PENDLETON — Almost 5,000 miles away from home, a group of five 16-year-old girls and a chaperone from Minamisoma, Japan, have spent the last week experiencing what Pendleton has to offer.

Minamisoma and Pendleton are sister cities, with exchange programs providing opportunities for students on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean to travel abroad and see each other’s cultures. On Pendleton’s end, students spend two weeks living with a host family and visiting sites and attractions throughout the area.

On Tuesday, the group along with one of this year’s hosts, Mardel Bose, and a program coordinator, Karin Power, toured downtown Pendleton’s “makers culture.”

“It’s fun to share some of our traditions and see their reactions,” Bose said.

Over the span of a couple hours Tuesday afternoon, the girls were “oohing” and “ahhing” with gasps of delight as they looked behind the scenes of the process to make some of the city’s most known commodities.

The group started its day at the Pendleton Center for the Arts before meeting with Travel Pendleton’s tourism and hospitality manager Kristen Dollarhide, who acted as a tour guide during Tuesday’s tour at Hamley’s. There, the group met with saddlemaker Hank Moss, who walked them through each step he takes to make some of the most popular saddles in the world.

The visit ended with Moss demonstrating how he stamps the leather as the girls watched intently and took videos and pictures on their phones.

The group then continued to Stapleman’s Boots and Leather, where owner and bootmaker Richard Stapleman went through his own process before asking the group what they know about leather before showing off the various animal and fish leathers he uses in his shop.

From there, the tour went to the Pendleton Hat Company and Perk Perkins showed the group how he steams and creases the cowboy hats that he ships all over the world.

Finally, the group ended its tour at L.L. Blevington to admire more leather work and items.

While Tuesday offered a short look into the region’s culture, the group has been busy since arriving last Wednesday. Last week, they visited the Umatilla National Forest, where they went hiking and paddleboarding around Jubilee Lake, along with attending the Umatilla County Fair and the Farm-City Pro Rodeo. On Monday, the group traveled to La Grande and Eastern Oregon University, where they also got to try some horseback riding.

Before flying home next week, the girls have plans to meet with local students at Pendleton High School and visit Blue Mountain Community College.

Busy with a wide variety of activities and attractions to see, Power said it can be challenging to plan and coordinate everything for the group.

Power first helped with the program in 2000, when she said a fellow teacher at Sunridge Middle School asked her if she’d host a chaperone that summer. While she said to this day she doesn’t know why he asked her, she hosted that year and said she’s since lost count of how many times she’s volunteered since.

Power’s son traveled to Japan as a part of the program in 2005 and she’s visited three times.

“They treat you like royalty,” she said.

During July in Minamisoma, the city hosts Soma Nomaoi, a festival dating back over a thousand years that honors martial skill and horse riding. The city’s celebration is analogous to the Round-Up and Power said she could see the similarities in her visits as all the streets were suddenly closed down and vendors set up shop.

While the visits used to line up so that those from Pendleton could visit during Soma Nomaoi and those from Minamisoma could visit during Round-Up, that changed when the program was temporarily suspended following the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

“That’s been a big disappointment for those involved in the program,” she said.

While the city of Pendleton and the high school used to provide staff and more structural support for the program, Power said that’s gone away since the change. That’s put the onus on Power and the rest of the volunteers to work through the challenges of scheduling and coordinating the trip without the week of Round-Up to rely on.

“It’s a lot of work, it would be nice to have the structural help from the city,” she said.

Still, those like Bose have stepped up to host students and chaperones when needed. This is her fourth year being a host for the program and while she said each time it’s been a different experience, what’s remained consistent is the value not just for the students but for her and the other hosts.

“We have a new appreciation of culture,” Bose said. “You see that we’re all different yet we’re also all the same.”

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