English studies in authentic setting

Tim Metcalfe

HUNDREDS of Japanese students have the chance to learn English in an educational village at which they can also experience British culture and traditions.

The village, set on a 24-hectare site, is located a little more than an hour's drive north of Tokyo and hosts 400 students.

It is part of a novel approach to language learning pioneered by the Sano Education Foundation, which runs private colleges in Japan.

Language students even learn how to play crown bowls. Chopsticks are out. Western cutlery is in.

This $40-million student village includes a pub with warm beer, a skittle alley, duck pond and manor house.

Designed by craftsman John Greene, it was completed this summer.

Students can stroll through rose gardens, listen to concerts at the bandstand or laze by an artificial lake.

Among other facilities, there are eight timber-framed student houses, each with a community room and 14 twin study bedrooms, a post office and tithe barn for craftwork classes.

The second phase of the village has been planned and will include a Roman bath (using warm water from a five-kilometre-deep geothermal bore), a second barn, two more student houses and a 'market hall'.

When Mr Greene was first approached two years ago to build a student village in Japan, he thought it was a joke and dismissed the enquiry. He only posted a brochure to the educational organisation which made the proposal.

Then, according to Mr Greene, a couple of weeks later, a bus loaded with Japanese visitors toured his existing building sites to photograph 'everything in sight'.

He later received the go-ahead to start work on a project which is set to make Mr Greene rich.

He has since been offered a $275 million contract to build a typical English town in Japan with 300 homes.

He said: 'They originally wanted it in the Tudor style, like the school project, but shipping out such vast quantities of oak would not have been practical. We have persuaded them to go for Victorian villas instead, built with wood frames and faced with authentic red brick.' Mr Greene has hired a team to find antique, stained-glass door panels, carved gable ends and Victorian-style bath fittings, although the replica homes will differ from the originals in one important respect - they will include space for a Shinto shrine.

'Nothing beats seeing a house which looks as though it has been mellowing in the English countryside for 400 years, knowing it left my factory a month ago,' Mr Greene said.

He started his firm, Border Oaks, 14 years ago with a grant from the Council for Small Industries in rural England and now has a staff of 75.

'By using traditional carpentry skills, we have been able to re-create buildings which appear so authentic we have been told to carve dates on them to avoid confusing future historians,' he said.

'We use oak because it is naturally fireproof and stands the test of time. It hardens and improves with age, unlike modern houses, which degenerate from the moment you move in.

'Modern homes are built to last 40 years. Ours come with a 400-year guarantee. We know they will last at least that long because that is the proven lifespan of the real thing.' Wooden frames slot together like a construction kit and houses do not need foundations.

They are held down by their weight - about 40 tonnes for a three-bedroom cottage - and gravity, or 'God's glue' as Mr Greene described it.

A trained team 'combining the skill of a violinist with the nerve of an oil-rig worker' can put one up in just four weeks.

The homes are also earthquake-proof - an important consideration in Japan.

'Our contract says the buildings must be able to withstand earth tremors, hurricanes and up to two metres of snow,' Mr Greene said.

He said the buildings were so strongly built they could be re-assembled elsewhere.