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Sister City History

Over Half a Century of Friendship!

Even though Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Tondabayashi, Japan are on opposite sides of the globe, they share several interesting similarities. Both cities are bisected by a river, with hills 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.

Tondabayashi, Japan circa 1959

In 1959, The Reverend Kenneth Heim, who had 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 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.

In 1970, the Fenninger family was instrumental in coordinating the construction of the Garden of Serenity, a gift from Tondabayashi, placed next to the public library.

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.

Mayor John Callahan visits Tondabayashi

Over the years, our bond has remained, thanks to the diligent efforts of the Sister City Commission and the succession of Mayors of the City of Bethlehem.  In 1997, Tondabayashi made a gift of several dozen Japanese cherry blossom trees to our city.

In 2004 a delegation of officials and friends from Bethlehem visited Tondabayashi to celebrate our 40th anniversary.

In 2014, delegates from Tondabayashi visited Bethlehem to celebrate 50 years of friendship with a public declaration and the planting of additional cherry blossom trees on the Southside Greenway.

Mayor Donchez and Mayor Tada affirm our friendship

Delegates pose at the site of new sakura trees on the Greenway

In 2015 the Sister City Commission, in an effort to spread awareness of our sister city relationship, as well as more fully utilize the wonderful resources of the city, started the annual Bethlehem Cherry Blossom Festival.

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