When Dominik Kosik—CEO of Akita Inaka School—told his business partner that he was planning to open a language school in the middle of rural Akita Prefecture, the reply he got was one he’d heard many times before:
“Are you crazy? Who would want to study in the Japanese countryside!”
But after spending just a few days in Kosaka, Dominik knew this was the one. This sleepy town, with its lime green rice paddies and dark emerald mountains, was the perfect place to set up a completely new type of Japanese study program.
Structured around the seasons, the courses would be part language-learning, part deep cultural immersion—which meant placing students in an environment where they were essentially forced to engage with the local way of life.
But when the first program launched in summer 2019, he couldn’t have imagined how integral the school’s picturesque locale would be to its success—and future appeal. Students embraced the quiet Japanese inaka (countryside) wholeheartedly, making friends with the neighbors, joining town events and learning local crafts.
“One of the students even adopted an Akita Inu dog and took him home to Canada,” laughs Dominik.
Since the opening, Akita Inaka School has welcomed people from countries across the world into its pocket of paradise in northern Japan for summer and autumn courses. Now, the school is inviting applicants to its winter course, running for four weeks from February 3 – 28, 2020.
Akita Inaka School: More than a language program
First and foremost, Akita Inaka School is a school for learning Japanese. But what sets it apart from other language schools is the unique learning method, one which starts in the morning classes and continues into the immersive daily activities in the afternoon.
Classes run from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. They take place in an old elementary school that was refurbished into a community space by the local council. Charming wooden chairs and desks, chalkboards and brightly-painted hallways make students feel like they’re in a real-life anime.
When they look out the wide windows, they can see the rich swathes of forest the make up the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.
Typically one teacher will work with a class of up to 12 students, with help from a teaching assistant who often is a student or a high-schooler with dreams of becoming a Japanese teacher themselves.
“We focus on very practical Japanese that students can go out and use in Kosaka,” says Yuji Kosenda, a young teacher from Sapporo who runs his own school for Japanese teachers, and joined Akita Inaka after being won over by the town on his first visit.
In the classroom, Yuji sensei encourages students to converse with newly acquired vocabulary and sentence structures, getting them to think on their feet in a fun, friendly atmosphere. As students have varying levels of knowledge, the school focuses on improving communication skills and the ability to improvise, rather than memorizing grammar rules in a textbook.
“I like the lesson style a lot. It’s low pressure and friendly. We live together so we can practice together at home. There are no tests or competitions,” says Dai from Thailand. She came to Akita Inaka School for the two-week autumn course as part of a productive holiday—and some “much-needed me-time” away from her husband and teenage son, she explains with a wry smile.
Practice the Japanese you preach
Once classes are over, it’s time for students to immediately practice what they’ve learned. The school organizes a ton of special activities that range from calligraphy practice to paddle boating on nearby Lake Towada to onsen (hot springs) to visits to the local junior high for a language exchange.
On the weekends when there are no classes, students get to do a farm stay which involves cooking dinner and sake tasting (for which Akita and the wider Tohoku region is well-known).
“The farm stay activity is one of the best experiences for students,” says Dominik. “They get to have dinner with the family and practice their Japanese. In the morning they make breakfast with all the products from the farm,” he adds.
Many of the immersion activities end up coming about organically. Neighbors, shop and restaurant owners, school pupils and friends of friends contact Dominik and his colleagues Misa and Sayaka to organize meetups.
On the day of my visit to the school, there was an impromptu pot luck dinner at the boys’ share house.
Study Japanese this winter in Akita
For the winter course, the team has several activities in the works to make the most out of Kosaka’s thick, powdery snowfall. Several ski areas are within easy reach of Kosaka, as are the famous “snow monsters” (trees that take on mysterious forms when covered with snow and ice) at Mt. Moriyoshi in Kitaakita.
Akita is well known for its fantastic winter festivals including Towada Winter Festival, featuring fireworks, festival food, and an igloo bar; the Mochi Festival, the Snow Candle Festival, and even a “Naked “ Festival where mad locals run into the river at midnight wearing only fundoshi (cotton thongs). Student participation is not mandatory just in case you were worried about that one.
Students will also have the chance to play with adorable Akita dogs in the snow, bathe in a secluded secret onsen, join a pottery class, see a kabuki theater play and try a traditional tea ceremony.
Aside from all the extra-curricular fun, the school believes students have a rare opportunity to experience rural Japanese life in winter—including all the wonderfully wintry aspects like kotatsu (a low table covered in a blanket with an electric heater underneath) and winter foods such as nabe (hot pot) and hot sake.
“Some potential students are worried about coming in the winter with the snow and cold but it’s actually a really magical time to be here,” says Dominik.
Make lifelong friends and memories
For the students I spoke to, one of the most positive parts of the Akita Inaka School program was each other. Staying together in a large traditional Japanese house (one for boys and one for girls), students become like a family; living, studying and commuting to and from school together.
Spaces on the course are deliberately limited to 24 total students to maintain this familial tight-knit sense of community.
“Other schools concentrate on getting as many students as possible. But we try to provide a personalized experience so that each student can really have a rewarding time here,” says Dominik.
Though the school has only been open for just a few months, former students have already returned to Kosaka to pay their second home a visit. Heather, a film producer from Los Angeles, has been to Kosaka twice and plans to return for the winter course. She’s making a documentary about the school and life in Kosaka.
“I’ve just fallen in love with the place,” she says.
Give back to Kosaka’s local community
With a population of just over 5,000 people, the comings and goings of a group of foreign students to Kosaka hasn’t gone unnoticed. But that’s exactly where you’ll find the most heartwarming evidence of the power of international exchange.
“People here stop and talk to you. Locals just show up at the door of the share house with some fresh fruit or seasonal food they cooked,” says Heather who’s just about to go and make takikomi gohan (mixed rice) with the elderly lady who lives next door, though she doesn’t speak a word of English.
“We give students free time as well and it’s great to hear stories of how they got lost wandering in the town and somebody just invited them to their house for dinner,” says Dominik.
Apply now to study at Akita Inaka School
“Even locals say to me, you are crazy, why do you want to be in Kosaka?” says Dominik. “They can’t understand at first how foreign people can fall in love so easily with this place. But when they talk to our students they can appreciate how special Kosaka is.”
As for me? After only two days in Kosaka, I was captivated and am itching to return. It looks like I might be a little bit in love, too.
If you’d like to experience it for yourself, Akita Inaka School is now accepting applications for its winter course. Find out more and apply on the Akita Inaka School website.
You can read about the two-week autumn course mentioned above in a previous article on GaijinPot Blog.
Text by Rebecca Quin.