GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – What does Glens Falls have in common with a city called Saga, located in the Japanese island of Kyushu?
It’s not the climate. While Glens Falls welcomes regular winter snowfall and borders the Adirondacks and Canada to the north, Kyushu is mostly considered subtropical, with active volcanoes and natural hot springs.
It’s not the size, either. Saga City’s population sits at 236,372 people as of a 2015 census. Although smaller by Japanese standards, it dwarves Glens Falls’ 14,722 (as of 2021). The whole of Warren County – including Glens Falls, Lake George, Queensbury, and other communities – only adds up to 65,618.
Despite those differences, Glens Falls and Saga City aren’t an arbitrary pair of communities to put next to each other. They quite enjoy each other, in fact. This year, the two are celebrating 35 years as sister cities, a union that brought the distinct pair of cities together around one shared interest.
“Balloons are the one,” said Milly Koh, of the Sister Cities Committee of Glens Falls & Warren County. As one of the founding members of the partnership, she would know.
The 35th anniversary of the two cities’ relationship is a big one, but even bigger is 50 – the anniversary set this year to hit the Adirondack Balloon Festival, which sees 100 or more hot air balloons visit the region annually. In 1986, a local balloon team was invited to Saga City’s own Saga International Balloon Fiesta. Crew members who went that year came back to the Glens Falls area with a tremendous amount of positivity towards the event, which quickly reached Koh.
“I thought it would be such a good idea, for us to have a relationship with Japan, and open up our area to international programs,” said Koh. “I talked to the mayor (Mayor Frank O’Keefe, who served from 1986-’93) and he proposed becoming sister cities with Saga City.”
Saga City liked that idea. A mayoral delegation traveled to Glens Falls in September 1998 to sign an official Sister Cities relationship agreement – the first of its kind for the Adirondack community.
‘We are not the only ones living in this world’
When Koh reflects on the ensuing 35 years, what stands out most is the impact on cultural awareness. The Glens Falls region is relatively homogenous, especially when compared with New York City and its surrounding communities. A deficit in worldwide awareness was front-and-center as soon as she moved to the region with her husband in 1978.
“Whenever someone would come to me with ‘Oh, Milly, I have something from your country,’ it would be from China, or Japan, or Korea. That’s okay, really, that’s fine. However, it’s a little bit confusing, when Japan is a very tiny country. Really, eastern Asia is unfamiliar.”
The decades since the siblinghood took off have been full of chances for residents of both cities to see how a different culture lives. To date, four local balloon teams have visited Saga City, including festival organizer Mark Donahue; and 14 Saga crews have visited Glens Falls. Mayors from both cities have celebrated their partnership in each others’ home regions. Even more have found their way across the world as students.
Since 1990, over 600 students have traveled between America and Japan as part of the sister cities’ exchange program for junior high and high school students. Roughly 300 have come from Saga, and 300 from the Glens Falls region, including Glens Falls, Queensbury, Lake George and Hadley-Luzerne.
Regardless of learning level and direction of travel, the programs are similar. Students stay with host families, attend school and learn local traditions over 1 or 2 weeks. They live, eat and sleep in a new culture, and for some, that culture never fully leaves them. Koh has seen students come through the exchange program and become international businesspeople, world travelers, and even permanent residents elsewhere across the globe.
“Awareness is so important,” Koh said. “I don’t expect everyone in the program will become a huge Japanese fan, or have that relationship for their entire life – but, for the few, we are going to give them the opportunity to know that we are not the only ones living in this world. There are so many people living in different ways.”
Saga students last came to the region in March 2018, hosted by Hadley-Luzerne Central School District. After that, the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to any travel between the two communities for some time. The Adirondack and Saga balloon festivals were both put on hold in 2020, and returned at a limited capacity in 2021 and 2022.
All of that means that this coming April, Glens Falls and Saga will celebrate 35 years in style. Current Saga Mayor Toshiyuki Hideshima is set to make his first-ever visit to the region, in a weekend trip set to include a reception at the Queensbury Hotel, a visit to City Hall and Crandall Public Library, and a ride around the region in one of Lake George’s iconic trolleys. Saga has had a history of interest in what makes Glens Falls tick, past the balloons.
“If you look at the industries in Saga, we have complementary ones, like paper mills,” said Glens Falls Tourism and Business Development Director Amy Collins. “We’ve had groups come and be very interested in furniture making. Others are interested in what’s in Crandall Library’s Folklife Gallery.”
At year 35, Koh is still on the sister cities committee – and most of the faces there are the same ones who have always been there. As Glens Falls and Saga’s relationship continues to grow, the committee is looking for new blood, to continue organizing visits, suggesting new programs, and fundraising around the community. Many of the students to come through the program now live out of the area – but Koh is hopeful to hear from those who have come back.
Those interested in getting involved with the Sister Cities Committee of Glens Falls & Warren County can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Saga City delegation is set to come to the region on the weekend of April 20-23. The Adirondack Balloon Festival, whose high-flying colors and shapes in the sky started it all, will celebrate 50 years on the weekend of Sept. 21-24.
This story is the first part of a series on the relationship between Glens Falls and Saga City. Keep an eye on news10.com for more.