Chattanooga's newest sister city, Tono, Japan, is 6,489 miles away, but Strat Parrott said that in many ways the city that's nestled in a river valley and surrounded by mountains feels like home.
"The area is basically like taking Chattanooga as a footprint and making it more of a rural farmland," said Parrott, who joined the Chattanooga Sister Cities board several years ago with the hope of bringing Tono into the sister city family.
Mayor Andy Berke and nine other delegates from Chattanooga are traveling to Tono to participate in a signing ceremony Friday that will coincide with the city's largest annual festival.
"They were able to very graciously invite and pay for some of us to go," Parrott said, adding that the city of Tono is funding his, Mayor Berke's and three other delegates' trips, and the rest are paying their own ways. "Last year, [Tono's] deputy mayor came to Chattanooga — they've always been very eager to share their culture with the world."
Chattanooga now has eight sister cities:
› Hamm, Germany
› Wolfsburg, Germany
› Wuxi, China
› Givatayim, Israel
› Nizhnii Tagil, Russia
› Gangneung, China
› Manfredonia, Italy
› Tono, Japan
The two cities began cultivating their relationship 26 years ago through an exchange student program at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. Since then, hundreds of middle and high school students from Chattanooga and Japan — including Parrott— have participated in the exchange.
"We had a lot of these citizens that have an interest in solidifying that relationship and making it a little deeper," he said, adding that the sister city connection will strengthen the student exchange and open doors for tourism, business and government exchanges.
"You can also travel and go on your own as an individual, and we're here to help give you support and contacts," he said. "Say you were an artist here in town trying to build your skills — we could arrange for you to meet up with artisans in Tono."
In 2015, the Chattanooga Tono Friendship Committee formed a grassroots initiative to deepen ties between Chattanooga and Tono. It is supported by the Sister City Association of Chattanooga, a volunteer group interested in establishing meaningful international relationships.
Chattanooga has seven other sister cities, and will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the partnership with its first sister city, Hamm, Germany, this October.
Karen Claypool, president of the Chattanooga Sister City Association, said the celebration will include some events that are open to the public, but to get the full experience, students, individuals and families can purchase a yearlong membership to the association for $15, $20 or $30, respectively.
"Anybody who is interested in international connections is an ideal candidate for membership," Claypool said. "It's just a good place to meet people from all over the world and learn about other cultures, share ideas and come to appreciate one another."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.
Ten people from Chattanooga will head to Tono, Japan, this week:
› Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke
› Maura Sullivan, chief operating officer for the city of Chattanooga
› James McKissic, director of Chattanooga’s Office of Multicultural Affairs
› Karen Claypool, president of the Chattanooga Sister City Association
› Strat Parrott, vice president for Tono, Japan, Chattanooga Sister City Association and chairman of the Chattanooga Tono Friendship Committee
› Linda Allen, vice chairwoman of the Chattanooga Tono Friendship Committee
› Parker Allen, vice chairman of the Chattanooga Tono Friendship Committee
› Louisa Mesich, adviser with the Chattanooga Tono Friendship Committee
› Larry Mesich, Chattanooga resident
› Martha Levardsen, Chattanooga resident