As hundreds of people gathered to see the Boston Christmas tree leave Halifax, another Nova Scotian fir was making a much longer journey.
For over 20 years, Halifax has been donating a tree to its sister city, Hakodate in Japan. The tree is lit with 50,000 lights and stands as the centerpiece of that city’s month-long Christmas Fantasy holiday celebration.
“The tree gets cut down here, put in a container and shipped to Montreal by truck,” said John Simmons, an urban forester with the Halifax Regional Municipality who oversees the tree’s travels.
“It’s put on a train from Montreal to Vancouver and then gets shipped to Hakodate.”
This year’s tree is a 45 foot fir from New Germany, which cost the municipality between $2,000 and $2,500. It left Nova Scotia on Sep. 28 to arrive in Japan in time for the festival’s opening ceremony on Dec. 1. The city of Hakodate covers the shipping costs.
“To get all the shipping done in time can be hectic to organize, but it’s something we enjoy doing and we’ve been doing it for forever and a day,” said Simmons. “I think it’s nice to reach halfway across the world and have a connection with another city that has a lot of similarities.”
Halifax and Hakodate have been connected since 1982, when the cities’ mayors signed a twinning agreement. During the first 20 years, delegates from each country visited each other and the cities’ universities and high schools organized educational exchanges.
Despite being on opposite sides of the world, the two places share a lot in common. Like Halifax, Hakodate is a small port city with a star-shaped citadel. The Japanese city also has a large fishing industry, though it boasts salmon roe and squid on its menus rather than lobster.
“It’s the Japanese version of Halifax,” said Thomas Trappenberg, president of the Halifax-Hakodate Friendship Association. Trappenberg lives in Halifax with his wife, Kanayo, who was the first exchange student to Halifax from Hakodate more than two decades ago.
“Thirty years ago, it was more common that people thought about twinning cities,” he said.
Trappenberg elaborated saying that it helped cities feel more connected and have a deeper understanding of each other.
“Today, it’s easier to communicate with social media and have friends over the world, so maybe it’s not as urgent anymore, but I still think there’s a role for it,” he said.
The Friendship’s Association’s activities have been low-key over the past 10 years, but the Christmas Fantasy tree has been a consistent gesture of friendship.
“The tree lighting ceremony has become really famous all over Japan,” said Trappenberg. “Tour buses go there for the festival and people just love it. It has been very good for Hakodate. They’re very happy and they are always thanking Halifax for the tree and asking us to send one again.”
Trappenberg is hopeful the relationship between the cities will be reinvigorated next year for the 35th anniversary of their twinning. He says a delegation from Japan is coming to Halifax and there’s plans to send delegates to Hakodate.
In the past, Hakodate has offered Halifax a gift of Japanese cherry blossom trees. The trees are difficult to import, but Trappenberg would like to see them planted in the Halifax Public Gardens and have festivals hosted beneath them when they are in bloom.
A floral symbol of Halifax and Hakodate’s friendship can already be found in the southwest corner of the gardens, where an azalea bush blooms every spring. Hakodate donated the bush to Halifax in 1986.
Ferdinand Ballesteros and his wife Miyako run the Ikebana Shop in Halifax. They sell Japanese gifts and teach ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement.
In 2013, the couple sent 50 homemade tree-shaped lavender sachets with Nova Scotia tartans to Hakodate for Christmas. They hope that other Haligonians will commemorate the twinning agreement with similar gestures.
“I would like the tree tradition continue and to see even more grassroots interaction between the two cities,” said Ballesteros. “That kind of friendship is a beautiful thing.”