Traveling halfway around the world for wedding with the Rotary Club

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Yusuke Yoda and Kazuko Inoue on the front steps of the Union League after their wedding ceremony.

Yusuke Yoda knew he wanted to get married in Philadelphia.

But when you live halfway across the world from the City of Brotherly Love, that takes some work.

Yoda, 33, and his bride, Kazuko Inoue, 35 - both linguistics lecturers at a Tokyo university - tried for months to arrange their dream wedding from across the Pacific. They knew no caterers here, no photographers, no reception halls, not even a judge.

Then they remembered the Rotary Club.

The service organization was the reason Yoda had come to love Philadelphia in the first place. Rotarians sponsored a scholarship that brought him to the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 to work on his graduate degree. Club members had made sure he could find his way during his first days in the country, inviting him to events and parties and taking interest in his studies. By now, they were practically family.

So why not tie the knot at the Rotary's weekly luncheon? Yoda thought.

On Thursday afternoon, the dining room at the Union League filled with men in suits and ties and women in bright spring prints - and one Japanese wedding guest in a kimono.

Lisa Leonard, the Philadelphia chapter's president, took the lectern having carefully practiced the night before how to pronounce everyone's name.

"We love that you chose to be with us at the Rotary on your special day," she said.

Leonard wants the Rotary Club to shed what has become its enduring stereotype: rich old white men in a wood-paneled room congratulating each other over a fine meal. She wants the club to be known for serving communities, forging international friendships, and welcoming young faces.

The Rotary-lunch wedding of two bright young scholars from Japan checked pretty much every box.

Yoda and Inoue met five years ago, after Yoda returned from his year at Penn and started looking for a teaching job. Inoue interviewed him for a position at a local university. He was nervous and sweaty, and his hair was unprofessionally long. He had nicknamed himself "the Jedi Master," after the Star Wars character Yoda.

"It was so weird," she said, laughing.

But something clicked. She hired him, and, a few months later, went on a date with him, and that was the beginning of the journey capped by a 15-hour flight halfway across the world.

The couple arrived in the city this week, with Inoue's aunt, uncle, and friend trailing.

Yoda invited a few colleagues from the States, his Rotary counselor - a retired police lieutenant whom he calls "my second father" - and an old classmate from Penn who bought him his first drink in America. (Yoda has since developed a yen for microbrews.)

"The memories in Philadelphia are still ingrained in my mind," he told the packed room, to applause.

Rotarians had found a judge to officiate and a photographer to document the event. They ordered a wedding cake from the Union League kitchen. After toasting the newlyweds - "I love weddings," sighed an elderly man - they cheered when Inoue's friend pulled out a Japanese flute called a shakuhachi.

"I would like to make this party Japanese-style," he explained, and played a short piece to sustained applause.

After the ceremony, the couple left on a whirlwind tour of the city to take more photos. They grinned for the camera in all the usual places: Elfreth's Alley, Independence Hall, the Art Museum. They twirled in front of City Hall - Yoda's favorite spot in Philadelphia, "an icon of the city," he said seriously. They posed in front of Penn's Williams Hall because Yoda had taken most of his classes there.

And all the while, despite the jet lag and the culture shock and the language barrier, Yoda and Inoue bowed and smiled and thanked everyone they met - from the photographers to the Rotarians, from the passersby who congratulated them on the street to the reporter who followed them around all day.

"Even if this is not the most interesting story, thank you for writing it," Yoda said, as only a man who had flown 6,700 miles to get married at a Rotary lunch could.

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961@aubreyjwhelan

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