For 12 Japanese high schoolers visiting John Carroll School this month, it's been a space trip.
"There's so much space for everything here," said Sachihiko Reiba, 17. The sprawling Harford countryside, the uncluttered towns, and the comparatively spacious houses contrast greatly with the crowded landscape of his home in Nara, an ancient city in central Japan.
"The school classes are so much smaller," said Nanae Nakahara. Inher Katagiri Senior High School, the average class size is 45, nearly double that of the Bel Air private school.
Those observations mirrored the impressions of John Carroll students who have visited Katagiri over the past two years, as part of the cultural exchange program.
"The differences in housing, transportation, their lives, are things you learn from the program," said senior Colleen O'Hara, who visited Japan last year and has been host to a Japanese student for twoyears. "You learn not to take things for granted."
The visiting Japanese students, most of whom will enter their senior year at Katagiri this spring, are living at the homes of John Carroll students while attending classes and touring the cultural and historical sites of Maryland and Washington.
During their first two weeks in the United States, they've also learned to shoot pool and to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, American-style. They've been to the John Carroll junior ring dance, gone bowling and attended the birthday party of Justin Pugh's grandfather.
"We've listened to each other's music and traded some tapes," said Justin, a sophomore who went to Japan last summer. The group Guns 'n' Roses is a particular favorite with the visitors, he added.
The Japanese youngsters have also had a little time for sports: Nanae played softball and Sachihiko got in some tennis beforebreaking a racket string. Senior Kristie Caswell plans to take some of them horseback riding on her family farm.
While they're still digesting the experiences of their first trip to the United States, the Japanese teen-agers have developed some definite opinions on favorite American foods.
"Spaghetti," says Sachihiko, "Pizza" asserts Yumiko. "Hamburger, pizza and spaghetti," adds the omnivorous Nanae.
Students selected for the U.S. trip had to pass written and oral tests, and all have had at least four years of English language classes,said Yoshiteru Inui, a Katagiri teacher and group leader.
"For me, it is a wonderful chance to speak English and to improve my language -- it's like taking a shower in English language," he said.
A group of John Carroll students will go to Katagiri this summer to keep the exchange alive.
Through its foreign language programs, John Carroll has sponsored exchanges with schools in Germany, France, Spain and the former Soviet Union, and has also traded visits with Australian schools. The German program was the first, set up eight years ago.Some foreign students have come back to spend a semester or two at John Carroll.
Although John Carroll has no Japanese language classes, students expressed great interest in establishing a cultural exchange with Japan, program coordinator Jane DuBois said. The partnershipwith Katagiri was arranged through the National Association of Secondary School Principals, she noted.
"Students can learn so much more about a country and its people from these kinds of exchange programs," DuBois said. They help to break down foreign stereotypes and to build cultural bridges -- no small consideration at a time when Japanese and Americans seem to be at odds over international trade issues.
Debbie Wheeler, a John Carroll senior, keeps up with pen pals in Katagiri from her visit two years ago. So do Justin and Kristie.
Asked what she most wanted to do or see on this trip, Yumiko Kawamata said: "I want to make new friends."