For Lawrence students, the three-hour bus ride from Tokyo to Hiratsuka, Japan, offers a view that's different from any in their hometown.
They see mountains and hills, rolling green pastures and the Pacific Ocean.
Experiencing the diverse landscape is just one part of the everyday lessons that students from Lawrence receive when they visit Hiratsuka or Eutin, Germany. Those two cities participate in a cultural exchange with Lawrence known as the Sister City Program.
Bob Schumm, a member of the board that oversees the program, said it was created because Lawrence officials wanted to be involved with cities that complement Lawrence and create cultural exchanges.
In addition to the cultural benefits, Lawrence residents sought to develop educational and economic exchanges with these cities.
Since 1990, more than 150 Lawrence junior and senior high students have traveled to Hiratsuka and Eutin. Between 18 to 20 students visit Hiratsuka each year, while fewer visit Eutin.
The students who traveled last summer to Eutin stayed from June 4 to July 16. During those six weeks, they lived in Eutin, attended school and stayed with a host family.
Their home-stay families took them on trips throughout Germany and to parts of Europe.
Ashley Johnson, a junior at Free State High School, said her favorite parts of the trip were the home stay and weekend trips.
"I got to visit Hamburg, Berlin and Copenhagen," she said.
Getting a glimpse
Each year in early June or July, a group of Lawrence students embark on a 10-day excursion to Hiratsuka. While there, they live and travel with a Japanese family.
Delegates also plant rice, shop, visit historical sites such as the Great Buddha at Kamakura, meet the mayor of Hiratsuka, learn traditional Japanese culture and crafts, hang out with students living in Hiratsuka and visit area schools.
Val Wiesner, a sophomore at Lawrence High School, was among the group that visited Hiratsuka in 1999.
"I have always wanted to visit Japan because I have always been fascinated by their culture and language, and I wanted to get a glimpse into the lives of the people in Japan," she said.
While in Japan, the students participate in the Tanabata festival, which is based on a Japanese tale about two stars that are separated by the Milky Way. Every year on July 7, the Japanese believe a bridge is formed and the two stars can cross and be with each other.
To celebrate, Hiratsuka is transformed with colorful decorations hanging from light posts. Between 1.5 million and 3 million people visit the city's Tanabata festival, which is one of the biggest in Japan.
'The kindest people'
Some visitors said their favorite part of the trip was their stay in Japanese homes.
"I saw what it was like to live in a Japanese home," Val said. "I could see more of the country with my home stay family, and I became very close to them."
The family's hospitality was overwhelming, she said.
"Hiratsuka has a peaceful atmosphere that is warm and friendly, and the citizens of both cities will do anything in their power to make you feel welcomed," Val said. "Whatever you need, they will stop what they are doing and get what you need. They are the kindest people you will ever meet. You can ask anyone that has visited Hiratsuka, and they will tell you the same thing."
LHS sophomore Marguerite Schumm has twice traveled to Hiratsuka in 1999 and 2001. During her visits, she learned about the people, tea ceremonies and Japanese traditions, and what daily life is like in a Japanese home.
The lessons from the trip were invaluable, Marguerite said.
"You only get so much out of a textbook," she said. "Actually going there is more hands-on and beneficial to you."
Ginny Armstrong is a sophomore at Free State High School.