The snow in Shimukappu motivates my neighbors to wrap even their sturdiest-looking shrubs in burlap to protect the branches from being snapped by the weight of a February storm. Now that it’s May, a vibrant spring has arrived, and with it, the unwrapping of trees and plants in gardens across town. Each wooden support and layer of cloth that is removed adds a bounce to my step as the branches reach for the sun, unencumbered by their winter attire. I’m charmed by the season’s warmth, the chance to wear sandals again, and I’m challenged to understand the beauty of the gardens.
On my daily walks, I pass by gardens in almost every yard. The widely spaced plants are the first sign of something strikingly unfamiliar. Large stretches of meticulously weeded soil separate the greenery. Most of the gardens’ borders are lined with carefully sculpted trees, and there is often an abundance of leggy plants—those with a disproportionately small number of leaves given their tall height. I frequently don’t find the aesthetics to be appealing. But I’m fascinated by the gardens and the gardeners and the beauty that can be hard for me to perceive. The Japanese gardening tradition has a long history of guiding the viewer in appreciating seasonality, negative space, and making time for contemplation.
I see a similarity between local gardeners’ commitment to becoming master pruners and the way students tenaciously pursue their studies. Both are devoted to the single-minded pursuit of a goal. Each garden appears to be a “classroom” for its gardener to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses while continually refining techniques. A walk through town showcases aesthetics as a visual representation of the community’s values.
As an educator, I’m well-positioned to watch students’ values and aesthetic sensibilities grow. One daily classroom practice that plays a significant role is reflection. As much as 10% of every elementary school class block is devoted to students answering how effectively they engaged with the class goal. Generally, there are two components to this written reflection: first, students judge themselves as having completed the goal somewhere between “very well” and “ I couldn’t accomplish” it. Then they share their thoughts in complete sentences. And then they do this four or five times a day, every day.
Last week a 5th-grade student finished English class and reflected in Japanese: “Now I know what to say when exchanging business cards. I can use this knowledge when introducing myself.” For context, swapping business cards is a valued tradition in Japan. She was practicing poise, introspection, and self-awareness, all of which I see woven into the cultural value placed on striving for mastery. Reflecting encourages and challenges students to show up and do their best in each class. They understand their performance relative to their improvement as they attempt to master the subject matter. This is the same path to self-betterment that I see in the gardeners’ pruned trees.
Since arriving in town one-and-a-half years ago, I’ve been grateful to receive invitations to attend various formal ceremonies. At schools, those include graduations, commencements, sports days, and running races. Watching multiple graduation practices and an official ceremony in March, I was struck by how distinct a students’ ceremonial walk is in Shimukappu. Their hands swing from their elbows in precise arcs and they turn at sharp right angles as they march across the gymnasium. While sitting down they keep their hands stiff at their sides with girls creasing their skirts synchronously so that they fold neatly as they come in contact with the chair.
The students’ exacting way of moving points to the attention to detail they are mentored in every day. Teachers are quick to remind students if their posture is not optimal, students’ notebooks are stored in open cubbies in organized stacks, and I often see students orient their pencil cases squarely on the corner of their desks. In the US, some of these behaviors or ways of moving might be humorously viewed as compulsive, however, from what I have seen in Shimukappu, these are the habits of high-functioning individuals. I see this same detailed approach in the linear rows of tulips in garden beds and the perfectly weed-free dirt in my neighbor’s garden.
While living here, I am affected by the same forces shaping my students. I’m getting more deft at jumping between my pre-Hokkaido aesthetic sensibility and the one I’m learning in this new landscape. It seems clear that looking closely at the connections between our convictions and aesthetic sensibilities is essential work. With it, we strengthen our personal philosophies and become that much more adept at creating and appreciating beauty.
Timbah Bell is an English teacher in Shimukappu, Japan, where he works as part of a longstanding partnership with Aspen Sister Cities. You can find this column read aloud and photos from his adventure so far on Instagram @beauty_noted; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.