The Japanese town of Ooguri and its people still tug at Joy Schaal of Omaha.
She, husband David Schaal and 18 others recently returned from Japan after a 19-day international exchange with Friendship Force of Greater Omaha.
The Friendship Force ambassadors were hosted in homes in Matsuyama, Tsu and Ooguri. The travelers lived one week with their host families to learn about their traditions and culture.
“All of our home hosts had a little bit of English if not excellent English,” said Joy Schaal.
The Schaals experienced Ooguri farm life of raising citrus fruits, tomatoes, cucumbers, rice and “a lot of beautiful flowers,” she said.
“I could certainly live in that little community out in the country,” said Joy Schaal. “They were just very, very opening and welcoming.”
Attending the Autumn Festival, which celebrates the rice harvest, was one of the trip’s highlights.
“We just had an absolute ball,” said Schaal.
Men carried a shrine from the Shinto temple into the town and from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“My husband helped carry the shrine,” she said. It was about 4 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet high.
The children dressed in native costumes, she said, and each area of the town was represented by a different jacket.
Everyone gathered to drink sake and to bring offerings of rice, herbs and vegetables to the shrine, she said.
Day to day, rice was served with meals, which also included vegetables plus barbecued meat or raw fish, she said. Breakfast often was a salad with a sweet roll, she said.
Mom and pop stores sell grocery basics in the village, but families travel to larger towns for supermarket shopping.
Japan was “so green, so beautiful and so clean and spotless,” she said.
During their stay, a typhoon came through, which canceled school, but the children showed up anyway for their presentation for the U.S. visitors. The pupils played music, performed a play, did gymnastics and more.
“They were just so perfectly behaved and so sweet. They were just amazing,” she said.
Schaal, who likes to sew, made tea towels and aprons and brought them as gifts for their hosts. “Japanese women in their homes always wear an apron, even when shopping in supermarkets,” she said.
The couple also brought books about Omaha and Nebraska, T-shirts and hats as gifts.
Besides the home stay in the village, the Schaals and the other travelers also spent time in the cities of Hiroshima and Tokyo, and visited many temples and shrines in Nara, Nagoya, Kyoto and Tokyo.
“I expected Tokyo to be just a mob of people, but it wasn’t,” she said. The trains offered plenty of room to stand although “a lot of people gave us their seats. They were very polite.”
Everywhere, people asked if they could help, she said.
The Schaals organized the trip to Japan, one of several Friendship Force trips they have taken. For more information about Friendship Force of Greater Omaha, visit friendshipforcegreateromaha.org.