Sister City - Tondabayashi

Bethlehem- Tondabayashi sister-city partnership.

Even though Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Tondabayashi, Japan are on opposite sides of the globe, they happen to share a number of interesting similarities. Both cities are bisected by a river, with mountains on the horizon. Both have an economic mix of agriculture, service and manufacturing. Both share a strong sense of history and culture. And both have a Christmas connection: Bethlehem as "Christmas City, U.S.A.," and Tondabayashi as the former home of a leading manufacturer of glass Christmas ornaments.

In 1959, The Reverend Kenneth Heim, who attended Lehigh University, accepted a transfer to Tokyo, Japan. During his stay, Rev. Heim met and became friends with a gentleman from Tondabayashi. The friends visited each other's cities and then encouraged their friends to make similar visits. The ripple effect from that first visit continues to this day.

In 1964, the relationship became somewhat more structured. In Tondabayashi, a city official was appointed to head a Sister City Association; in Bethlehem, the mayor offered the project to the Jaycees. The Bethlehem arrangement evolved to become a sister city committee consisting of prominent area residents Bernard Cohen, Laurence Fenninger and John Strohmeyer.

On one of their visits to Tondabayashi, Mr. and Mrs. Fenninger met Yoshinaga Sakon, one of Japan's outstanding landscape architects. They formed a close friendship, which resulted in Mr. Sakon giving to the city of Bethlehem in 1971 a tea house and garden. They were placed next to the Bethlehem Area Public Library and the area was named the "Garden of Serenity." Its oversight is the responsibility of the Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission and it is maintained through the generous efforts of the Bethlehem Garden Club and the City's Parks Department.

In 1972, Bethlehem City Council formally established the Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission "to promote friendship and understanding between Bethlehem and Tondabayashi, to exchange cultural interests, to promote trade interests and tourism, and to oversee a Student Exchange Program between Bethlehem and its Japanese sister city of Tondabayashi." Commission members are appointed by City Council for renewable two-year terms and hold monthly meetings in the Tondabayashi Room of the Bethlehem Area Public Library. The Tondabayashi Room houses the beautiful gifts given to the Commission over the past 30-plus years by its sister city.

The Student Exchange Program is the most important of the commission's activities. Since 1971, more than 80 young people have traveled to live with sister city host families, learning about each other's way of life. In odd-numbered years, five Bethlehem students, ages 16 to 20, travel to Tondabayashi; during the even-numbered years, Bethlehem families host five Tondabayashi students. The exchanges usually take place at the end of July and the beginning of August.

The commission hosts a number of activities for the students during their stay - a tea ceremony; picnics, white water rafting, a South Side Bethlehem crafts day, a day at Dorney Park, "American English" classes, and trips to New York City, Philadelphia, Lancaster and Washington, D.C. Host families add to the enjoyment with their own activities, many shared with the other students and host families. The visit concludes with a farewell dinner for students and host families at the Stabler Observation Tower.

The Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission also participates in area festivals and parades and sponsors an annual bus trip to a Japanese garden. It is currently developing a traveling exhibit for area schools and international cultural programs.

To learn more about becoming a host family or how to apply to become an exchange student, visit the Commission's web site at

For more information about our sister city, Tondabayashi, visit their website at