall, Kumali Schoen, Sohalia Schoen, Ninarose Roybal, Violet Taylor, Ricky Bjerknes, Alex Wire, Anna Paczuski, Catherine Carlton-Ridenour, Javier Ramos.
Violet Taylor, an eighth-grader at Hillview Middle School, said that one of her favorite memories from the trip was an authentic tea ceremony in Hiroshima. At the demonstration, the tea master showed the group how to make the traditional Japanese ceremonial powdered green tea, known as matcha, and gave instructions on the proper etiquette for the ceremony.
"I had read a bit about the Japanese tea ceremony and I loved experiencing it in real life," Violet said.