This story is the second part of a series on the relationship between Glens Falls and Saga City, Japan. Click here for part 1, and keep an eye on for more.

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Mother and daughter Denise and Cayden Williams have something special in common. Fourteen years apart, both of them have taken the same trip far from their home area of Lake Luzerne, landing in the southern Japanese city of Saga.

“One of the first things I learned there was to try food first and ask questions later, to have more of an open mind,” said Denise, who – like her daughter after her – traveled to Saga as part of the Sister Cities program connecting it to Glens Falls. “That’s definitely something I shared with Cayden as we got down the road. It’s mind over matter.”

The relationship between Saga and Glens Falls turns 35 this year – only a couple years older than the student exchange program that started by bringing 20 Saga high and middle schoolers to the North Country in 1990. That first batch of students visited Glens Falls City School District, who sent its own batch of students to Saga that fall. Soon, adjacent schools got involved: Queensbury, Lake George and Hadley-Luzerne students now participate in the program as well. Students traveling abroad live with host families, go to local schools, and learn about the landmarks and local history of their temporary home across the globe.

In 1995, Denise would become one of the first Hadley-Luzerne students to make the trip – but she got involved a year early. In 1994, her school hosted a group of Saga students of its own – and the Williams family hosted one of the students.

“One of the first things (that student) asked was if we were rich – because we had three cars,” Williams recalled. “I thought it was neat to be asked those questions, but didn’t really understand until going over there the size difference of our houses versus there.”

Denise’s own trip to Saga revealed just as many contrasts, from attitudes towards alcohol and nudity to the size of Japanese houses. When Cayden had her own turn in 2019, it was the prevalence of trash cans, and the ease with which she and her host sister could ride their bikes anywhere without worrying about bad drivers.

“Whenever we could, we would ride our bikes to the convenience store to get ice cream,” Cayden recalled. “I’m still missing that ice cream.”

Word got around quickly that Cayden was following in her mother’s footsteps by making the trips. Within the 10-day span she was there, she was interviewed by a Saga newspaper, as a second-generation traveler to the city.

Cayden Williams, of Lake Luzerne, featured in an article in a Japanese newspaper in 2019. Williams visited Saga City, Japan, as part of the city’s student exchange program with Glens Falls, N.Y. Her mother, Denise Williams, made the same trip in 1995. (Photo: Denise Williams)

Language arts

Spending 10 days in a school system speaking a foreign language isn’t as daunting as it sounds. When Cayden went, she was relieved to find that the material she was given was work she mostly already knew from school back home (which made things easier when jetlag would set her to dozing off in class). Denise prepared her with as much Japanese as they could cram. Cayden says that the phrase she used most often was “Toire wa doko desu ka” – which translates to, “Where is the bathroom?”

For some, communication was not just the keystone of the trip, but the skill that has kept a relationship with Saga going for years since. Lake George graduate Kerry Walker took her own trip as a junior in 2015. Walker came without any inkling of how to speak Japanese, and very little idea of what that experience would be like. It didn’t take long to feel at ease.

“Despite the barrier, I felt really close to my host family almost immediately,” Walker recalled. “My little host brother didn’t speak any English, but one day my host mother sat me down with him and some origami paper – I think he was 6 years old, and we did origami together.”

Walker liked Japan so much, she’s kept coming back. She studied abroad there for most of two semesters as an undergraduate at Smith College in Massachusetts. In February, she returned from her third trip – this time while working on her master’s degree.

Those trips took her to other parts of Japan – Osaka and Kobe, both northeast of Saga on the island of Honshu. Even so, she returned to Saga when possible, to visit the host family she had stayed in contact with. When she did, she had more language skills to show for the return trips – and those skills completely changed some of the relationships from her first voyage.

“My host dad was a little bit quiet (during the high school trip), and didn’t talk much. I thought he was just a stoic kind of guy. Then the last time I studied abroad, I visited them again during my break, and he was the one who came to pick me up. By this point, I actually knew some Japanese, so we stayed up talking until 3 a.m.,” Walker said. “It wasn’t that he was shy at all, it was just that he wasn’t confident with his English.”

Now, Walker is studying international language arts with a focus on Japanese – a decision with its roots in everything she learned from and following that first trip in 2015. She isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do with that degree yet – maybe translate, maybe teach – but knows that she wouldn’t be there without Saga.

What to know before you go

Walker, the Williams family and others like them have as many stories as the day is long. Both Walker and Cayden Williams got to show off special skills, with the former playing clarinet with her Saga school’s music club and the latter tap dancing in front of the mayor and other officials. Walker ate live squid, Cayden visited a conveyor belt sushi restaurant (and was offered a fork), and Denise has fond memories of Saga school lunches.

“Everyone would bring a packed lunch, so everyone would come to me with something they wanted me to try out of theirs. It was like this smorgasbord of all these neat things.”

Every student to have taken the trip to Saga gives one piece of advice in chorus: If you can go, go. Schools hold fundraisers (“so, so many fundraisers,” says Cayden) to help out students who want to make the trip. For Hadley-Luzerne students, the 2019 trip cost about $4,000.

For some, family is another reason. The Williams family has tried to keep in contact with the three families they’ve interacted with, made difficult with who does or doesn’t have their own cell phone. Walker has seen her own host sister outside of Saga, during a period she spent in Germany – when her host sister happened to also be there for her own trip studying abroad.

Kerry Walker and her host sister from her trip to Saga City, Japan, meet up years later in Germany. (Photo: Kerry Walker)

“You’re living with a family who, at the start, are strangers to you, and may not speak much English – but they’re opening their home to you. There were definitely times where I had no idea what was going on, but you smile and just go for it. Try to have a positive attitude about it, and if they can see you’re happy to be there, your hosts will respond in kind.”

After the last few years, the threat of the unknown makes going while you can all the more appealing. The COVID-19 pandemic halted all student exchange trips for three years. Between Saga’s multiple schools and Warren County’s four involved districts, some students lost their chance to take the trip altogether at the hands of pandemic-induced travel restrictions. Cayden’s brother was one of those. That all changes this year, when 35 years will be celebrated by Saga’s current mayor coming to Glens Falls for the first time – heralding in a whole new generation of eager learners ready to see, taste and experience whatever their sister city has in store for them.