“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

TravelHaven – When Your Travels Come to Visit

Last year I visited my niece Justine while she was in Japan. We went to a lot of cool places and saw a lot of fascinating things. One of the most memorable and meaningful events was when she introduced us to the Horibe family.

Justine first met these wonderful people when they hosted her in their home for two weeks before starting a semester of classes in 2006. They kept in touch with her after she returned to the U.S. and her feeling for them grew. When she went back to Japan to teach English for a year in 2009, it was a great comfort to all of us here that she had someone there in case of any crisis.

So during my visit, meeting her “Japanese family” was very important to me. When they expressed their great desire to visit America, I invited them to stay with me. The invitation was sincere and earnest, still, I was somewhat surprised when Mr. and Mrs. Horibe (Yoshiaki and Eiko) contacted me in February to say they were coming with their friend Yuko at the end of June!

Since their English is slight and my Japanese non-existent, it was very fortunate that they were coming at a time that Justine was already planning a visit. We were surprised that Eiko and Yuko had taken English lessons and learned a surprising amount, which they were eager to practice.

Looking at my hometown through the eyes of someone who has never been to America, let alone to Orlando, was very interesting. Sure we have all the theme parks, but the Horibes wanted more than entertainment. They wanted to experience America, to see how and where we really lived.

So we put our heads together to create a rewarding (and not too exhausting) itinerary for the week they would be here. They had to dip their feet in the Atlantic Ocean — so different from their Pacific beaches — so we took them to Jetty Park. We decided on Disney’s Epcot for the theme park experience, as the rides are tamer and it provides a lot of Americana and a hint of many other nations. Of course we had to introduce them to American food – by which we meant Italian and Cuban, as well as barbecue and a good old-fashioned cookout. After all, America’s a melting pot and that’s how Americans eat!

Then we found some truly local activities: a boat tour of some of the lakes around Winter Park and a walk around Lake Eola and shopping at Bass Pro Shop and the Outlet Mall, as well as in Winter Park where Yoshiaki fell in love with “Life is Good” t-shirts. We also drove around our city so they could see what it was like to just live here – Publix supermarket was a surprise hit. They loved our breakfasts at home, especially English Muffins and the huge variety of cereals we have available. They usually only have a couple to choose from in Japan.

The last night they were here, I fixed a brisket dinner with ice cream for dessert. Then we sat or stood around the table and sang songs. They started with Japanese songs, then we all sang Sakura (I learned it while in Girl Scouts for an international program many years ago) and then we found many songs that we all knew, such as Kumbaya, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and some Christian hymns. So we sang together — them in Japanese and us in English. We also talked about what surprised them about America. Some of the things they talked about were that so many lakes were joined together (the Winter Park chain of lakes), and that everything was so big (when they they asked for water at one restaurant, it was served in gigantic glasses), and that the sales people in stores conversed with us so informally.

I have always loved traveling, but this is the first time I have had someone I met during my travels visit me. It was a wonderful by-product of the fantastic time I had in Japan. We’ve already made plans to reconnect in three years when we return to Japan so they can show us Kyoto and Mobara, Yoshiaki’s home town, where we will experience some of their famous festivals. I can’t wait!