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Great Falls Elementary Students Summer in Japan

Great Falls Elementary, Cooper Middle Students visit Japan.

From front, Sophie Fouladi, Christina Amano-Dolan, Ila Sharma, Ayn Kurzenhauser, Asher Berwick and Tatiana Ahmad practice Kendo with students from Eisugakkan Elementary School in Fukuyama Japan.

From front, Sophie Fouladi, Christina Amano-Dolan, Ila Sharma, Ayn Kurzenhauser, Asher Berwick and Tatiana Ahmad practice Kendo with students from Eisugakkan Elementary School in Fukuyama Japan. Photo Contributed

— Nineteen students from Great Falls Elementary School and Cooper Middle School spent their summer in a unique way. The students spent two weeks in Japan as a culmination of their Japanese Immersion study.

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Students from Great Falls Elementary and Cooper Middle school pose in their yukatas (summer robes) during a summer trip to Japan.

Students visited standard tourist destinations Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima, but their visit contained some uncommon experiences as well, such as an invitation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s private residence.

Abe personally greeted the students and also used the opportunity to thank the United States for assisting Japan following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

First Lady of Japan Akie Abe held a luncheon reception for the group and spent two hours with the children. The event included wanage, a Japanese version of ring toss.

One team included Akie Abe, who enthusiastically participated with the group.

"One of my favorite moments was seeing First Lady Abe celebrate after she got the ring on the post, but then she realized it was a minus five score for her team," said sixth-grader Nick Hodge.

The food was a central part of the group’s experience.

"I liked the food the most. It was very unique and had very fresh tasting fish," said sixth-grader Ayn Kurzenhauser. "I learned a lot more Japanese and I learned how to put on a full yukata [summer kimono]."

Eighth-grader Christina Hara said she also liked the food.

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From left, Great Falls Elementary sixth-graders Gianna Mitchell, Sophie Fouladi and Laura Warrington climb Mount Fuji during a trip to Japan this summer.

"I enjoyed the food and culture of Japan, and I learned a lot of new Japanese and culture," she said.

As part of the exchange, students spent three nights with Japanese students. The Japanese students had previously visited Great Falls in March 2012.

The home stay and visit to Eisugakkan Elementary school in Fukuyama was a highlight of the trip for many.

"I learned from my home stay how different Japanese houses are, and I slept on the floor with just a small mat," said sixth-grader Gianna Mitchell.

At the school, students competed in a soccer game, learned martial arts from a Kendo master and practiced origami and calligraphy.

Eight students and their parents challenged themselves to climb Mount Fuji, which, at 12,389 feet, is the highest mountain in Japan. The altitude, cold temperatures and unpredictable weather conditions made the climb rigorous.

Eighth-grader John Serger said he was determined to get to the summit. Serger climbed when he traveled to Japan with his older brother in 2008, but they were unable to reach the summit because of poor weather.

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Great Falls Elementary and Cooper Middle School students with Japanese First Lady Akie Abe at a reception held for them at the prime minister’s private residence.

On this trip, a 2 a.m. wake-up call to continue the climb didn’t deter them, as Serger and his classmates were greeted by a beautiful sunrise at the top of Mount Fuji.

"It was hard to remember my climb in 2008 because I was only 9, but I will remember this climb forever," Serger said.

One of the younger members, Francesca Mitchell, a third grade Japanese Immersion student who accompanied her older brother and sister, summed up the trip.

"I liked everything about Japan. It was so fun and interesting," she said. "I learned we have a lot of different customs, but everyone was so nice. I love Japan."

Lisa Hodge provided most of the information for this story.