SAFS Student Voices: Surprise and discovery in Hakodate

Surprise and discovery in Hakodate

by John Trochta, SAFS graduate student

Heat and humidity were not new to me, especially coming from a Seattle summer, but it still surprised me in Hakodate. I suppose the actual surprise didn’t occur until we arrived at the Japanese inn, where I eagerly expected the relief of air conditioning and didn’t find it. My room on the fourth floor was small and almost entirely empty, except for a short end table and a bundled Japanese futon (completely different from the American furniture piece of the same name). As I scanned the room, I felt a sigh of relief at the sight of a thru-wall exhaust fan on the outer wall. I flipped the switch and … nothing. That’s when I noticed the fan’s wiring snaking out the corner, suspended in mid-air, near my face as if to mock me.

New places and people always defy my expectations, often as a result of my naivety and to the effect of my amusement or amazement. There really is no better statement that personally sums up the short-course in Hokkaido. For eleven days, the curriculum pushed and pulled us to different activities, topics, and people to provide an eclectic learning experience. We fished, snorkeled, toured museums, dissected squids, artificially inseminated fish eggs, and heard a wide array of perspectives, from fishermen to CEOs from industry to fellow students.

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While seemingly unrelated, the topics did all converge on Hakodate, the famous Hokkaido fishing port probably best known for its seafood. And yes, the seafood did live up to the title hyped by both Japanese and foreigners alike. I could go on about the sashimi, but seaweed somehow made it even more special for me. I learned and ate more than I honestly thought I would care for. Before then, I didn’t really view seaweed more than edible after a few past bites of Trader Joe’s Roasted Seaweed Snack and sushi rolls. But in Hakodate, it seemed an obsession. Seaweed was covered in numerous lectures, served in daily meals, and on display in museum exhibits and television. It was a pervasive commodity, and one I had underestimated as a valuable resource and surprisingly tasty food. To express my newfound intrigue, I wanted to share some seaweed nuggets of knowledge:

  1. There are nine popular seaweeds in Japan, each with their own uses, tastes, and value: Aonori, Aosa, Umi-Budou, Mozuku, Wakame, Konbu, Hijiki, Matsumo, and Nori.
  2. Kelp harvesting is considered a major fishing activity, and apparently one that pays well.
  3. The carbon absorption potential of seaweed is 5-10 times greater than terrestrial plants.
  4. For those superfood fans, seaweed is high in amino acids and fiber, rich in omega-3’s and other micronutrients, and low in calories.
  5. Seaweed is being touted as a solution to globally high sodium intake; the salty taste of seaweed derives from a high potassium content while low in sodium, where commercial production of potassium salt is being explored.
  6. Brown seaweed provides a more preferable texture and greater nutritional value in making pasta, noodles, and cakes.
  7. Fucoxanthin, a compound found in brown seaweed, has shown both anti-obesity and anti-cancer effects in lab studies and clinical trials.

Perhaps it made a lasting impression on me because I had not expected something like seaweed to be emphasized, let alone significant in Japanese culture. As my attendance at this course was sponsored through SAFS, I anticipated something more strictly fisheries. That is what made this course impactful though. It was so immersive and broad that I always felt surprised at what we were learning.  I had seen and done things I would never do as a graduate student studying fisheries quantitative methods, now and into the future. That doesn’t necessarily imply they weren’t useful either.

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This experience has influenced me to think differently about many things, from personal habits, to work, to the types of issues that matter. My final thoughts reflect on a key issue that motivated the theme of the course; community resilience. Hakodate is experiencing a declining population due to the exodus of adults younger than 30, which threatens the sustainability of its infrastructure, economy, and traditional ways of life. It is similar to the types of issues that motivated me to pursue research in the science of fisheries management, for the communities reliant on fisheries. I was reminded that these communities are indeed worth preserving. As a result of my observations throughout the course, I feel more devoted to my work and the people impacted by it than ever before.

I can’t express how grateful I am to SAFS for sponsoring me, to the faculty and students at Hokkaido University for hosting me, and to our instructor Tony Chittenden, who coordinated the entire experience. Thank you.

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