CASPER (AP) — Rurika Odanaka traveled more than 5,000 miles to try on her first cowboy hat.
She tilted the brown Stetson back on her head on a recent Friday and wrapped a yellow bandanna around her neck. The Western clothing stood out from the rest of her attire: a conservative, navy blue school uniform.
Music played from the front of the Kelly Walsh High School cafeteria. Odanaka began to dance.
Alongside her, 23 other Japanese students tried their best to follow the song. Most were also wearing cowboy hats and bandanas. They moved a little awkwardly at first, but helped on by some Casper teens, they started to figure out the dance steps.
And that was the point of the visit. Experience a new culture and share your own too.
Odanaka and the other Japanese students came to Casper as part of a goodwill trip spurred by the deadly earthquake that rocked their country two years ago. The Kizuna Project is designed to promote the country’s revival after the quake and accompanying tsunamis killed more than 15,000 people.
But it’s also an opportunity for Japanese and American students to learn about each other.
“We are a globalized society,” said Ben Schanck, a Kelly Walsh history teacher who was helping to chaperone the visit. “To be successful in the future, not just as a nation, but as an individual too, it is important that you are able to work with people who are different than you.”
The visit followed a similar trip made last summer by a group of Kelly Walsh students who participated in the same exchange program. They lived with Japanese families and toured some of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake.
“The feeling I got when I saw the rubble and all of that . it was kind of like a punch to the heart,” said Katie Kersting, a Kelly Walsh senior who went on the trip. “It was tragic.”
Now, the Japanese students have their chance to experience something new. They arrived in Casper on March 21, greeted by Kelly Walsh cheerleaders arranged in a pyramid. They planned to stay with local families through the end of the month.
Odanaka said she’s been taken aback by how friendly people have been on the trip. The Western landscape has also impressed her.
That exposure is what the trip was designed for, explained Kelly Walsh Japanese teacher Kaoru Slotsve. The earthquake and its aftermath have been difficult on the region where the students live, she said. The trip is allowing them to focus on something else.
“This is going to be a great opportunity for the Japanese kids (to) look around, beyond Japan, what’s out there,” she said. “You are still a teenager. You can still have the dream. You don’t have to stick where you are.”