Why Travel Now as a Student?

Japanese university students have some of the longest school breaks known to many. Spring break is typically from February to the first week of March, and Summer break is from August to late September. With two months in their hands and no school work to be done, what is a student supposed to do with all that time? One suggested activity is to do volunteer work. There is a variety of numerous volunteer work you can do in Tokyo, and you can check out some of your options and guidelines here

Your school breaks are the best time to volunteer because it will not be scheduled on days when you have class, or when you have school work to do.  Also, if you like traveling during your vacation but want to try doing some volunteer work, the best solution is to travel for volunteer work. How you ask? Besides regular volunteer programs that require you to become a member and participate regularly, there are also some programs that are offered either once a year or more, and they are held in different places in Japan.

This year, I participated in a volunteer program that focused on tourism development in the rural town of Urahoro in Hokkaido, Northernmost of Japan. This gave me the opportunity to travel with airfare, land transportation, and accommodation expenses shouldered by the program, to discover a new place that is not a typical tourist destination, and to engage in meaningful volunteer work.

The Warmest Four Days of Winter in Hokkaido

Around the end of my fall semester in my first year as a university student, my senpai put out a notice on her social media that she was looking for someone who is interested in volunteering for a small town in Hokkaido in February. It was the same town she went to volunteer for during summer, but the previous one was organized by Sosei Partners Boundless, a social business founded by Dennis Chia who also happens to be an alumnus from Waseda university. This social business works together with regional governments, local businesses, and the international community in Japan to contribute to the regional revitalization of rural areas across Japan.

Since I haven’t made any plans for my spring break and I wanted to grab the opportunity to travel outside Tokyo, I messaged my friend and asked for more details about the program. To cut the story short, on February 20, I found myself bundled in a thick jacket and scarf, dragging my suitcase at Haneda Airport alongside the four people who will be with me on this volunteer work. I didn’t know it at that moment yet, but we weren’t just bound for Urahoro; we were bound to have one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences of our student life.

Obihiro Airport in Tokachi Region

Urahoro is a quaint town located in the Tokachi Region of Hokkaido Prefecture. It is on the east of the third-largest island in Japan and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean. It can be reached by a 95-minute flight from Haneda airport to Tokachi Obihiro Airport, and then a 60-minute drive to reach Urahoro. From Sapporo, it is a 45-minute flight, a 180-minute train ride from Sapporo station to Urahoro Station, or a 240-minute drive.

Day One

Futaba Center is a place for students’ activities that also offers accommodation.

When we arrived at Obihiro Aiport, we were met by Komatsu-san and Takahashi-san, the organizers of Urahoro tourism development project 2019. For the first day, we were briefed about the program, spent a few hours going around town, and settled down at Futaba, a pharmacy-store-turned-inn where we were to stay for the rest of the trip. It was one of the first places we have seen in Urahoro where old buildings are renovated and reused for a different purpose. This was a common change in towns in Japan that are experiencing economy and population decline.

Urahoro Shrine
Frozen Dragon Water Fountain at Urahoro Shrine

Day Two

We set out early in the morning to see the “Jewelry Ice” in Otsu beach. Jewelry ice is a natural phenomenon wherein ice formed from Tokachi river flows to the Pacific Ocean and washes up on the beach, glistening like diamonds in the morning light. This Jewelry Ice is one of the popular sights that tourists visit in Tokachi and other areas in Hokkaido.

Our volunteer group posing with the Jewelry Ice

We then headed to the town hall, where we had a cooking class with Reiko-san, a friendly local who welcomed us warmly and taught us to cook traditional food in Urahoro. Part of the program was cultural immersion, and cooking and eating the local food was definitely a must-have experience.

Alex being taught by Reiko-san how to slice the mackerel sushi roll
Group picture with Reiko-san

Followed by a hearty meal, our fieldwork in the afternoon involved going around town again and visiting an inn run by a local, to asses and determine in what ways can it be more tourist or foreign-traveler friendly.

Street View of the local inn

Afterward, we met a group of students who go to a university in Osaka, and are also staying at our accommodation. They are staying in Hokkaido to research and promote agriculture and sustainable industries that locals in small towns like Urahoro venture in. We went with them to Ryushin Onsen, a hot spring in this town well-loved by locals and tourists alike. It was the perfect way to warm and relax after a long day of being busy with the day’s activities. We capped off the evening by eating Gengis Khan (Mongolian barbecue) and trying out deer meat for the first time.

Ryushin Onsen in Urahoro
Genghis Khan, a must-try dish in Hokaido

Day Three

Tokomuro Lab: a space for cultivating new ideas

For the last day of work, we headed to Tokomuro Lab, an elementary school-turned multi-purpose complex that is also a cafe and a meeting place for entrepreneurial work. Managed by Naoki Mimura and his team, the complex has 6 rooms which function as a stylish cafe, a wood makers space, a co-working space, and a kid’s playground. To know more about this place, you can watch this short video here. We visited this site to get an idea of how infrastructures that have lost its purpose can be redesigned for a new one. For small towns like Urahoro with a declining population, there are fewer kids attending school and so some shut down for not having enough students. Facilities like this can be reused like Tokomuro Lab, which is a space that also encourages community engagement and recreational activity.

The old school auditorium
Georgia and Alex with the manager of Tokomuro Lab Naoki Mimura

By noon, we went out to have lunch and was served with Spa-Katsu; a fusion of spaghetti with meat sauce and tonkatsu. This dish originated from a Western restaurant Izumiya in Kushiro Hokkaido. For those of us who are from Tokyo, this dish came as a delectable surprise.

Spa-Katsu served in a hot pan to keep it warm till the last bite.

We went back to Futaba and returned to our work. We spent the whole afternoon brainstorming ideas on how to attract more visitors in Urahoro, and also on what type of visitors will they be: students, elderly, solo travelers, families, foreigners, or Japanese tourists. We also came up with other activities that are suitable for each season and will support local communities and businesses. The final part of our work was translating the official tourism website into different languages: English, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.

(For Urahoro’s Tourism Website, visit :
https://www.urahoro-tourism.com/?lang=en )

After wrapping up work we went to visit one of the dairy farms in Tokachi. For this short trip, Takahashi-san brought with him his two sons Tomo-kun and Shin-kun, who were as excited as we were to go see the cows.

Tomo and Shin playing around the farm

Hokkaido makes up one-fourth of Japan’s total arable land and produces agricultural products that are distributed all over Japan and some exported overseas. Dairy products are one of the popular products from Hokkaido, with the rich flavor of milk and cheese a favorite choice of kids to patisseries. In the farm that we visited, the caretakers shared with us their daily routine, explaining how they would wake up at 4 am to milk, feed, and graze the cows. It was a lot of hard labor, but they smiled as they told us how this livelihood has kept them going for many years now.

Upon returning to Futaba Center we gathered around our last meal there which was Chanko Nabe (Sumo Stew) and talked about the past three days we have had. It was filled with learning a lot about this town, what we can do to help address more social issues like this, and be more sympathetic towards communities in rural areas of Japan.

Chanko Nabe

We stayed up till dawn and drove up a mountain to wait at a cliff to see the sunrise from the Pacific Ocean. It was one of the highlights of the entire trip and it was a simple suggestion made at 4 am by sleep-deprived, slightly inebriated university students.

Looking back at the four days we spent in Urahoro, we were welcomed warmly by every local we met along the way. They let us take a glimpse at their daily life in this endearing little town. It was truly, the warmest four days of Winter I have ever spent.

Marveling at the sunset as I sat alone, unfazed by the below zero temperature.

Small Town with Big Dreams, City Girl with the Memories

To this day, volunteering at Urahoro is one of the best memories I have as a university student. Not only did I get to travel during my spring break, but I also learned so much more than I could within the four corners of a classroom. I learned about social issues that are in dire need to be addressed by the government, businesses, and the community as well. It also made me realize that even though I am from Tokyo, my community is not limited to Tokyo only. I learned that I can be a part of communities like Urahoro’s, and be able to contribute to help revitalize their town or even let it be known to others.

Volunteer work as a student can be tricky with school schedule and workload combined, so if you do get the time to do extra-curricular activities, I strongly suggest volunteering in other places in Japan or even abroad. It is challenging at times, but ultimately it is a rewarding experience.