Aspen Sister Cities seeks teacher to carry on decades-long partnership in Japan
Teaching in Shimukappu is “an experience of a lifetime,” coordinator says
For nearly three decades, Aspen Sister Cities has dispatched English teachers to Shimukappu, Japan, to participate in a longstanding tradition of cultural exchange between the mountain towns.
“It is an experience of a lifetime,” according to Shimukappu city coordinator Kamala Marsh — and a search team from Aspen Sister Cities is eager to find the next person who will seize the opportunity as soon as possible.
Aspen Sister Cities hopes to find a teacher who can commit to two years in Shimukappu; though several applicants have shown interest in the role, those who were offered a position had to decline for personal reasons.
Ben Belinski, the current English teacher, had initially planned to wrap up his time in Shimukappu in March; a change of plans allowed him to extend his stay through May while Aspen Sister Cities continues the search for a new candidate here in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The clock is ticking ever closer to crunch time: the visa process can take one to two months once Sister Cities hires an applicant, so even if they find someone in the next week or so, there may be a lapse between when Belinski’s tenure concludes and the next teacher’s begins.
A college degree and native fluency in English are the sole prerequisites for the program, but it’s handy to have some knowledge of Japanese language and culture, some familiarity living in a small rural community and teaching experience.
Also helpful: an adventurous spirit and an eagerness to learn, Marsh said. Belinski likened the experience to being thrown into the deep end of the pool.
“It’s come with a lot of language and cultural expectations that I’ve had to really quickly adapt to, but I think I have a lot of resources here and people who are willing to help me do that, so that always has made me feel really supported,” Belinski said.
The desire for rural small-town living is key, Marsh emphasized: Shimukappu has a population of around 1,200 people. The grocery store is the size of a small market; most community activity takes place in only a few hubs in town.
The salary — around $2,500 to $2,700 per month — is competitive among other English teaching positions with similar qualifications in Japan, according to Marsh.
The program provides subsidized, furnished housing for either a single teacher or a couple, and dogs will be considered; accommodations can be updated to meet the teacher’s needs, with the program covering those costs. Health insurance is included, and the program will cover some travel expenses.
For more information about the position, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Traveling and living in other countries, as wonderful and amazing and fantastic as it is, it always gets lonely at some point — you miss certain things from home or you miss certain friends or certain relationships or certain ways of communicating, but that’s just travel,” Marsh said. “It’s not necessarily specific to Japan. Although — this is a small town. … You’re going to have to deal with loneliness from time to time.”
Belinski said he has experienced that loneliness. But part of his experience has been finding ways to spend time alone — learning a new instrument, paddleboarding, going for hikes.
Living in Shimukappu isn’t an entirely isolating experience, according to Marsh. It just takes a bit of outreach.
“The people in Shimukappu are super kind and very warm and friendly once that connection is made,” Marsh said.
Shimukappu is a “tight-knit” community, Belinski noted — a place where his students are the same people conducting fire inspections, helping him use the bank or find ingredients at the grocery store.
“I think in some ways it’s almost like my character has kind of changed here because I’m constantly surrounded by all these people who really care about me and who I have a responsibility towards because I’m a teacher. … It just builds a really cool sense of community when you’re constantly interacting with the same faces that you know so well,” he said.
The organization also hopes to hire someone from the Roaring Fork Valley to continue the longstanding relationship between Aspen and Shimukappu, Marsh said. Someone from the area can share what Aspen is like with people in Shimukappu and in turn bring their experiences back stateside.
Belinski is grateful to be a part of that tradition, he said.
“I am so ridiculously thankful for the Sister Cities connection because it has continued to make me feel and remember and reflect on the fact that this is a community that is an extension of Aspen, and it’s connected through some crazy, completely human-constructed way, but we’ve all decided that this community is going to be meaningful to people, with Aspen and Shimukappu,” he said.
“That’s continued to give me a sense of home this whole past year and make me feel grounded here, and be able to really connect to the people and make friends — because I know it means something.”
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Come Tuesday afternoon, the Aspen School District Board of Education has some goals to set. Members will review their draft priorities for the 2021-22 school year and, if all goes according to the agenda, they’ll approve them, too.