I can’t stand the “weird Japan” genre of journalism. It has an annoying habit of unfairly conflating “weird things in Japan” with “weird things about Japan.” However, on a school trip with a class of second-year middle school students from a small Japanese village, I found something really, truly bizarre, the strangest place I’ve ever been. I wanted to call it the physical manifestation on Earth of the uncanny valley except I can’t use that metaphor because it’s on top of a mountain. It’s surreal.
Have you heard of British Hills?
My trouble starts with just defining the place.
British Hills is part hotel, but an unusually isolated one. It sits atop a mountain in central Fukushima Prefecture, a region most noted for agriculture, demographic decline, and stubborn rural decay. The bus ride over crossed through half a dozen half-abandoned hamlets full of old sheet-metal sheds and boarded-up convenience stores. The most prominent features of the mountain itself were the abundant “beware of wildlife” signs. Basically, it’s in the middle of nowhere, like Japan’s version of West Virginia but without any of the coal to fuel an economy.
It’s is also part resort, but a remarkably dull one. The attractions are limited to a mock English manor, a couple shops, and some outdoor sporting facilities (really though, has anyone ever used the croquet lawn?). It’s hot baths recently closed for lack of use and even the half-maintained nature trail looping around the estate ended in a barrier reading “do not enter” ahead of what were apparently some breathtaking mountain vistas hidden behind a dense stand of bamboo.
Of course, I’m being too cynical. If we believe the promotional materials, British Hills is actually an authentic English village complete with a castle and some quaint country homes. But really, it’s no more a village than Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a kingdom.
Though British Hills falls under the jurisdiction of a real Japanese village, Tenei-mura, the estate itself has few (if any) permanent residents and provides no government services. Many of the international staff, hired exclusively from British Commonwealth countries to give an air of English authenticity and exotic appeal, live on campus. However, most of them work on short-term work-holiday contracts with renewal limits set by law. Meanwhile, most of the long-term Japanese and foreign teaching staff commute in from nearby towns or Fukushima’s largest city of Koriyama, about an hour away.
Most importantly for my students, I suppose British Hills is also part English language school, but as I will explain later, perhaps an ineffective one. On that point, the website describes British Hills as “Japan’s leading English immersion village,” which is the closest I can get to a defining term. However, that immediately raises a question: what the heck is an English immersion village anyway?
A lonely theme park
My first impulse, shared with some of the non-teaching staff I talked with over my two-day stay, is to call British Hills a “theme park.” A pamphlet in my hotel room set the period of inspiration from the 12th century to the 20th, a comically broad range that could cover anything from the squalor of the Black Death to the splendor of the British Empire. I suppose I can take heart knowing that they won’t include the Celts or post-Roman petty kings, but after that anything goes. In practice though, the “theme” looks something like a fantasy, Brit-a-boo imagining of the UK straight out of Harry Potter fan fiction.
And with that Brit-a-boo aesthetic in mind, I kept muttering the word “kitschy” to myself.
The most popular attraction in the park is “Ye Shoppe,” a medieval-architectured general store selling the usual souvenir shop kitsch like British Hills branded clothing, stationary, and decorative knick-knacks. One of my students bought a set of four postcard-sized flags on plastic stands for about £20. When she asked me what they were, she was disappointed to learn that two belonged to Scotland: St. Andrew’s Cross and the Royal Banner of Scotland. Not the variety she had hoped for, I suppose, but at least she thought the Welsh dragon was cool.
[An aside: oh, that odd experience of feeling homesick as an American in an English-themed theme park plunked in rural Japan. The potato chips were called crisps and there was no root beer, but I suppose it’s British Hills, not American Hills. I’ll return to that feeling too, because, to overuse a word, it’s surreal]
The basement sold some kitschy imported foods like Haribo gummies and Toblerone, for somewhere between £3 and £6 a pop under the eye of passive-aggressive posters warning shoppers to *SMILE, don’t steal =)* because they were on camera (I guess at those inflated theme-park prices, they’ve had shoplifting problems?). The adjacent pub had similarly silly prices for food and drink, like £6 for a single glass of Coca Cola. Meanwhile, the vending machine outside sold a bottle of about the same size for the Japan-wide price of ¥160. As a point of comparison, a bottle three times that large costs ¥158 at my local grocery store.
Wondering about those British pounds yet? Yeah, it’s just kitschy Monopoly money, a Disney Dollar-esque commercial contrivance ostensibly designed to improve English-language immersion. In practice though, all of the shops on campus deal in real yen as their primary currency, so the pounds mostly work as a ruse to shave a few extra coins off of visiting students. However, before I caught on to the scheme, one had already exchanged ¥500 for five copy-paper printed “pounds.” He bought a bag of Haribo gummies, but when I asked him about it on the bus ride back, he still had a couple pounds left over. I guess British Hills’ll be keeping his change.
In the currency and everything else, the park is built from the ground-up on a sense of aggressive “English” authenticity. A massive Armstrong gun watches the gate and a statue of Shakespeare sits in the square outside the manor house. Like any good British boarding school, the estate also has an official party per cross coat of arms flanked by two rampant Scottish unicorns over the kitschy Latin motto “pax per linguam.” (My high school Latin tells me that reads “peace through language”). For some bizarre reason, the estate even has its own registered tartan plaid in a display case full of commemorabilia from Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
Each of the hotel houses have kitschy titles like “Newton,” “Chaucer,” “Henry II,” and even “Bentley” *RETRACTION*
to recall the car company (a subsidiary of Volkswagen nowadays. Bask in post-war British splendor!)*RETRACTION*. By contrast, the largest hotel building, which I suppose was modeled after the Tower of London, receives the weirdly impersonal name “Barracks.” In the manor house, each of the rooms have similarly silly names like “armory” (a basic meeting room), “trophy room” (a basic meeting room), and “apothecary” (a basic meeting room). To boost those boarding school bona fides, the buffet dining hall becomes the “refectory,” with Harry Potter-esque long tables placed under another watchful portrait of Her Majesty, the Queen.
**CORRECTION: here, Bentley instead refers to the 19th century publisher Richard Bentley, not the car company. See the comments**
For all the kitschy nonsense though, I don’t want to mock British Hills too much. The place has some real expensive quality to it despite the theme-park excess. Maybe a symbolic anecdote: once, I plopped down on a couch expecting a good, cheap bounce but instead sank in surprise into soft, feathery down.
An instructor told me the whole village was built in imported oak. On every carved log beam, you could see literal marks of careful craftsmanship where builders had left Roman numeral signs to guide reassembly. And yes, you read that right. RE-assembly. Except for the staff housing hidden away in no-access areas behind the public buildings, the entire campus was originally constructed in Britain, then deconstructed, shipped piece by piece to Japan and reconstructed on that isolated mountain in Fukushima. The materials weren’t just imported, entire buildings were.
The same instructor said that the manor house alone cost an absurd ¥1 billion – this time in luxurious mahogany instead of homey English oak. Using historical exchange rates, that comes out to about $8.8 million during construction in 1994 (inflation adjusted, $14.8 million in 2018). I can’t source that number in print, so take that as a rumor, not a fact. However, given the remarkable quality of construction of the other imported buildings like the cake shop, the pub, and each of the hotel houses, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole estate cost in the low hundred million dollars.
Update: this official blog explains that the wooden buildings cost £15 million. With historical exchange rates and inflation, that’s approximately $38 million in 2018. It does not list the price of the manor house, the mock-castle barracks, and the employee housing, which together surely cost much more.
The craziest part of the expense though? One instructor explained to me that British Hills was built by a super-rich family with major real estate holdings in one of Tokyo’s wards, in addition to ownership of a series of language schools and universities. He also said that the family has significant political clout: they purchased the land used for British Hills from the military itself. Apparently, the mountain had once belonged to a nearby Japan Self Defense Forces alpine training ground. The instructor told me that earlier in the day, you could hear gunshots, which I confirmed on the base’s website: during my stay, it had scheduled rifle marksmanship training. Later in the month, it would be using live explosives.
With that story, British Hills began to make more sense. At the absurd expense of literally importing an entire mock-castle, I can’t fathom how British Hills could have a good financial return at any investor-friendly time scale (before even considering overhead for upkeep and labor costs!). However, by framing it as the vanity project of a super-rich family keen on imitating the glory days of the British aristocracy, I can see how they could justify the incredible price tag.
In a fascinating series of promotional articles and interviews, the owner Ryuuji Sano of the Sano Educational Foundation recalls his involvement in construction with British Hills director, Yuuki Kawada (himself a former Mitsubishi vice president and graduate of Gakushuin, a complete kindergarten-through-university once run by the Imperial Household Agency for Japanese nobility. Modern aristocracy!):
“With the furnishing purchase and upholstery material, we arranged as much as possible ourselves. When I send an order to the design company, they send back an outrageous bill. Beause I am the earl (laughs).”
(my translation, with a thousand thanks to a Japanese friend)
It’s a joke about the high cost, but one that perhaps reveals the eccentric fantasy that British Hills is founded on. The interviews go deep into discussion about Sano and Kawada’s family history with the UK and their passion for Britain over other Western cultures (for example, Sano says that America doesn’t have interesting architecture for a cultural park). During construction, British Hills was as much their personal project as it was a future educational institution. They weren’t just chairperson and director. They were Earl and Steward.
On that, I have just one more indulgent rumor, because British Hills is too strange for me to ignore them. The instructor told me that one year, the estate acquired several luxury sleds, apparently for use in extremely snowy winters reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. However, the guests could not use them and they had nothing to do with the language school business. Instead, the owner’s family visited shortly after for a vacation. They played in the snow for a while before heading back for Tokyo. And with them, the sleds disappeared.
A lonely place to live, work, and study
Where British Hills isn’t ludicrously expensive, it perhaps tries to pass cheapness for authenticity. The hotel rooms were a flashback to my worst college years in creaky old dorms cursed with one shared bathroom per floor where students could harass each other (and with a dozen middle school boys… let’s just say they did). The rooms themselves were cold and intolerably dark. The light switch only turned on one shaded bulb, with three more optional desk lamps about as powerful as candles. Feeling that 12th century Black Death vibe yet?
The staff made a big show of the rooms’ metal keys, claiming that they would cost about $60 ~import~ if lost. Ignoring that many of the hotels and dorms I’ve stayed in have charged about that much for replacement fees, the keys just didn’t work well. I had to help several students open their doors and myself got stuck back in a bad college-days habit of leaving the door open with a stopper down to spare myself the frustration of messing with the finicky locks. Worst of all though, the doors did not completely shut. At night, students tried to peak on me through the cracks. I imagine the architects wanted to capture the feeling a quaint rural inn, but given British Hill’s grandiose expense in everything else, I would have preferred more modern amenities.
The selective cheapness especially showed with the staffing situation. I don’t mean to say the quality of service was bad. It was fine. But British Hills certainly seemed strained for quantity.
A bartender in the pub told me that the working holiday staff had severe attrition rates. Some employees lasted only a few weeks before breaking contract and returning to their home countries (because of their proximity to Japan, usually Australia or New Zealand). When I met him, he had been working at British Hills for about a year. Incredibly though, due to the rapid turnover, that made him one of the most experienced service staff on campus. He said that his own Skype interview only lasted twenty minutes. Less than an hour after hanging up, he received an email telling him that he was hired. If that doesn’t demonstrate a desperate labor shortage, I don’t know what does.
The short staffing didn’t necessarily harm the experience, but it did feel odd. For example, the final lunch followed Thanksgiving-style “pass the gravy” rules. In other words, self-service. Like with the useless room keys, British Hills perhaps tried to pass that passing as authentic to English culture, like in an old-timey tavern meal. However, since that sort of medieval dining accommodation simply does not exist any longer in the modern Anglosphere, I think the real reason has more to do with insufficient manpower: the dining hall had just two waiters assigned for around 100 people.
The long-term educational staff seemed about as scarce as the service staff. Though the quality of instruction was superb, there just weren’t many around. For example, some of my students attempted a worksheet activity find the estate’s English teachers and ask them about their hobbies. If they could talk to about ten people in English, they would win a prize. However, none of my students finished because they only ever encountered four or five teachers.
Beyond the scheduled events like lunch, British Hill’s skeleton crew made the place feel less like a living village than a prop ghost town. One receptionist described her job as like living in a zoo: she would try to work while raunchy Japanese middle schoolers gawked after her blonde hair. More often though, she sat alone in the reception room with nothing to do but personal projects, even during the busier seasons. She didn’t mind the free time, but explained that other employees found it extremely boring.
From my end as a guest, I once wandered into the pub to find literally no one. From what I gathered during my conversations with the bartender, it got almost no business, even when adult study groups from universities and businesses came. Like the receptionist, he spent most of his working day idle. He talked to me for a solid four hours and only got six customers: three chaperone teachers from my school who each had a glass of wine, and three students from another school trying non-alcoholic cocktails. I had water, because no way would I pay five dollars for a no-refill soda.
Most of the short-term staff I talked to described life at British Hills in the same way: “on the mountain.” The phrase seemed to combine that initial wonderment at the bizarre estate with a certain cynicism and boredom. Because few of the working holiday staff had cars, they depended on management or friends for everything. To get “off the mountain” and explore real Japanese society, they had to hop on a 40-minute company shuttle to Shirakawa, a small city of 60,000. From there, it’s another half-hour to Koriyama, Fukushima’s main commercial and cultural hub. Sendai and Tokyo, the nearest large cities, are both over two hours away.
That sort of life on the mountain… it seems incredibly isolating, doesn’t it? The loneliness of the place produced an odd contrast between British Hill’s hyper-luxurious village and non-existent villagers. Even after the morning mist dissipated, the emptiness felt eerily palpable.
The bartender told me that many staff that had planned to travel Japan before arriving, but never really had. Instead, they spent most of their free time in their rooms on their computers, playing games and watching comfort TV from home. The mountain might remain fun for a few days to explore the manor house, shops, and pub. But any longer and the place becomes terribly boring. Combined with the rapid turnover for the working holiday staff, it must be difficult to even establish strong relationships with colleagues.
[A self-indulgent aside: by comparison, I’ve lived in a village of 3,000 for over a year now. Despite the small size and language barrier, I’ve managed to establish good relationships with my students, coworkers, and neighboring families to stave off loneliness. However, a resort like British Hills has neither a stable staff nor a stable clientele. How do you make steady friends in that environment?]
Though everyone conducted themselves professionally on the clock, staff dissatisfaction expressed itself in a bizarre gossip session that one off-duty employee dragged me into in the pub. He described wild, consequence-free sex on campus between staff that would be leaving soon anyway. He even lingered too-long on a story about an employee that had been fired for sexual misconduct with a visiting – and underaged – student. I don’t mean any of that as a legitimate complaint of British Hills since it’s just unsubstantiated griping. But it really contributed to that overall empty feeling of the whole place, like something was always “just off.”
From an educational perspective, I’m torn. I don’t think British Hill’s version of immersion language learning works as advertised, especially for low-level students. What is the value for my practically zero-ability students to listen to instructions from an Australian waiter mumbling out words too-fast in a thick national accent that even I sometimes can’t understand? None, if the deer-in-headlights looks and supplementary direction from their Japanese homeroom teachers told me anything. The students may have been well immersed, but they weren’t learning English. If you throw someone that can’t yet tread water into a pool, they will drown. Forget learning to swim.
Instead, the classes at British Hills succeeded because the instructors had superb cross-cultural communication skills. For example, a sports instructor did the difficult task of teaching my students cricket in English only. However, his success spoke more to his excellent non-verbal communication and child-friendly energy than my own students’ English comprehension. They did not suddenly become masters of active listening. They just followed the pointing fingers and copied what they saw. But at school a week later, they’ve all gone back to calling “thumbs” “father finger” (from Japanese oyakubi, oya = parent, kubi = finger). They learned how to hold a cricket bat, but they didn’t learn the accompanying words.
British Hills works best as a con game on the students, recalling the original meaning in “confidence” rather than “scam.” The mystique of British Hills establishes English as the only official language and, despite the bilingual or pictogram signage throughout the park and helpful Japanese staff on standby, many of my students really believed that myth.
It absolutely terrified them.
When I polled the class at lunch the week before departure, only seven of 34 even wanted to go. The rest complained that they would “have to use English.” Fear drove them to study: they were scared enough to ask me to do an extra cram review of survival sentences during a study hall period. In practice though, the only required phrases for the stay were “May I check in” and “May I check out.”
However, even that little English seemed to have worked wonders for their confidence. Over the two-day trip, students seemed much more comfortable speaking to me in English. I managed to convince several mid-level students to approach the service staff with questions and even saw some of the most skilled students ask independently. For the apathetic remainder though, they got to enjoy the break from school in the protective bubble of their Japanese-language friend groups. At the very least, when I polled them on the bus ride back, none of them said that British Hills wasn’t fun. For a middle school class trip, that’s a solid success in my eyes.
However, I am skeptical that British Hills has much use for adult students. The staff described universities and businesses sending students on intensive week-or-longer stays. But considering British Hill’s isolation and lack of interesting attractions, that’s just too long.
Though I criticized immersion language learning for low-level students, high-level students capable of basic conversation might stand to really benefit from that teaching method. Unfortunately, I doubt that British Hills could ever become immersive enough for such long stays. British Hills presents itself as a village, but as I described before, it’s really just an elaborate, isolated resort without much to do. During a stay at British Hills, students will never need to “live” in a foreign language by, say, practicing public transit or grocery shopping. Instead, they will learn a sanitized version of theme-park English, harkening back to an aristocratic age that no longer exists.
At that point, and at British Hills prices (for 34 students and 5 teachers, our two-day stay during the discounted winter season cost my village about $8,500), why not just send the university students to study abroad and the business people to cheaper language schools closer to home?
A lonely authenticity
I’m trying to imagine an American version of British Hills, one with fewer fantastic frills to teach a more modern, internationalized English culture that the typical student or business person might actually use. I could do without any of the nonsense about Scottish butlers and English schoolboy table etiquette, or the instructions to eat medieval tavern style and make up the beds in the hotel house. However, I can only come up with something about as cartoonish as British Hills already is, making me wonder if the whole project of an authentic “English immersion village” is doomed from the start.
Would the cake shop become a 1950s style diner selling donuts and dollar cups of joe? Or would the pub become an Old Western saloon to match the croquet lawn, now a rodeo ground? I suppose the Armstrong gun would become an M60 tank, like you see outside of so many veteran association meeting houses across rural America. Shakespeare might be… Washington? Lincoln? I can’t think of many other American figures that take well to sculpture. And would the shop please sell root beer? (even though Japanese people notoriously hate it because it “tastes like medicine,” as one adult student of mine has put it).
But the more I think about it, the more I think an American version would be awfully boring. Each of the hotels houses would have names like “Holiday Inn” or “Motel 6” and the big Barracks would be a Hilton. The manor house might as well become a shopping mall with meeting rooms named after famous retailers, themselves losing out to completion from Amazon. The Anglosphere has so thoroughly absorbed multinational brands that building an “authentic” immersion village for any English-language country looks absurd. The cake shop wouldn’t be a diner. It would be a Starbucks.
British Hills felt like a foreign land, even more so than Japan itself. Not because I, as an American, find Britain strange compared to America (I’ll call my chips crisps, whatever), but because the theme park stands as such a silly mishmash of ostentatiously “British” things out of fiction as much as history. It stunk of a time and a class that the modern world has left behind, inaccessible even to those with big corporate “new money” like Sano and Kawada, the earl and steward. The visit felt like reading the memoirs of some hereditary duke recalling his mythologized boyhood days at a boarding school during the post-war twilight of the aristocracy. Dress in tails for dinner, remember your Latin, and think of the Queen, old(e) chap!
Maybe that’s authentic to someone, but to such a narrow sliver of life in the Anglosphere that approximately 99.999% of modern English speakers could never relate. It’s a lonely authenticity.
But the strangest feeling was that it’s just… there. A multi-million-dollar British estate sat on top of a mountain in rural Fukushima, attended by so few people that I wondered if the manor hadn’t imported ghosts along with the manufactured ruins of a medieval church hidden away in the Georgian Gardens. Imagine finding a complete, traditional Japanese village in some lost, misty corner of West Virginia’s Appalachian country. I would sooner believe that I had crossed into the spirit world than a promotional pamphlet proclaiming an “Authentic Japanese Language Immersion Experience.”
I’m telling you to imagine it, but I can’t, even after spending two days there. My words are failing me. It’s beyond weird, bizarre, or strange… what the heck is British Hills anyway? A resort and hotel attached to a kitschy theme park? A language school and English immersion village? The vanity project of modern aristocrats trying to imitate the glory days of an irrelevant hereditary nobility?
I suppose it’s some of all of those things. And it’s just surreal.