On July 1, I flew to Japan with the Corning-Kakegawa Sister Cities program. These exchanges began 25 years ago, and on this trip three of the four travelers were from Tioga County.

We spent the first and last two nights in Japanese hotels, but the middle six days of our trip we were guests in the homes of Kakegawa host families. Although most did not speak English well, we could communicate adequately, and experienced the region’s history, culture and countryside with our hosts as personal tour guides.

Our one day bullet train trip to Tokyo was only memorable in seeing another overcrowded world city, with most of the store and public signage incomprehensible to me. But some of the biggest buildings and billboards were only in European-American letters, such as Panasonic, Yamaha, Toyota, Coca-Cola, KFC, etc. That made me wonder how Americans would feel if NYC’s biggest neon-lit facades and billboards flashed in an incomprehensible language in a foreign script?

Japan had begun its summer wet season, and its hillsides and valleys were as lush green as those we had left behind in Tioga County. Japan’s mountains are younger like our Rockies, Europe’s Alps,and the Himalayas than our Appalachian Mountain range, with steeper slopes rising from valley basins.

Irrigated rice paddies cover flat areas large and small, and even in the sprawling suburbs you can see scattered rice paddies not sold for house-building. Although, as in the USA, agriculture is increasingly automated, we still saw men and women bent over, wading through water, hand-planting rice shoots, and other farmers readying plots with teams of oxen.

The other crop almost always visible from the trains was tea: it is not irrigated, so could occupy gentle slopes, small knolls and even some terraced hillsides. The tea bushes are trimmed in rows about three to four feet wide, with about eight inches between rows.

The tea leaves are harvested by a motorized trimmer/harvester, with its tall wheels rolling in the narrow paths between the rows. The machine operator sits above the shrubs as his machine harvests and stores the tea leaves.

The several palaces we saw were much less forbidding than those in Europe, as they were often constructed exclusively (and elaborately) from wood. These burned down periodically, through warfare or simply by accident, but would often be rebuilt using the old plans for the earlier one(s) which had just been destroyed. The palaces were protected by much more recognizable defenses: tall, thick stone walls, with corner towers, surrounded by moats, with a few heavily-fortified entrance bridges/gates.

Temples have fared better than palaces and fortified compounds, with some 800 years old and still in daily use. Japan blends Buddhism with the native Shinto religion, and most Japanese pray in temples built by either religion.

In summary, we saw a modern society, with skyscrapers, bullet trains and streets filled with men in business suits. We also saw urban sprawl devouring the best (flat and fertile) farmland, youth culture of colored hair and machine-torn jeans, and streets congested with cars, taxis and trucks.

We saw very little trash, and only occasionally an abandoned house, or field overgrown with weeds. We did see areas of forest being overtaken with kudzu, just as one can see in southern Virginia and the Carolinas.

My first few days in Japan I was aware of differences between the facial features of East Asians and Europeans. But then I began to notice the wide diversity in the Japanese faces I saw. And by the second week, I was no longer seeing the differences, but similarities between Japanese and American faces, thinking, “Oh, s/he looks like (a friend, a neighbor, a TV personality…).”

Northern Tier residents are welcome to join Corning’s three Sister City groups in Italy and Ukraine, as well as Japan. In fact, a past president of Corning-Kakegawa Sister Cities was Roland Delmotte, from Tioga.

The much larger Kakegawa delegation will be visiting the Twin Tiers next week: a dozen high school students with four adult chaperones. If you see them at our Grand Canyon, please welcome them.

Bryn Hammarstrom lives in Middlebury Center, is a registered nurse and has a long-time interest in environmental issues.