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UTAH LOOKS LIKE FRONTIER - AND FEELS LIKE DESERT

When Mormon pioneers settled in Utah, it was a frontier. It's changed drastically since then, but for a group of Japanese exchange students, Utah still looks very much like the Wild West.

"The weather is so sunny, and the mountains are so high. It's like the frontier," said Hiroyuki, one of the 60 high school students who are seeing Utah this month as part of the Intrax Home-Stay Program.One of Hiroyuki's instructors from Japan, Katsuo Tanji, agreed, saying that at times he and the students have found the state to be very much a desert, at least last weekend.

"It was very dry and too hot. We weren't expecting that," Tanji said, noting that Saturday was the first time he and his students had ever suffered through triple-digit temperatures.

In the Home-Stay Program, the students - all of them 16-year-olds from Shoka Daigaku High School in Yokohama - stay for more than two weeks with Utah host families in Orem, Sandy and Layton.

The major purpose of the program is to allow the students, who get English instruction during daily classes in the three cities, to see what they're learning about firsthand and be able to interact with Utahns.

"Utah is safe and clean, so they've had a very good time so far," said Debi Rowe, one of the program's coordinators. "The only thing they've been disappointed in is that they haven't been able to drive, since they found out you only have to be 16 to drive here. In Japan, you have to be 18."

That didn't stop Toru, another one of the students, from trying to talk Rowe into taking him for a ride.

"I want to drive," he told her.

So far, the students have seen some of the state's splendor. On Tuesday, program organizers put them to work at Orem's Mountain View High School. There they helped the school catch up on a landscaping project.

While some of the students washed windows or unloaded desks and books, the majority of them, working with U.S. students from many of the host families, pulled and dug out weeds and prepared the ground surrounding the school's portable classrooms to receive sod.

Val Rasmussen, Mountain View High's head custodian, said the students saved him and his fellow custodians and ground crews at least two weeks' worth of work on the project, which will landscape the areas around the satellite classrooms.

"With only four of us, we've actually been trying to get to the project for six months," Rasmussen said. "But after they're done, we'll be able to put the grass in. It should look great for the start of the school year."

And even though most of the students were visibly sweating while they toiled, most also seemed to enjoy it - especially one who proudly showed off a small abrasion he suffered when he accidentally crashed into an air-conditioner.

"It's OK, it's OK," he told one project supervisor as he refused first aid and ran off to show his classmates his battle wound.

Organizers have been running the Intrax Home-Stay Program since 1989. Participating students pay to stay with the U.S. families. Also, under the program, two Utah students - Buddy Curtis and Jake Allred - will be able to have a similar experience in Japan for free.