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In 1963, five male students from Waseda University walked about 6,000 km from San Francisco to New York in 241 days, making them the first Japanese to cross the North American continent on foot.

The students stayed at the homes of American families or camped out, meeting a wide range of people with different backgrounds as well as public officials, including governors and mayors.

The experience led to the foundation of what is now known as the Japan Walking Association.

“I really thought about leaving my mark on America by doing something extraordinary at a time when it was difficult for Japanese to go abroad,” recalled Noboru Tajima, 60, leader of the original five-member team who now runs a real estate company in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Nearly 40 years later, another group of young Japanese — five men and eight women selected from all over Japan — are following in the footsteps of the Waseda team. They plan to traverse the continent in 160 days, this time ending up in San Francisco.

On Friday, the 13 members set out on the 5,120-km journey from Mount Vernon, Va., once the home of George Washington, 25 km south of Washington D.C. on the banks of the Potomac River.

“Finally, the moment that I’ve been waiting for has arrived,” said Takayuki Nakanishi, 25, of Sapporo, who is leading the team.

“The key to the journey’s success is for each member to set his or her own pace in the first one or two weeks,” said trek member Yonetaro Kondo of the Japan Walking Association.

As the team moves across the country, cities en route are expected to welcome the Asian visitors. A variety of grassroots exchanges and walking events are planned at each stop.

“I am very enthusiastic about talking with as many people as possible and making friends with them,” said Ryo Yokojima, a 19-year-old student from Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Stops include the Ohio cities of Columbus and Cincinnati; St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.; Lawrence, Kan.; Denver and Boulder, Colo.; Salt Lake City; and Sacramento, Calif.

The members are aiming to reach San Francisco by Sept. 8 so they can attend a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which acknowledged Japan’s official return to the international community after World War II.

Miho Koizumi, 23, of Yokohama is participating in the walk after taking leave from her job as a sales clerk at an information systems provider.

Koizumi, who is interested in getting a certified license as a tour guide for foreigners visiting Japan, said she would be happy if she can introduce Japanese culture and thinking to the Americans she meets during the journey.

The place she is most eager to visit is Centennial, a small mountainous city near Denver.

“In this small western city, which I read about in a Japanese book, there is nothing particularly interesting that catches the eye of tourists,” Koizumi said.

“But visiting such a tiny western town will give us much insight into how American pioneers back in the 1800s faced the new world,” she said.

“One of the major goals for this trans-American walk is to make it a journey that traces the steps of the pioneers who went west,” Koizumi said.

Shuhei Miyamoto, 25, of Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture, quit his job as a cement plant engineer at Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. to participate in the trek.

“It was a difficult decision, to abandon my job,” he said. “But I chose to do something I really want to do.”

Miyamoto, a martial arts veteran, is eager to visit gyms and other sports facilities during the trip.

He also said he wants to visit a small town in Indiana to take a firsthand look at a factory that mines limestone, a main ingredient of cement.

A debating match with the University of Kansas, whose team ranked fifth in last year’s National Debate Tournament, will be another major highlight of the trip.

Natsuki Morishima, 18, the youngest of the 13 members, is one of three who will face the Kansas debating team.

The topic of the debate — whether to allow the death penalty — may be a bit heavy for Morishima, who just graduated from a high school in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, and has never participated in a formal debate.

“The more practice matches I was in, the more I discovered the difficulty of orally presenting my argument,” said Morishima, who is now using the Internet to research the debate topic as well as getting technical advice from a debate expert in Japan.

Unlike the journey made by the Waseda team 38 years ago, this year’s walking team is fully equipped with modern gadgets — laptop computers, cellphones, digital cameras and support vehicles carrying food and other supplies.

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