CLOSE to two decades ago the idea to nurture cultural links with Japan was born and since then the exchange visits have grown in popularity.

They are now branching out to include Lyme Regis participants, who have now taken up four of the seven places on this year’s programme.

And places for the 20th anniversary in 2016 – which will include a trip to Tokyo during the Olympics – are already full.

The scheme has been such a success that Japanese visitors long retain their happy memories of west Dorset.

Ai Shinozuka visited Bridport 13 years ago, as a 17-year-old member of the Japanese exchange programme.

Last week she was back again for a surprise visit, seeing old friends and re-visiting familiar places.

She said: “I remember Bridport so much. Everyone is so friendly. It was my dream to come back here again.”

Exchange founder and co-ordinator Arthur Woodgate said: “It was lovely to see Ai again after so many years. She enjoyed her stay with us, and her only disappointment was that she didn’t get to see the Milky Way again.

“The brightness of the stars and the number on view always fascinates the young people from Tokyo, because they simply don’t see them there.”

Last summer saw another visit from a former member of the long-established programme, Takako Suzuki, who last saw Bridport in 2005.

This time she was on her honeymoon as Takako Endo, sharing memories with her husband Yasuhiro.

When asked why she had chosen to visit Bridport as part of her honeymoon, along with some perhaps more obvious destinations such as Rome, London and Paris, she replied with great enthusiasm: She said: “I really love Bridport. I made a lot of friends here, and I want to introduce my husband to my Bridport friends and take him to the special places I remember like the cliffs at West Bay, so many good memories.”

This summer, another group of young people from the area will be visiting Japan for three weeks, staying with the partners they hosted themselves last year. Two years later, the exchange will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016, visiting Tokyo at the same time as the Tokyo Olympics will be in full swing.

Mr Woodgate said: “The current exchange proved so successful, that we had a large number of applications for the next one.

“This was approximately a year before we normally start recruiting.

“I’m very pleased to say that the leader of our 2015-16 exchange group will be Ben Spicer, another former member who will be following in the footsteps of Andrew Blake who led the 2011-12 group, and James Lathey, leader of the present group.

“A further development is the involvement of young people from Lyme Regis – the first ever joined the current programme, and this has rather escalated in that four of the seven places for 2015-16 have been taken by Lyme residents. It’s good to see.”

The Japanese exchange, an entirely voluntary enterprise, is organised through registered charity BYPAT – Bridport Young Persons Action Trust. For more information contact