Scroll Top

Sunnyvale Middle School Students Visit Iizuka, Japan

Image 16

The Sunnyvale Sister City Association has its roots in the breathtaking impression its founder and president, Mark Kato, had of the United States in the late 1970’s, on his very first trip to the U.S. from Japan. About 35 years after that 3-week visit to the United States, Kato founded the Sunnyvale Sister City Association in 2012 and successfully organized the first student exchange between students in Sunnyvale and students in Iizuka, Japan. Kato and his SSCA team will work hard to acquire more corporate sponsorships so that not only will these annual exchange trips take place, SSCA will also be able to offer scholarships to students who need financial assistance in order to participate.

The inaugural student exchange trip took place this June (16th to 25th), the Sunnyvale to Iizuka (S2I) trip, with students from Sunnyvale visiting schools in Iizuka, staying with local host families for the majority of the visit and treated to tremendous hospitality and immersion in traditional Japanese culture. The hard work and meticulous organization of SSCA Event Director, Akiko Inoue, and the SSCA team made this trip a reality only six months after Iizuka and Sunnyvale formalized their friendship, with both former Sunnyvale mayor Tony Spitaleri and Iizuka mayor Morichika Saito, signing a Friendly Exchange Relations Agreement in late 2013.

Ten students from Sunnyvale Middle School and one from Lynbrook High School went on the trip to Japan, with chaperones, Sheila McKell (teacher at SMS), Susie Smare (retired SMS teacher), Jack Ewbank (SSCA IT Manager) and Akiko Inoue (SSCA Event Director), along with Kato. The group spent three days in Futase Junior High School, attending classes with local students and being enthusiastically welcomed and pampered by their host families. The Lynbrook High School student spent time in Kaho-Higashi High School and Kyushu Institute of Technology. The Vice Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, is an Iizuka native, and invited the group to a BBQ at his residence. The students and their chaperones also visited Dazaifu Shrine, Kaho Theater, and Kokura Castle. Dazaifu is Japan’s famous God of Literature and Calligraphy and those who pray at the shrine are said to enjoy a boost to their brain cells. The Kaho Theater in Iizuka is a very old Kabuki theater. Kokura Castle is an example of a preserved Shogun-era castle. To SMS students who have studied castles around the world and McKell, a 7th grade social studies teacher, visiting the Kokura Castle was a perfect extension of their classroom lessons!

For this first exchange trip, Kato only approached administrators at Sunnyvale Middle School, Columbia Middle School, and Fremont High school, with enthusiastic support from both school district’s superintendents, Dr. Benjamin Picard and Polly Bove. Next year, Kato will expand to include all schools in Sunnyvale as well as students who live in Sunnyvale but attend schools outside of Sunnyvale city limits. He also envisions incorporating technology and business exchange among students in Sunnyvale and in other countries around the world. Please visit SSCA’s website to meet Kato’s team and get more information about the organization.

On the Iizuka to Sunnyvale (I2S) trip, twenty Iizuka students arrived in the U.S. on August 20th and visited San Francisco, Yosemite, Stanford University, Google, and the Tech Museum, before joining their Sunnyvale host families from August 22nd to 26th. A welcoming ceremony was held at SMS for the Iizuka students on August 22nd, after which they went home to enjoy a weekend with an American family, visiting area sights such as the Santa Cruz Board Walk, Monterey and Great America, shopping, or going to a baseball game. Iizuka gifted 13 cherry trees to the city of Sunnyvale. SMS held a planting ceremony for four cherry trees. Other cherry trees may be found around the city: three at Sunnyvale City Hall, one at the Sunnyvale Library, three in Braly Park, one at Fremont High School, and one at Plug and Play Technology Center. SSCA hosted a farewell BBQ for all the Iizuka students and their host families at Ortega Park on August 26th, and the students left for the airport from SMS the morning of August 27th.

Larissa Lai and Tori Runyan are two of the ten SMS students who participated in this exchange program. Here are their thoughts about their experiences.

Larissa shares about being treated like a celebrity during her visit in Japan:
Last April, I signed up for this program with 10 other SMS students on an exchange trip to Iizuka, Japan. When we arrived, we were met at the airport by four gentlemen nicely dressed in suits, who had been standing there awaiting our presence for over an hour. The language barrier didn’t keep the American students and the Japanese families apart as we were all so happy with a lot of smiles and laughter. We went to school the following days. We were always surrounded and treated like celebrities. Name cards were exchanged and questions were answered like being interviewed by reporters. Schools in Japan were so CLEAN and I wished that our schools could be similar and every one of us would have a different school experience. All in all, this trip to Japan will always be remembered and the valuable experience never forgotten.

Tori shares her enthusiasm about her participation and urges others to join next time:
Traveling to Japan as a foreign exchange student was very fun and also taught me a lot about their culture. We got to visit temples, museums, attend school, and live with a host family for a few days. It was my first time out of the county and it was very exciting. At first, kids in Japan seemed very different than us, but after this whole experience, including hosting a Japanese student, I realized they are just like us. I took my foreign exchange student shopping at the mall, to a baseball game, and to Santa Cruz to see surfing and the Beach Boardwalk. If any students have the opportunity to participate in a foreign exchange program, I would highly recommend them to do so.

The Myers family hosted one of the Iizuka students, and here’s what mom, Reid, has to share:
I wanted to host a student from Iizuka as I thought it would be a meaningful experience not only for the student, but for our family as well. Our student was a 15 year-old girl named Sayaka who was sweet, enthusiastic and loved our dogs. Sayaka really didn’t speak English so it was an adjustment at first, but we learned to communicate when we needed to (Google translate was a help). In a few short days we felt like Sayaka was part of our family. It’s amazing that even without a common language, it’s possible to form a strong bond so quickly! I knew I wasn’t the only one who had grown attached to her when my 10 year old son said “I wish Sayaka could live with us forever!”. When the bus left Sunnyvale Middle School for San Francisco airport at the end of the trip, there was a sea of hugs and tears. It was clear that the Iizuka students made a considerable impact on all of the hosting families!

For more information on the Sunnyvale Sister City Association (SSCA), please go to
SSCA Facebook page:

Contributors: Mark Kato, President, Sunnyvale Sister City Association; Larissa Lai, Tori Runyan, student participants on the Sunnyvale to Iizuka trip; Reid Myers, host family; Nina Wong-Dobkin

Leave a comment