Bath group eyes memorial to Japanese sister city

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BATH — The story of the Bath-Tsugaru sister city relationship is one of tragedy turned to friendship, of unlikely circumstances forging common bonds among people from two greatly diverse societies, separated by more than 6,000 miles.

The tale began in 1889, when a typhoon caused the Bath-built ship Cheseborough to crash on a shoal a mile offshore of Skariki, Japan. Residents of that northern Japanese town cared for the handful of survivors, whose grateful families kept in touch with the benefactors via letters for years to come.

A century later, in 1989, a delegation of officials from Shariki – which later merged with four other villages to form Tsugaru City – traveled to Bath to propose a formal sister-city relationship. Since 1990, students from the Bath and Tsugaru regions have taken part annually in an overseas exchange program, and a declaration of the relationship was signed in 1993.

The Bath-Tsugaru Student Exchange Program is marking the 30th anniversary of the delegation’s arrival in two ways.

A dinner on Monday, April 1, will raise money for student travel scholarships. That event will be held at Henry and Marty restaurant and catering, 61 Maine St. in Brunswick, from 5-8 p.m. The program’s board hopes to raise at least $3,000 toward trip scholarships. The $50-per-person tickets – available at bath-tsugaru.brownpapertickets.com – include appetizers, soup or salad, entree and dessert. A cash bar will be available.

About half of the dinner’s 50 seats were sold as of last week.

Door prizes and a silent auction include Park’s personal chef services, two Invicta watches, a Bull Moose gift basket, artwork, and signed books. The Maine Maritime Museum is also offering a one-year family membership, four Lighthouse Lovers Cruise tickets, and two tickets to sail the historic schooner Mary E.

The milestone anniversary will also be commemorated through the installation on the city’s planned Riverwalk of a memorial to the longtime friendship – a bright red torii gate like those often encountered in Japan.

“There are a lot of places where you go through these gates, and it’s just so welcoming,” said Aaron Park, a city councilor who owns Henry and Marty. He was one of the adult chaperones on last year’s trip to Tsugaru, along with exchange program coordinator Jen Jones.

Imbued with the value the sister city hosts placed on the friendship’s milestone, “I came back with this idea that we need to celebrate something on our side, and do our part, because they are definitely attaching significance to this,” Park said March 21 in an interview alongside Jones, program President Will Laliberte, and Lindsey Goudreau, the city’s marketing and communications specialist.

Park, a program board member along with Goudreau, seeks ways to boost the organization’s profile and renew its message of amity across the miles.

Hence the torii gate. City Manager Peter Owen was receptive to the idea of having one to greet people along the Riverwalk, Park said. Since a cherry tree – planted by Brackett’s Market in honor of the sister city relationship – has died, its commemorative plaque is to be moved to a new tree beside the gate.

Costs for the gate are still being determined. The board is aiming for a groundbreaking celebration July 22, in time for the Tsugaru delegation’s annual visit to Bath.

“We’re still working out details as far as placement, and what the actual gateway would physically look like,” Park said, noting that his Japanese friends did give him a schematic blueprint from a Shinto shrine from which to work. Fundraising could then follow.

The board has applied to the city’s Recognition Committee for project approval. Since the memorial could be on state-owned land, an easement would also be required.

The Tsugaru delegation will stay for a week, followed by the Bath group traveling to Japan for two weeks. Twelve high school students, along with three chaperones, are the ideal number to make the trip, Jones said.

More information is available at bath-tsugaru.org.

The student application deadline is April 1, and the program had received six as of last week, a strong number given that the trip is months away, Jones noted. Teens can attend other schools besides Morse High to be eligible.

Jones, who can be reached at tsugaru@rsu1.org to apply, has managed to keep the cost of the trip to Japan under $2,500. That includes airfare, two nights in a Tokyo hotel, and the train from Tokyo to Tsugaru.

“Once we get up to Tsugaru, they really take care of us,” Jones said, noting that lodging and meals there are with the host families.

That homespun experience helps paint a fuller picture of Japanese life.

“You get to do some of the touristy things … but then you really have the cultural experience,” Jones said. “You can see the day-to-day life.”

The longevity of the friendship owes much to the commitment by Americans and Japanese alike, Laliberte said.

“They’re just so welcoming and open in sharing this relationship with us,” he noted. “… When we have the younger students involved, getting them at an early age to be able to experience other cultures is fantastic.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

This photo from a recent Bath delegation to Tsugaru, Japan, shows the group atop a torii gate. The Bath-Tsugaru Sister City Exchange Program’s board of directors would like to install such a structure along Bath’s planned Riverwalk.

The Bath-Tsugaru Student Exchange Program is holding a dinner Monday, April 1, to raise scholarship funds for area students traveling to Japan this summer. Among those involved in the program are coordinator Jen Jones, left, board members Aaron Park and Lindsey Goudreau, and President Will Laliberte. Between them is a display case at Bath City Hall filled with gifts from Bath’s Japanese friends.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.