SAFS Student Voices: Summer course experience at Hokkaido University

Summer course experience at Hokkaido University in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan

by Rachel Manning, B.S. 2016
School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences

This past summer I received a full scholarship to participate in an incredible two-week course abroad with two other awesome SAFS students.

Courtesy of Rachel Manning
Photo courtesy of Rachel Manning

On Friday, July 1, I received the email I’d been anxiously waiting for over the previous month: I had been selected to receive a full scholarship to participate in a two-week course through Hokkaido University focusing on the resilience of Hakodate, a Japanese port-city on the northern island of Hokkaido. This would be my first experience traveling outside of the U.S. and I was ecstatic. I could all but keep myself from counting down the days until departure on this exciting two-week adventure.

Fast-forward to Thursday, August 11: I had just returned home in the wee hours of the morning after spending 3.5 weeks volunteering onboard a NOAA chartered fishing vessel assessing groundfish populations of the Aleutian Islands as part of their annual resource assessment surveys. I felt half crazy; even after snoozing most of the day. I was pooped from working on a boat for the past month but was still ecstatic about my imminent departure for Japan, a mere day and a few hours later.

Fast-forward again to Saturday, August 13, at 12:00 am. I was on my way to SeaTac airport to make my 2:00 am departure flight for Hakodate, with a 5 hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan. I went over all of my last minute packing, currency exchanging, and last minute trip preparations in my head for the third time, hoping I hadn’t forgotten anything. I couldn’t wait to get on that giant two-aisle plane (the biggest plane I’ve ever been on) and fall asleep, only to wake up in another country the next day—first for a short stop in Taiwan, and then to my final destination: Hakodate International Airport.

Sunday, August 14, 2:30 pm, JST (Saturday, August 13, 10:30 pm PST): I had arrived in Hakodate, Japan! I was so excited I couldn’t see straight. I almost forgot to pick up my bag from baggage claim, though I didn’t get far before customs stopped me to make sure I had my suitcase and that it wasn’t stuffed full of bananas or pineapples as if I was a fruit rep on a fruit sales call from Seattle (I know customs and border crossing procedures are like this, but I thought it was funny at the time). After picking up my non-illegal bag full of boring clothes and toiletries (and no dangerous fruit), I decided to make a quick pitstop at a nearby restroom—or so I thought. I was immediately confronted with two options: relieving myself in a tiny urinal-like hole in the ground or a super fancy high-tech toilet with all sorts of crazy buttons—I made the obvious choice for a “straight from Seattle/never been outside of the U.S.” girl. I was so dazzled by the high tech toilet that stood before me, that I couldn’t figure out how to get the lid to open. After some quick brainstorming, I figured that out and was able to relieve myself, but was then faced with an entirely new, more serious problem, “How the heck do I flush this thing?” After managing to play about six different Japanese pop songs and three fake flushing noises, have the toilet self-clean the bidet wand and change the seat temperature from hot to cold about fifty times, I finally chose the correct button to flush the toilet. Toilet:1, Rachel: 0. . . I almost wished I had chosen toilet option number one: super straightforward urinal-like hole in the ground.

After recovering from my first bout of extreme culture shock in the airport restroom, I walked out into the main lobby of the single terminal airport and was immediately greeted by the program coordinator, Tony Chittenden, and the two other SAFS students I would be spending the next two weeks with: Grace Workman, and John Trochta. (I’ll admit that I was slightly taken aback when Tony greeted me with a strong New Zealand accent, as I had pictured a Japanese program coordinator). After exchanging greetings, we all picked up our luggage—particularly Grace, with her 3 GIGANTIC suitcases (which come to find out, were all full of awesome “Seattle-y” presents for our fellow Japanese students and teachers)—and headed out to Tony’s car. He then took us to our accommodations at “Hakodate Perry House”, a cute Airbnb guesthouse in the center of Hakodate’s historic district near the base of magnificent Mt. Hakodate. Upon arriving at our accommodations, we were introduced to Yudai Kitano and then later, Ryuichi Shibusawa, two Japanese students also in the summer course hailing from Hokkaido University’s Sapporo campus. The two boys would be staying at the guesthouse with us and would be helping us navigate our way around the unfamiliar city while practicing their English-speaking by translating for us. After our introductions, we quickly unpacked our things, settled in to our rooms, and then headed out to grab a bite to eat and do some light exploring for our first night in Hakodate.

The following two weeks went by in an exciting blur of nearly unbearable 100 degree weather with 95-100% humidity (from the 5 typhoons that passed by us during our stay, all near misses), fact learning from lectures at several universities and research stations in the area, friendship-making with students of many ethnicities, delicious and exotic food, and sight-seeing all over the beautiful city of Hakodate and surrounding areas; all intermingled with bouts of personal culture-shock here and there—though nothing quite matching the hilarity-followed shock of the Hakodate airport toilet debacle.

My memorable experiences included: spending three days aboard the brand new, state-of-the art T/S Oshoro Maru participating in various oceanographic activities, invertebrate identification and anatomy, and night-time squid jigging followed by a 10 pm snack of just-caught yellow-fin tuna sashimi; staying three days at Usujiri Marine Research Station collecting fish specimens for identification using beach seines, learning about a unique and incredibly sustainable net fishery employed by local fishermen, and snorkeling in 70 degree bathwater (or so it seemed) observing beautiful echinoderms, mollusks (one Japanese grad student found a brown nudibranch that released a fuchsia—yes, fuchsia—cloud when agitated), seaweeds, and fishes, followed by night-time “field trips” to the nearby hot spring onsen (Japanese bath house, no clothes allowed and typically communal—though this one was gender segregated); a visit to Nanae Freshwater Research Station spent learning about captive rearing techniques and hatchery-raised species (we got to view a live Taimen—giant salmonid native to northern Eurasia, primarily found in Siberia and Mongolia) and participating in salmonid sperm cryopreservation and in-vitro fertilization; visiting Future University Hakodate and learning about advanced information technologies, where we got to view a student-led project on creation of virtually remote-controlled robots that can aid in the clean-up of the Fukushima disaster and other future devastating events; and visiting Hokkaido University’s own preserved fish and invertebrate collection—probably my favorite part as I work in the UW SAFS/Burke Museum Fish Collection and am a HUGE FISH NERD.

We participated in all of these experiences and more in an effort to understand how the public, private, and academic sectors in Hakodate are currently working together towards building resilience in the tourist-oriented port-city that is presently experiencing the phenomenon of rapid population ageing—similar to many other areas in Japan. The course culminated in several group presentations in which we highlighted our course experiences and provided our own insights and ideas on combatting the on-going population-aging phenomenon. After which we all partook in a delicious, traditional, several-course sushi lunch, added each other on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all that other social media junk, and promised to keep in touch after returning to our homelands.

All in all, from my perspective, the two-week course is best described as the opportunity of a lifetime, filled with wonderful new multicultural introductions and resulting friendships, great food and sightseeing, and a fascinating look at Japanese fisheries science and technology, all wrapped up in an exciting hands-on look at northern Japanese culture. I am so grateful for the opportunity and strongly encourage fellow SAFS students to consider participating in similar opportunities in the future.


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