Ever since Emilie Hagen visited Mitoyo, Japan, in the summer of 2008, she thought about going back.
Recently, she got the chance to do so.
The 17-year-old left on a Jan. 1 flight and returned to Waupaca on Feb. 11 after spending about six weeks in Japan.
“I liked it the first time, and I had friends over there,” Hagen said in explaining why she wanted to visit the country again.
Mitoyo is Waupaca’s sister city, and each summer, a group of students and chaperons from Waupaca go to Mitoyo for about 10 days, followed by a contingent from Mitoyo then visiting Waupaca.
It is part of the Waupaca International Cultural Exchange Program, and Hagen, who is a senior at Waupaca High School, said she wanted to go on the trip in August 2008 because she likes to travel.
“I enjoyed the host families I stayed with,” she said. “I tried to stay in touch with those I met.”
However, communicating with the people she got to know was sometimes difficult due to language barriers and e-mails not always going through.
Last summer, Hagen was at the banquet that was held for the visitors from Mitoyo. It was then that she was approached about the idea of going back to Mitoyo.
Those involved in Mitoyo’s exchange program that involves Waupaca were interested in starting a new program that would allow Waupaca students to visit for a longer period of time and also go to school as part of the visit.
Hagen believes she was asked because members of Waupaca’s International Cultural Exchange Program knew she had shown interest in the Rotary Club’s international exchange program.
“But I only wanted to go to Japan and wasn’t comfortable not knowing where I would go,” she said.
As part of the Rotary exchange student program, students are given a list of countries that they can go to. Then, students have to rank them, based on which countries they most want to go to.
Hagen liked the idea of being able to return to Mitoyo, and late last fall, the idea was approved.
“The reason why they went with this time of year,” she said, “was because it fit in with their schedule. They had just gotten done with winter break. I joined in with their school until the week before their final testing started.”
Hagen’s parents, Paul and Linda Hagen, paid for her transportation to and from Japan. From Milwaukee, she flew to Chicago and then to Toyko. Those three flights totaled 14 hours.
After arriving in Toyko, she went to Osaka and then had a four-hour bus ride to Mitoyo.
During her trip, Hagen stayed with two different families, and both families were familiar to her.
The daughter of her first host family had stayed with her own family in Waupaca during a previous visit of citizens from Mitoyo.
And, Hagen’s second host family had been her father’s host family when he was a chaperon when Waupaca’s group visited its sister city in 2008.
Her second visit to Mitoyo was different than her first trip there.
“The first time was more of a sightseeing trip,” she said.
During this trip, Hagen got more of an idea of everyday life in Mitoyo.
She was able to communicate with her friends and host families. “The students in Japan start learning English in fifth grade, so if I spoke slowly enough, most of them could understand me, but sometimes, we had to use an electronic dictionary for more complicated words,” she said.
Hagen quickly noticed how schools there differ from schools here.
She described the school that she attended as being more like a college than a high school. “There were some high school classes,” she said, “but the focus was more on math and science, because it is more of an engineering school.”
The students also had English as part of their curriculum.
With school uniforms required, Hagen wore black pants to school, except on her last day of classes there. That day, she wore jeans and received many strange looks from the other students.
Their school day begins at 9:15 a.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m. There are no school buses. The students get to school on bikes, mopeds or motorcycles.
At the school Hagen attended, it was the teachers who switched classrooms, instead of the students moving to different classrooms like they do here.
“I could go to as many classes as I felt comfortable with, but some of the classes, I couldn’t understand anything at all, so I would go to the library and work on my schoolwork for back here,” Hagen said.
When school days ended, many of the students headed to club activities.
“They have a lot of things after school, too. They have sports, but they also have other things like Juggling Club,” she said.
One club that Hagen got to experience was an event team called “Dream Land.” The team built things having to do with robotics and then competed.
Some days, instead of going to class, she went to elementary and middle schools with Mitoyo’s exchange office representatives and taught English classes. She also visited the mayor’s office.
She said the people were nice and that there is interest in having another Waupaca student do this particular type of visit, and in the future, having a student from Mitoyo come to Waupaca for such a trip.
For Hagen, it was quite a workload – handling her classes from here while also going to school there – but she found the people in Mitoyo to be very welcoming and enjoyed her trip.
Among the things that she brought home with her were cans of a new drink she discovered.
The drink is actually a pancake drink. The warm beverage comes out of heated vending machines. “It’s like pancakes in a can. It’s so good,” she said.
And now, Hagen’s brother, Michael, who is an eighth-grade student at Waupaca Middle School, will be the next from her family to go to Mitoyo. He is among those set to visit Waupaca’s sister city this summer. Hagen’s father has volunteered to be a chaperon and said the Waupaca International Cultural Exchange Program is looking for others interested in going on the trip.
As for Hagen, since returning home, she has e-mailed her Japanese friends and is already thinking about when she can go to Mitoyo again.
“I want to go back,” she said. “I’m not sure how yet.”