SALEM — Twenty-five years have passed since guests from Ōta, Japan, first set foot in Salem, and between now and August, several dozen residents of both cities will continue their sister city tradition.
A group of 34 Ota residents landed in Boston Saturday and visited The House of the Seven Gables Sunday afternoon. In a packed eight-day schedule, they'll experience Salem culture and explore Greater Boston before heading back to Tokyo on July 31.
Then, in August, 12 locals will make the trek to Tokyo for their own 10-day journey.
This year, both groups are focusing heavily on children, according to Peter Dolan, an area resident who has helped lead the relationship for several years. Of the 34 travelers from Japan, 28 are kids — one from each of Ōta's middle schools.
Nine of Salem's 12 guests next month are children, according to Dolan.
"Every year, they come here. It's every other year that we go over there, and we alternate with the adults," Dolan said. "It's just a wonderful experience."
Ōta and Salem were entwined in the 1870s, when zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse discovered an Ōmori shell mound, a finding that launched the study of archaeology and anthropology in Japan. Morse lived in Salem and had several ties to the original organizations leading to today's Peabody Essex Museum. Ota itself, a ward in Tokyo, was formed after World War II, a couple decades following Morse's death in 1925.
Salem and Ōta launched their partnership in 1991. More than 2,000 residents from the cities have since crossed the Pacific Ocean as part of the annual trips. The cities host and celebrate their guests with events and tours, and the visitors generally stay with host families.
"We really try to immerse them in an experience," said Midori Oka, who helps organize the exchanges. "They always go to Peabody Essex Museum, and over there they're exposed to English studies through the arts. We also go to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology."
For Salem residents heading over, "we receive quite the warm welcome," Oka continued. "The students will basically be in home-stay situations over there, so they're able to experience life with a Japanese family, and as you can imagine, everything is different."
That includes, among other things, size. While Salem sits on eight square miles and is home to 42,000 residents, Ōta is 36 square miles and has a population of more than 700,000.
The itinerary for the Japanese visitors is pretty packed, with most days beginning at Peabody Essex Museum, Derby Wharf or some other cultural landmark in Salem. They'll eat pizza with Mayor Kim Driscoll, visit the Statehouse in Boston, stop by Fenway Park, and hit the Salem Witch Museum and Salem Mural Project along the way.
"We've benefited so much with the opportunity for students to exchange culture, to have long-lasting relationships and emphasize connections," Driscoll said. "For students coming here, they certainly get a real introduction to Salem and see all the sites. Staying with the families is the best part."
For some, the exchanges are also a humbling experience. Salem's visit to Ōta is generally timed to include Aug. 15, the date marking the end of World War II.
The events that day include a stop to Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, which Oka said provides a critical history lesson. Hiroshima was the first of two cities in Japan bombed by the United States with nuclear warheads at the tail end of World War II.
"It's important that these kids go to Hiroshima," Oka said, "so we don't repeat such things."
Monday, July 23: The morning begins at Peabody Essex Museum and eventually transitions to Gables by late morning and the Salem Witch Museum in the early afternoon. The day ends with a North Shore Navigators baseball game.
Tuesday, July 24: Guests will visit Beacon Hill, have lunch at the Statehouse and visit landmarks in Boston.
Wednesday, July 25: Guests will visit the Japanese Consulate in Boston in the morning, then Harvard University and the Museum of Comparative Zoology in the afternoon.
Thursday, July 26: Guests will spend the morning at Peabody Essex Museum. Later in the day, they'll meet with Mayor Kim Driscoll for lunch and tour City Hall. They then return to Peabody Essex Museum for more activities.
Friday, July 27: Guests will visit Boston Higashi School in Randolph then return to Salem and tour the Salem Mural Project. A cookout will be held at a home in Salem.
Saturday, July 28: A "Goodbye Party" and presentations will be held at Salem Five Bank's corporate office building. A cultural celebration will then be held at Peabody Essex Museum.
Sunday, July 29: Free day, nothing scheduled.
Monday, July 30: Guests will tour Fenway Park in the morning, return to Salem for a final goodbye ceremony and then leave for Boston to stay in the city overnight.
Tuesday, July 31: Guests depart for Tokyo.