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World traveler offers guided tours through Japan

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­LAND O LAKES — Every two years, Paul Stonebridge takes Pasco teens and adults on the trip of a lifetime.

While other tour guides charge a fee for their services, Stonebridge volunteers his time and uses vacation from his job as the teen services manager for the Pasco County Library System to take a small group to Japan to experience its culture in several major cities.

Stonebridge, a self-described “military brat,” spent many years traveling the world, first with his family and later on his own as an adult. Stonebridge pitched the idea of running his own tour to AAA after a tour of Europe in 2004 and impressed the auto club with his ability to fill up tour groups during an economic downturn.

Later, Stonebridge partnered up with IACE Travel in Miami, where he now books his tours to take advantage of subsidies and travel deals from the Japanese government and takes a group of 12 to 13 travelers from 15 years old and up every other year to Tokyo, Kyoto, Miyajima, an island off Hiroshima, and more.

“The idea with the trip is we want to see a whole spectrum of culture, history and society,” Stonebridge said.

In between sushi-eating contests, unscheduled stops at ramen noodle stands and shopping in stores that would bring an anime enthusiast to their knees in excitement, the trip is full of educational experiences.

One of the stops will be ŌOkunoshima, known as “Rabbit Island,” where chemical weapons where manufactured during World War II and a poison gas museum now sits. Hundreds of feral but friendly rabbits roam the island and greet visitors.

“They’re one of the only [museums] really open about their history and promoting peace,” Stonebridge said. “They’re very direct about teaching kids about what happened during World War II and the horror of war.”

Other activities include watching ancient Shinto religious rituals and , if possible, traditional Japanese weddings. The group also visits the Akihibara in Tokyo, mecca to the “otaku” or “diehard anime fan,” the trendiest place in geek popular culture.

Shibuya, another Tokyo shopping district, is the starting place for many of the world’s fashions. What you see on the street and the runway here may be seen in the next year or two at fashion show’s in Paris and eventually, retail outlets in North America and elsewhere.

“It’s the origin point for a lot of youth and adult fashion throughout the entire world,” Stonebridge said. ”We take pictures of some of the fashion and try to predict how long it’ll take to show up at Hot Topic in America.”

For many on the trip, the highlight is a visit to Harijuku, where teens and young adults gather around the train station in all manners of cosplay, short for “costume play.” These outfits are usually based on popular anime or manga and are often elaborate and handcrafted.

“There are entire stores of nothing but cosplay,” Stonebridge said. “Whole streets of cosplay, punk fashion, cyberpunk, whatever the trends are. You are shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall in people and that’s an experience you don’t have in America outside of New York City.”

When Stonebridge is traveling or guiding a tour, he and the group that travels with him — many of the participants the same teens who show up for monthly anime meetings at the libraries — give presentations about the countries’ cultures and travel opportunities at libraries, schools and more.

“We like broadening the cultural lives of Pasco citizens,” Stonebridge said. “I and the kids who go with me create cultural and food presentations for area schools and other libraries to teach those who couldn’t go about the culture. The kids turn around and give back to the community by giving these presentations to hundreds of people over the course of the year.”

Aside from learning about culture, Stonebridge models traveling etiquette to “buck the Ugly American stereotype.”

“I teach everyone how to be a respectful traveler,” Stonebridge said. “I find a lot of cultures are very forgiving of it as long as you’re trying.”

Stonebridge does a variety of tours and is always open to creating a new one. He’s recruiting folks for the 2015 Japan trip, which costs about $4,000 for airfare, hotels, a rail pass and breakfast daily. For more information, email Stonebridge at Stonebridgep@yahoo.com.

You can reach Daylina at dmiller@suncoastnews.com or (727) 815-1067. Follow her on Twitter at @DaylinaMiller.

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