UAB at Hitachi Kita High School

UAB at Hitachi Kita HS
UAB visits Yatabe-sensei’s English class at Hitachi Kita High School.

June 6 came with a lot of anticipation for me as group leader more than for anyone else in the group as we got to visit Hitachi Kita High School. (Kita means “north,” so it’s basically Hitachi North High School.) Birmingham has sent numerous high school groups to Hitachi over the years, but in July, this school is sending the first-ever high school group from Hitachi to Birmingham. Through an accident of fate, I had the opportunity for three summers in a row to teach a high school group from Narashino, Japan, which is Tuscaloosa’s sister city, not Birmingham’s. I always wanted to offer the same opportunity to students from our own sister city, and this year, I finally can, thanks to a lot of negotiation between Hitachi City Hall and the Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education, the latter of which controls public high schools in Hitachi.

Hitachi Kita
UAB student Carl Cotten with three of the Hitachi Kita H.S. students coming to Birmingham.

The school took our visit very seriously as they are pioneering this relationship with Birmingham which for them is completely new and unknown. When we arrived, they had us observe a Japanese literature class from behind, then visit an English class where we were asked to stand in front and introduce ourselves. The students just listened, they didn’t talk back, as is normal behavior in Japanese classrooms, so I wasn’t sure how much they were understanding us. However, after those classes and a tour of the whole school and their facilities, we were led to a room where the students going to Birmingham, all 13 of them, were waiting for us. After another formal introduction, all 12 of us from UAB (10 students and 2 instructors) sat down with all 13 of them and ate lunch.

Hitachi Kita HS
UAB Japanese instructor Mako Cook with UAB students and some of the Hitachi Kita High School students coming to Birmingham in July.

With just 2 or 3 of them with 2 of us at each table, their students could talk to us in English without having the whole room listen to them as tends to happen in English class. The students were very polite, but as I looked at them, I was imagining how close I would be to them in a few short weeks. We would look back on that first encounter and laugh at how nervous we were.

Bento lunch at Hitachi Kita H.S., just for the UAB visitors.

The school had ordered fancy bento lunches brought in just for us visitors. Their students brought their own bento boxes from home. It was another occasion where food fed our getting to know each other. Japanese all study English from seventh grade on, if not before that, but it is rare to ever use English to talk to a real live native English speaker. The UAB students were very good at making conversation in easy-to-understand English. It turns out that the students, all but one of whom are girls, had to go through a competitive test and interview in order to get to go on this trip.

UAB and Hitachi Kita H.S.
The formal pic. UAB with the Hitachi Kita H.S. students going to Birmingham, their teachers, principal, and representatives from Hitachi City Hall.

Afterwards, the prinicpal of the school, Mr. Takakura, gave a short speech conveying the hope their school is placing on these 13 students and 2 of their English teachers making the trip to Birmingham. The group will be in Birmingham July 10–24, staying most of the time in UAB’s Blazer Hall, although on evenings of July 18, 19 and 20, they’ll be in homestays with local area host families. I am responsible for their English classes and extracurricular activities, and I am organizing local high school and university students to participate with them so it’s truly an exchange. If you are such a student, or know of any who would be interested in making friends with your sister city peers, please contact me, Tim Cook (timcook at uab dot edu). Next summer Birmingham is planning a high school strip to Hitachi, and anyone who can participate with us this year will have a special reason to want to go to Hitachi next year.


Best Shots

Another post out of order. Scotty Colson of the Birmingham Sister Cities Commission, and Bettina Boateng Afari of Channel 13 News, asked me for my best shots, with captions, from our Japan trip. So here are some I liked. There’s no coherent story to tie them together, I just like them, or rather, I like what they represent.

Little Vulcan
Vulcan Statue, standing on a mountain prominently overlooking the city. Sound familiar? This Vulcan, a gift from the City of Birmingham to the City of Hitachi, is a 10-ft replica of Birmingham’s Vulcan.
Sister school sisters
This is what all the business about sister cities and sister schools is about, friendships like this. UAB’s Rachael Thompson and incoming Ibaraki University exchange student to UAB, Yukiko Konishi.
Hitachi Mayor's Office
Hitachi mayor, the Honorable Akira Yoshinari (holding album) and vice-mayor, the Honorable Haruki Ogawa, chatting with the UAB student delegation in the Mayor’s Office.
Welcome party for UAB students to meet their homestay families. All fun and games.
Hitachi welcome party for UAB students to meet their homestay families. All fun and games.
Japanese class
Now say it in Japanese. Japanese class for UAB credit in the lobby of the youth hostel where students stayed in Tokyo. But in reality, the entire country was one big classroom.

First day in Japan

Narita street
UAB students their first morning in Japan, on their way to Narita-san, the famous (in Japan, at least) Buddhist temple.

Sorry readers. This blog got out of order all because I left my phone charging in the hotel we stayed in the first night, May 30, in Narita City, which is where Narita Airport is. I couldn’t get back to Narita until after we got to Tokyo, which was 11 days later. So all while we were in Hitachi and Mito, I was relying on the pictures of others, mostly students. It’s a commentary on the honesty of Japanese that I didn’t really have to worry about the phone. I told the hotel where I left it in the lobby and it was still there charging.

UAB students with UAB instructor of Japanese, Mako Cook, at entrance to Narita-san.
UAB students with UAB instructor of Japanese, Mako Cook, at entrance to Narita-san.

To people who just know Narita as an airport to get to Tokyo, the center of Narita the city, around the Buddhist temple, Narita-san, is surprisingly charming.

Intricate pattern
Intricate pattern on one of the pagodas at Narita-san.

We really didn’t tell the students what to expect there. The hotel is in a typical modern Japanese neighborhood, which the students enjoyed exploring the first night, but then in the morning, as I practiced street directions with them in Japanese, I had them wandering into the neighborhood around Narita-san and bam, we were as if on the set of a period piece from Japanese history. I think it took them a little by surprise, just as it did me when I was taken there the first time.

Grounds of Narita-san Temple.

So my little pitch for Narita tourism. If you ever have the chance to go to Japan, and you land in Narita, as the majority of international flights to Tokyo do, take the train that leaves from inside the airport (either JR Line or Keisei Line), get off at Narita Station, and hike the pleasant walk up to Narita-san Temple. It’s worth a trip in its own right, even if you weren’t going to go right past it on your way to or from Tokyo.

The Great Pagoda, a recent (1984) addition to Narita-san, stands on a prominent hill overlooking the city.
The Great Pagoda, a recent (1984) addition to Narita-san, stands on a prominent hill overlooking the city.

I’d like to teach the world to sing

Residents of Hitachi singing songs in shape notes.

Anyone who grew up in rural Alabama surrounded by parents and grandparents that grew up in rural Alabama probably knows about shape-note singing. It’s one of those quintessentially Southern things that prove one’s Southern bona fides. At least that used to be the case. Shape-note singing, maintained in the South with tender loving care since the early 1800s, has taken off in other places in recent years, and they just might take off in Japan. On this trip, a Church of Christ in Hitachi asked me to conduct my second shape-note singing workshop in Hitachi, the first being two years ago when I brought another UAB student group. That’s what the notice below is notifying, with the background picture taken from the Alabama Rotunda Shape-Note Singing when it used be actually held in the Rotunda of the Alabama State Capitol.

Advertisement for shape-note singing workshop in Hitachi.

Most people associate shape notes with the religious tunebooks that use them, like the Sacred Harp, the Christian Harmony, and the newer convention singing books. However, there’s nothing inherent about shape notes that they need be limited to nineteenth-century rural Southern Protestant church singings. Basically if a song can be written in notes, those notes can be converted to shape notes, which, for people who can’t read music, are much easier to teach than regular round notes. If shape notes were taught in public school, people claiming they can’t sing would be as odd as claiming they can’t sing or blow gum. And if everyone could sing together in four-part harmony, it would be very hard to get angry with them. So, by extension, as I always say, “Shape notes for world peace!”

Omika Church of Christ
Tim Cook leading the singing at Omika Church of Christ, Hitachi, Japan.

While this time, I didn’t bring with me any actual Alabama shape-note books, I did take the liberty of copying a few songs from the Christian Harmony, written in the Aiken system of seven-shape shape notes, and the Cooper Edition of the Sacred Harp, which I transposed from its four-shape system to seven shapes. I also transposed some old Japanese songs from the Meiji era (during the reign of the Meiji emperor, 1868-1912), when Japan first started opening up to the West in both good and bad ways. I like to think four-part harmony was one of the good ways. The song below used to be taught in public school in Japan, so when I sing it these days, only older people light up with nostalgia and join in. The song is called “Ryoshuu,” which is a word that expresses the feelings of longing that one has when visiting one’s hometown after a long time away.

shape notes
The Meiji-era song, Ryoshuu, in shape notes.

Ever since I had my first set of shape-note workshops in Japan in 2012, I’ve had the feeling that, while Japanese might not know it, they’re just waiting for shape notes. Japanese schools place more emphasis on music education than do American schools, and it’s common for Japanese to know solfege. That is, if you tell them what the notes are—do, re, mi, etc—they can sing the song. So by teaching them shape notes, I was basically just attaching a shape to something they already knew. Both they and I are amazed that in less than 30 min from the moment I say my name, I have Japanese singing a song in unaccompanied four-part harmony. Maybe someday we could have Japanese teach Americans how to sing.

Young people, including UAB student Rachael Thompson, at the shape-note singing.

UAB at Ibaraki Christian University

UAB and Ibaraki Christian University students at the supermarket to buy ingredients for dinner.

Our first three days in Hitachi we spent at Ibaraki Christian University. We became sister universities in 2012 for the mere fact that they’re in Hitachi and UAB is in Birmingham, but that was more or less just an excuse to make more friends. This is the second time for us to bring a group of UAB students to visit their campus, and just like before, they were exceptionally hospitable. One of their English classes spent their own money to have a party to make Japanese food together with us. They made our students use their Japanese to go buy ingredients at a local supermarket, which they then brought back and cooked together.

Ibaraki Christian University and UAB students making okonomiyaki together.

Eating food together is always a good way to get people to feel friendly with each other, but making it together and shopping for it together is even a better way. The two dishes they made were okonomiya, a dish which looks like a big pancake, but is not sweet and instead has mainly cabbage and octopus meat in it, and takoyaki, octopus balls. Those are typical Japanese party foods, sort of like what pizza and hamburgers are to Americans.

Making takoyaki, Japanese octopus balls, with IC students.

The American English teacher of the class who made the food with us, Patrick Stephens, twisted some arms to even let us stay in some Japanese-style guest rooms on their campus, just for the cost of changing the linen. I apologized to them in advance for when their students might come to UAB for 3 days because we wouldn’t have anywhere to put them just for the cost of the linen. Southern hospitality is nice, but as we’ve seen over and over, it doesn’t hold a candle to Japanese hospitality.

IC common area
UAB and Ibaraki Christian University students in a common area next to Japanese-style rooms.

Unless one is invited to stay in a Japanese home, a visitor to Japan might not ever see a Japanese-style room. The main two elements that make them Japanese are tatami and shōji, the former rectangular palettes of woven straw flooring with a slight bounce to them, and the latter sliding panels that act as either the entrance to a room or as movable walls between rooms in the very modular Japanese building style. Japanese traditionally live on the tatami floor and they would no sooner wear shoes on it than Americans would wear shoes in bed. We all slept on futons on the tatami floor, which took a little instruction in how to cover and fold back up to put away.

Japanese-style tatami room with futons at IC.

Sister Cities, Sister Schools

UAB's Michael Norris, meeting exchange student Masafumi Hobo, who just returned back to Japan from UAB at the end of spring semester.
UAB’s Michael Norris, meeting Ibaraki University exchange student Masafumi Hobo, who just returned back to Japan from UAB at the end of spring semester.

Greetings from Japan to folks back in Birmingham. Ever since we’ve arrived, we’ve been surrounded with love and attention just for the fact that we’re from Birmingham and UAB. My wife, Mako Cook, and I are the Japanese instructors at UAB and we’re always scoping out opportunities for our students to talk to Japanese people. It’s this language teacher’s dream to bring students to a country that is in effect one enormous classroom, but even so, it’s hard to go up to strangers for no reason and just start practicing their language. That’s where all our tender care of our sister city and sister school relations have paid off. First, there was Birmingham’s sister city relationship with Hitachi started in 1982, then UAB’s sister university relationship with Ibaraki University that we jump-started in 2010 after a long dormant period, and just this year, Hitachi North High School’s sister school relationship with Huffman High School and the Altamont School.

Yukiko Konishi, new exchange student from Ibadai in August, with UAB student Rachael Thompson.
Yukiko Konishi, new exchange student from Ibadai in August, with UAB student Rachael Thompson.

Before arriving in Hitachi, we stayed in Mito for two nights because that’s where Ibaraki University is. At least that’s where most of it is. Ibaraki University, or Ibaraki Daigaku in Japanese, or Iba-Dai for short, became a sister university of UAB simply because Iba-Dai’s engineering school is in Hitachi, and Hitachi is Birmingham’s sister city. That may sound like a flimsy pretense, but it works for our students of Japanese and their students of English. Two UAB students, Mika Tyson and John Wells, have been at Iba-Dai in Mito this past academic year studying Japanese, while two of their students were at UAB, and two more are coming in August. When our bus arrived at the youth hostel in Mito, the two new students, Yukiko Konishi and Mika Oya, were standing outside waving at us. We knew them from the spring when they and UAB students talked to each other by Skype, so when we met in person, we could just pick up where we left off.

USA sunglasses
Mika Oya and Yukiko Konishi with USA sunglasses, a present from UAB student John Saddekni.

Yukiko and Mika spent most of their weekend with us, showing us their city, even though Japanese universities are still in session and they both had studying to do, even English homework. Even mundane things like walking into a department store were all new experiences for the UAB students, as if they had never seen a department store before. But when the first floor of a department store sells groceries, the second floor has a train station, and the top floor has restaurants, they certainly hadn’t seen a department store like that before.

Bilingual Frozen
Bilingual Frozen at a karaoke hall in Mito.

In the evening, Mika and Yukiko took us to karaoke, a popular activity for young people, and we sang songs in Japanese and English, old and new (me old, them new) as if we had talent. But it didn’t really matter to me what we did. Just to see them and UAB students enjoying each other’s company as much as they did was its own reward. When you get right down to it, that’s all I really want out of this line of work.

UAB and Iba-Dai students at a restaurant in the Mito Station department store, with fans the Iba-dai students gave us.

Being in Mito over the weekend, we couldn’t actually visit Ibaraki University, but we’re going to be doing that this Monday. I’d like to make a push for UAB, but I think all the warm and fuzzy feelings between our respective students pretty much does the job.