The Hokkaido International Foundation (HIF), based in Hakodate, is a group with the mission to bring the Hokkaido prefecture of Japan a little closer to the rest of the world, and the rest of the world a little closer to the Hokkaido prefecture of Japan. To that end, it sponsors an intensive summer language course for students of the Japanese language. The program accepts students from dozens of countries, drawing from Europe, Asia, and Oceana, but usually around 50% of the students hail from the United States. Also, most of the students are college-age, but there are always a few older types along as well.

The summer course, which runs from the second half of June through the First half of August, with a 4-day break between its roughly month-long semesters, is divided between five different levels of ability (Basic, Intermediate-1, Intermediate-2, Advanced, and Super-Advanced), with the lowest level assuming that the student is really only familiar with hiragana and katakana, and the higest levels delving into the study of literature and obscure vocabulary terms such as woof and warp, as they apply to the practice of weaving. Average participation tends to be about 10 students per instructor. All this for a little over 2000 USD.

The day schedule of the year 2000 HIF summer program (the year I attended) would go like this:

9:00 - Class begins.
12:15 - Class ends.
12:15~1:00 - Lunch served in cafeteria
1:15~3:00-ish - Most days, some sort of optional seminar is offered. Lectures by Japanese professors (usually very interesting), or cultural programs like shodo or haiku or igo or origami (your mileage may vary).

Homework consumes a large portion of one's evening after returning home to one's host family. Most of it due to kanji practice and grammatical practice. Two to three hours per night was not unusual.

Also of note is that Hakodate sits on the same latitude, roughly, as Madison. Indeed, the island of Hokkaido has been called the Wisconsin of Japan, partially because of its famous massaged, beer-fed cattle, but also because of its low temperatures. However, since the program takes place during the hottest part of the summer, cold will not be a problem. Temperatures tend to range between 25 and 30 degrees Celcius, or for my fellow Americans, mid 70's through the low 90's, always with heavy humidity. This is important to note because most houses do not possess air-conditioners in any rooms (although most do have heaters). My host family had only a single fan in the entire house. You will sweat, but so will everybody else.

Most every student in the program felt that their level of course was quite challenging. I personally like to refer to HIF as "Japanese bootcamp," because it goes fast, and getting left behind is simply not an option. You WILL learn Japanese, student.

Although there is no class on the weekends, HIF often has optional events, ranging from assorted picnics in some of Hakodate's beautiful parks, to a trip to Onuma onsen (highly recommended), and an invitation to join in a sports festival in Aomori (highly recommended). Finally, there is a tradition of students helping to carry a big wooden shrine in a parade as part of the summer port festival (highly recommended).

HIF's summer langauge program is still fairly young, and there are still some kinks left to work out. Perhaps the largest problem my fellow students and I encountered during the summer of 2000 is that the school tries very hard to fill the students' days with all kinds of cultural experiences. Although culture is a good thing, it cuts down on the opportunities students have to explore Japan and all its splendors for themselves. As such, my own experiences cause me to suggest that students not make the HIF program their only study-abroad experience. However, as an intensive language course, it functions very well, making it a good precursor to a semester abroad at a Japanese university. My experience seemed to indicate that students, having taken between one and three years of college-level Japanese were able to solidify their previous knowledge, and add a decent amount on top of that.

Fun facts to know and tell!

  • The founder of HIF is also the woman who owns all the Mister Donut franchises in Hakodate. That's why there are always boxes of "Misudo" donuts at HIF functions.
  • During the summer of 1998, one student started having an affair with his host-mother (both were in their 30's). She eventually left her husband, and the student moved back to Hakodate and married her. They applied to become a host family, but were rejected. HIF denies this, but it is true.
  • Most of the host families for HIF have been doing so for a few years, and have lots of stories about the worst students they ever had. These stories tend to come out at the weekend picnics, so practice those evesdropping skills.
  • The trip to Onuma onsen, which happens early in the program, is turned into a gigantic drinking binge every year, assisted by the beer vending machines right next to the sleeping cabins. Even the sensei will join in, don't be afraid, it's good for bonding purposes.
  • The "akafundoushi" worn in the parade is essentially a thong made out of rope, but it's worth it. Trust me.

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