Timbah Bell: Making home in Japan
Aspenite heads to sister city of Shimukappu to teach English
“Beauty Noted” is a new bimonthly column from Timbah Bell, a former Aspen High School English teacher who currently works as the Aspen Sister Cities English teacher based in Shimukappu, Japan.
The column will highlight Bell’s experiences as the newest teacher in a long line of Roaring Fork Valley locals to continue the partnership between Aspen and Shimukappu.
“054…054” blinked on the screen. My saliva test had come back negative. I was through the last checkpoint after three hours of assembly-line perfection in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Following months of COVID entanglements and a number of unforeseen immigration obstacles, I had finally moved to Japan to work as an English teacher in Shimukappu. It is a joy to be continuing a longstanding partnership between Aspen and its sister city, a rural town in Northern Japan on the island of Hokkaido.
Shimukappu is Aspen’s only sister city in Asia, and I propose that we should get to know it together. Some call Hokkaido Japan’s Alaska: off the beaten path and snowy with less than 5% of the nation’s total population. Shimukappu does not have the international fame of Aspen’s other “siblings.” It does not have Garmisch’s ski resorts, Davos’ World Economic Forum or Chamonix’s climbing. My plan is to spend the next couple years living in town and exploring the region to find out what it does have. I am fortunate to be Shimukappu’s newest English teacher in a long line — three decades to be exact — of teachers hired from the Roaring Fork Valley.
Teachers are not the only link between Aspen and this Japanese outpost. This fall marked the start of the 29th cohort of valley eighth-graders participating in an exchange with Shimukappu. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nine students this year will not make the trip to Hokkaido like almost all of the exchanges since 1989.
But Aspen’s Sister Cities organization is committed to making sure that these students have the most immersive cross-cultural experience possible. I’m excited to contribute to this cultural exchange and bring all of you readers along for the occasion. You are invited to be my adventure partner this winter and beyond, as I warm myself with bowls of miso and go in search of snowy slopes and bike packing routes, all the while learning the language, teaching, and befriending a new community and culture. My storytelling has the potential to reinforce stereotypes or it can serve as a catalyst for more nuanced thinking — just like a well-designed exchange. I aspire to accomplish the latter, and I plan to be vigilant to avoid the traveling Westerner’s stumbling block of exoticizing.
For the last two years, I taught English at Aspen High School and it was a terrific fit. Then, unexpectedly, the opportunity to teach in Shimukappu presented itself on the front page of this newspaper. I have never lived beyond the borders of the United States, so I seized the opportunity to access this new vantage point. The overlapping focuses of this bimonthly column will often be interwoven. First I aim to bring the Aspen School District into conversation with the Shimukappu School District. Education is my wheelhouse and I anticipate stark contrasts that are worth exploring. For instance, I wonder about the value of the United States’ academic calendar that is rooted in students working on the family farm in the summer. Japan, instead, provides students with a continuous academic calendar throughout the year with frequent long weekends and one and two-week breaks. What will be the student, teacher, and parent experience of this different approach?
The second focus will be investigating beauty. Maybe I’ll also dive into Japanese film, food, landscapes, social structures or the way my cashier held my money today. He used two hands to carefully pass me my bills with a slight bow. It reminded me of a college professor’s instruction on the tea ceremony where he urged me to treat light objects as heavy and heavy objects as light. The cashier’s handling of bills brought a gravity to the moment that was disorientingly at odds with my lifetime of perfunctory visits to supermarkets.
A friend in college was the first one to teach me how sharing beauty builds community. On a camping trip together, he taught me a simple call and response. When he saw something beautiful that was worthy of sharing, he would say, “beauty!” My job was to find what he was seeing and respond, “beauty noted.”
I’m on the hunt for beauty over here in Japan, although it is starting slow with a current quarantine in Tokyo. I hope you’ll join me for the noting.
Timbah Bell is an English teacher in Shimukappu, Japan, where he works as part of a longstanding partnership with Aspen Sister Cities. He welcomes your questions, feedback, and assistance in tactfully navigating and immersing himself in Japanese culture. You can find this column read aloud and photos from the adventure so far on Instagram @beauty_noted; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.