Blossoming cities: Gresham and Ebetsu
In Japan, the cherry blossom is more than just a flowering tree. When they are in bloom, people gather in large groups with family and friends to view the flowers and enjoy festivals filled with food, drink and music.
The cherry blossoms represent people coming together and joining as one.
Monday afternoon, Nov. 6, that ideal was upheld as Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis joined Ebetsu, Japan's Mayor Noboru Miyoshi in a ceremonial tree planting at Main City Park to honor the 40 years of friendship enjoyed by the sister cities.
"A tree is very emblematic of our relationship — we have deep roots but continue to grow," Bemis said. "(Mayor Miyoshi), you and your city are very special to us."
The tree planting was one of the many activities on the schedule for the Ebetsu delegation during its visit to Gresham. They also went on a walking tour of downtown, visited City Hall for a reconfirmation meeting for the sister city pact, watched a cultural assembly at a Gresham middle school, celebrated a tea ceremony and much more.
Their visit to Oregon came on the heels of a similar delegation that Gresham sent to Japan in early October. The Ebetsu delegation was made up of city and school officials. There was also a contingent of six students that visited Gordon Russell Middle School with teachers to further studies of English and learn more about American culture.
Monday morning was the official greeting for the delegation, as about 400 Gresham city staff and high school students lined the walkway to City Hall. They greeted them with cheers and by waving flags, the Gresham High School band played both national anthems and an honor guard raised the American and Japanese flags.
Later that day at Main City Park, Jim Card, who oversees the Japanese garden Tsuro Island, shared exciting plans of an expansion. There will be 12 Akebono cherry trees, which was what the two mayors planted during their ceremony, surrounding benches and a publicly accessible plaza.
"We were originally going to name it Tsuro Plaza, but we realized it would be perfect to name it Ebetsu Plaza with the 40th anniversary," Card said. "The beauty these trees provide in spring is a signal of a new beginning — and this will mark the beginning of our (cities') relationship for the next 40 years and beyond."
The plaza, which will be completed in about a year, will be located between the Springwater Corridor Trail and Main City Park, 219 S. Main Ave. The cherry trees were donated by J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. nursery in Boring.
"This park is very special to the people of Gresham, and this will be a wonderful tribute for our relationship," Bemis said.
At the middle school the delegation was given a tour of the school, and had the chance to ask questions of Assistant Principal Kim Barker. The delegation was impressed with the size of the school and the artwork on the walls. They asked how many students there were at the school, what classes were taught, and about the after-school programs and clubs available. They also checked in to make sure their students visiting were doing well.
Then the delegation went to an assembly where the Gordon Russell Middle School jazz band and choir both performed, and the Japanese students showed off a traditional dance.
"We have been looking forward to coming here very much," said Midori, one of the Ebetsu students. "I want to learn as much as I can about American schools."
The students chosen to visit Gresham all are working hard to study and learn English. They were accompanied by their teachers, and had the chance to go before the Gordon Russell students and greet them in English. They then performed the Children's Bon Odori, a dance and song written in Ebetsu and now performed across Japan. Several Gresham students were chosen to join them.
"Thank you for the wonderful reception," said Ebetsu Mayor Miyoshi, via a translator. "The welcome you have given us and our students will further lead us to friendship."
Tuesday afternoon the delegation had lunch at the Gresham Historical Society, 410 N. Main Ave., catered by Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon's. While the delegation ate alongside some of the board members of the society, the representatives were surrounded by some of the history and mementos from the 40 years Gresham and Ebetsu have been linked.
Former Gresham Mayor Al Meyers began planning the Ebetsu pairing in 1975 with help from Gresham resident Henry Kato, whose family had been farming in the community since before World War II. Fluent in Japanese, Kato was invaluable in the initial setup and back-and-forth trips required to create the Sister City program.
The Gresham Sister City Association was formed in 1977 between Gresham and Ebetsu, and that same year former Mayor Elmer Summerfield led a delegation of 15 people to Japan, where everything was made official. Later that year, a ceremonial cherry tree was planted in Main City Park.
While two more sister cities would be added, Sokcho, South Korea in 1985 and Owerri, Nigeria in 1991, the pairing with Ebetsu has always been unique.
Ebetsu was settled originally in 1871, and it earned township status in 1916 and city status in 1954. The name is derived from the Ainu name of the Chitose River, which flows into the Ishikari River in the city. The Ainu name was E-pet, or 'humour river' based on its murky color.
Like Gresham, one of the highlights of the city is its proximity to nature, as it abuts the extensive Nopporo Forest State Park — the world's largest park of virgin forest on level ground. Ebetsu also is known for having year-round wind, something Gresham residents can understand with the Columbia River Gorge often funneling the East Wind through the city.
Further strengthening the bond is that Portland also is in a Sister City program with Sapporo, Japan, Ebetsu's larger neighboring city.
"We have shared a lot of history over the 40 years, with cultural and student exchanges," Bemis said. "So many people involved with this program have so many great memories. All of this raises awareness that people are people no matter where they are from."
Ebetsu, Japan Fast Facts
Mayor: Noboru Miyoshi
Area: 72.42 square miles
Tree: Japanese Rowan