Along with school, homework, sports practices and other extra curricular activities six Kenai Central High School girls are studying Japanese language, mannerisms, culture and food in preparation for a trip to Japan this summer.
The girls, part of a volleyball exchange team picked by Pako Whannell, who coaches at KCHS, will be traveling to Akita, Japan, from July 30 through Aug. 9.
“I’ve never even been out of the country … just not (having been) out of the country, not with my parents, not speaking Japanese, it’s like kind of scary, but it makes it that much more exciting,” freshman Cassi Hames said. “Everything’s going to be different.”
Whannell said she approached players from throughout the Kenai Peninsula who she knew were not only exceptional volleyball players, but also get good grades and participate in their churches and communities. She said she knew they would study the culture and language to further their experiences beyond just playing volleyball in a foreign country.
Alli Steinbeck, a KCHS sophomore, said the girls in the group likely won’t get another opportunity to not only play a sport in another country, but to also be immersed in the culture.
“If you have a once in a lifetime opportunity, you better take it,” freshman Abby Beck said.
The girls from Kenai committed to the team in January.
“Originally when I heard I was like, ‘That’s a long ways,’” Steinbeck said. “But then once I heard we were able to have the culture exchange involved with it and being immersed into their culture, I felt that it would be a great learning experience for me.”
For the past few months the girls have been taking Japanese lessons with Yasuko Lehtinen, who has been organizing exchanges with Kenai’s sister city, Akita, for more than 20 years and is Whannell’s mother.
Junior Kyla Whannell, Pako Whannell’s daughter, who is a part of the team and will be traveling to Japan for a third time, said learning the mannerisms and what is offensive to Japanese people is important.
Beck said one of her biggest fears about the trip is offending someone.
“That shows me dedication,” Pako Whannell said. “These girls are not your average teenagers. I really am honored that these girls are coming with us. They really want to learn about everything about Japan and the culture and know that it’s not just a volleyball trip.”
She said the girls will start volleyball practice for the trip soon as well.
Pako Whannell said the mayor of Akita has already finalized the group’s itinerary, which includes a tour of Tokyo and, of course, multiple volleyball games against high school teams in Akita.
The team will also partake in the Kanto Festival as the mayor’s special guests. A Kanto is an array of lanterns hung on a bamboo frame. The Kantos are carried through a parade and the carriers try to keep the lanterns as steady as possible as the bamboo moves in different directions above them.
While the girls won’t be carrying Kantos, they will get to try out the bamboo poles at a museum and dress in kimonos at the festival.
Each girl will also be staying with a host family.
“The girls are going to be immersed in not only in the food and the language, but with the people,” Pako Whannell said.
While the group was able to get a deal on plane tickets, they estimate the tickets along with a few additional travel costs will add up to $3,000 per person. To alleviate some of the cost, the girls have been selling raffle tickets and Alaska volleyball T-shirts.
“These girls are involved in so many different sports, activities, church activities, camps — they’re all going to camps,” Pako Whannell said. “They’re kind of the overachiever group. They’re doing something all the time, so I want to make sure that they’re not stressed about the finances.”
The raffle tickets cost $5 a piece for a chance to win one of seven bundled prize packages that range in value from $285 to $680. All prizes were donated by community members and include a variety of items — fishing trips, scenic flights, gym memberships and more.
The girls have been selling the tickets door-to-door as well as at Safeway. Pako Whannell said they have sold nearly all of the 1,000 tickets she printed. If they sell all of the tickets, they should generate about $4,000.
Hames said while she’s been selling tickets, many people in the community have told her they wish they had the chance to do something similar in high school.
“It’s nice to see that the community’s excited to see that we’re able to go on this great experience to have a cultural exchange,” Steinbeck said. “They want to hear the stories when we come back.”
The team is also seeking sponsors for its two coaches and six players. Anyone interested in sponsoring or donating to the exchange can contact Pako Whannell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-252-3508. The team also has an account set up at Wells Fargo bank in Soldotna where donations can be made to the Akita Kenai Volleyball Team.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at email@example.com.