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The Comenian

The student news site of Moravian University

The Comenian

The student news site of Moravian University

The Comenian

The History of Bethlehem’s Sister City Relationship with Tondabayashi

The History of Bethlehem’s Sister City Relationship with Tondabayashi

Less than 500 feet from Moravian’s South Campus is the Bethlehem Japanese Garden of Serenity, surrounded by Japanese cherry blossoms, some of which have already begun their seasonal bloom. 

But besides their beauty, these trees are rich in history, dating back to 1959, when Bethlehem resident Reverend Kenneth Heim accepted a transfer to Tokyo, Japan. While there, he became friends with a resident of Tondabayashi. In the ensuing years, they visited each other – and each other’s city – recruiting friends and family to do the same.

In 1964, a city official was appointed to head a Sister City Association in Tondabayashi, and Bethlehem created a sister city committee with prominent Bethlehem residents. 

In 1971, the Garden of Serenity, a gift from Tondabayashi, was partially finished and dedicated in a Japanese tea ceremony, with the tea house being finalized in the coming years. Yoshinaga Sakon, a well-known Japanese landscape architect, designed and erected the Serenity Garden as a symbol of the friendship between Bethlehem and its sister city.

In 1972, the Bethlehem City Council established the Bethlehem Tondabayashi Sister City Commission. The Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization whose members are appointed by the Bethlehem City Council, and their funding is provided by donations from the public in addition to a small stipend from the City of Bethlehem.

A sister city relationship is usually a comprehensive, enduring partnership between two communities in different countries. This connection represents a formal or informal agreement between two distinct geographical entities to foster cultural and economic bonds. Currently, Bethlehem has established five sister city relationships: Tondabayashi, Japan; Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany; Corfu, Greece; Foiano Di Val Fortore, Itay; Murska Sobota, Slovenia.

Although they are on opposite sides of the globe, Bethlehem and Tondabayashi share several interesting similarities. Geographically, both cities are bisected by a river, with a view of hills on the horizon. Both have an economic mix of agriculture, service, and manufacturing. Both hold a strong sense of history and share a Christmas connection, with Bethlehem being known as “Christmas City” and Tondabayashi as the former home of a manufacturer of glass Christmas ornaments to the U.S.. 

In 1997, Tondabayashi City generously presented Bethlehem with sixty cherry trees. However, due to import restrictions, transporting trees directly from Japan to the United States was prohibited. To overcome this hurdle, Bethlehem’s landscape designer, Dee Kruschwitz, opted for American-bred cherry trees that trace their lineage back to previously imported Japanese sakura (sakura means cherry blossom in Japanese). 

These trees were planted around the Garden of Serenity and along the entire perimeter of Payrow Plaza, which houses City Hall and the Bethlehem Area Public Library. 

Among the varieties planted are ten Snow Fountains, which resemble weeping willows with their drooping branches; 20 Yoshinos, known for their bright white blossoms; and 30 Higan trees boasting subtle pink petals. Notably, the Higan trees bloom twice, once in spring, typically in early to mid-April, and again at the end of fall.

Sakura trees are found abundantly in Japan, and their blossoming, which typically peaks in late March or early April, signifies the start of the school year for Japanese students and the arrival of spring. 

In 2015, the Sister City Commission, in an effort to spread awareness of their sister-city relationship, as well as more fully utilize the resources of the city, started the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. This year’s  Bethlehem Cherry Blossom Festival will be held on Saturday, April 6, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the Garden of Serenity. 

At the festival, one can participate in a tea ceremony, try the ancient art of calligraphy, create Japanese origami, watch live performances, sample some Japanese festival food, pound rice into a sweet treat with a giant wooden mallet, or have their picture taken in a kimono or yukata. 

The address is Bethlehem Zen Garden, N New St, Bethlehem, PA 18018, right next to the Bethlehem Area Public Library. 

The sister city commission also coordinates a Student Exchange Program. During odd-numbered years, the Commission sends students from Bethlehem to Tondabayashi for a three-week homestay; during even-numbered years, students from Tondabayashi come to stay with host families in Bethlehem. All high school students in the Bethlehem Area School District are eligible to apply for the program. 

If interested in learning more, the Bethlehem Tondabayashi Sister City Commission hosts monthly meetings open to everyone, which are held at 6:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month, in the Laros Room of the Bethlehem Public Library, located at 11 W Church St. There are no meetings during the months of August and December.

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