As much as Mountain View High School students learned about Japanese history and culture in the week they recently spent with a group of exchange students, it is ultimately the human connections that will make the deepest impression, said the teacher coordinating the trip.
"You see yourself in their smile and in their eyes," said William Blair, who teaches English, government and journalism at Mountain View High School. He's been responsible for organizing the 20-year-old exchange program for the past five years. "It makes you a better human being."
From March 17, when the group arrived, until their departure on March 23, the Japanese students shared their own culture and took in American customs and food at the high school and in the homes of the host families.
In assemblies and special events held at the high school, the exchange students from Iwata, which is located about 100 miles south of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture, the students demonstrated Japanese pastimes, art and cuisine.
In these assemblies and special sessions, Mountain View High School students learned origami, Taiko drumming and participated in a Japanese tea ceremony.
Conversely, the Japanese students were invited to attend meetings that were geared toward showcasing unique American activities, music and food.
"The food in America is bigger than in Japan," Ryuto Suzuki, a 17-year-old from Iwata High School, said in fragmented English. "I was surprised."
But that's not to say he didn't enjoy the clam chowder meal. Although he couldn't finish it, he tried, he said.
Suzuki said that he had seen many things that were new to him during his first trip to the United States, which was also his first trip out of his native Japan.
He said he was enjoying the challenge of being in a foreign land and the opportunity it was giving him to grow. "I want to learn to speak English more well," he said.
Hiroko Sato, a 16-year-old from Iwata High School said that it was also the first time she had left Japan.
"Everything is bigger," Sato said, echoing Suzuki's assessment of America.
Like Suzuki, she saw an opportunity to broaden her perspectives of the world. "There are many different ways of thinking," she said. "I want to accept the many ways."
Suzuki, Sato and the rest of the exchange students also talked about the devastating 9.0 quake and ensuing tsunami that rocked Japan just six days before they boarded their flight to America.
Though both Suzuki and Sato felt the shaking, they said their homes and immediate families were not harmed.
Sato, however, told a horrific tale of an acquaintance who narrowly escaped the tsunami's sweep. The man was in a car when the water came, she said; it engulfed his car but he was able to swim to safety.
It is stories like the one told by Sato, Blair said, that will really stick with all the kids who come into contact with the exchange students. That's why he says it is his personal "goal to get as many kids to interact with the students as we can."
"If someone opens up and shares emotions and memories," he said, "that's how we're connected as people. That's what makes our friends our friends."