Whistler’s popular Japanese student exchange set for return after COVID hiatus

Mayors of resort municipalities on both sides of the Pacific are happy to see resurrection of 21- year-old program

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By Nicholas Naylor

Four years ago this month, families in Whistler were hosting 10 students from the resort municipality’s Japanese sister city, Karuizawa. But then the pandemic that shut down international travel also put the decades-long exchange program on hold. 

Now, the Whistler-Karuizawa student exchange is once again set to go forward for 2024. 

A new mayor

Karuizawa’s new mayor, Michio Tsuchiya, was sworn in last month, and within weeks, reached out to Whistler’s council to express an interest in rebooting the exchange. 

In a February letter addressed to Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton, Tsuchiya described how the students looked forward to the exchange, and emphasized the importance of experiencing a different culture. 

“We have learned so much through meeting new people and touching new cultures in foreign countries,” Tsuchiya wrote, in his letter which Whistler’s council discussed in a March 7 meeting. 

Crompton said the four-year pause was solely due to COVID-19 measures and that it was always the intention to restart the program and it was only a matter of when. 

“It’s a really fulfilling experience for the kids,” Crompton said. “It’s pretty special.” 

A long history

The Whistler-Karuizawa exchange stretches back 21 years, with 10 youths from each community participating each year. The recent four-year hiatus was the program’s first pause, said Penny Lafrance, a spokesperson for the Resort Municipality of Whistler. 

Crompton said he has not yet spoken to Karuizawa’s new mayor in person, but he hopes to soon. Crompton also spoke of his relationship with former Karuizawa Mayor Susumu Fujimaki, who participated in Whistler’s Canada Day parade by driving a golf cart through a hectic Whistler Village. 

“The mayor was a tremendous amount of fun,” said Crompton. “I’m going to miss seeing him on a regular basis.” 

Both Whistler and Karuizawa are resort municipalities and have hosted Olympic games, similarities that Tsuchiya said could put both cities in a position to learn from each other. 

“I would like to promote exchanges especially at the private level,” Tsuchiya said in his letter to Crompton. 

Ten Karuizawa students will arrive in Whistler in March of 2024, Lafrance said, with the Whistler students leaving for Japan in October 2024. 

Whistler students looking to participate in the Karuizawa exchange must be in grade eight or nine, according to the official Whistler-Karuizawa student exchange website. Homestay families will be required to undergo a police information check, and the Resort Municipality of Whistler will pay for half of the flight costs.

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