What it’s Like Living in Rural Japan

I wanted to live in rural Japan. From research, I knew it would be easy to get Jeremy into a kindergarten in a rural area, as the ones in the big cities are always at full capacity with long waiting lists, and you have to apply to join the waiting list the moment you get pregnant. There are private kindergartens (or nursery schools, day care centers, preschools, creches,  whatever you want to call them), but those are costly. They would cost more than my entire scholarship allowance, which for the record was ¥145,000 per month. Private kindergartens in Tokyo could cost about ¥150,000 ~ ¥200,000 per month or more. The cost for the public ones varies depending on your income tax bracket. For a student like me with no taxable income, the fee is minimum. It depends on the location, but in rural Japan it could be anything from ¥4,000 to ¥10,000 up to a maximum of ¥50,000 for the higher income families. Single parents get cut some slack, the fee I had to pay was… ¥0.

JAIST was perfect for me. Here was an advanced graduate school with high speed internet access, super computers, with programs conducted in English (there was no need to learn Japanese), and best of all, it was located in the middle of nowhere. Nomi City offers great support for parents, even foreigners like myself.

JAIST, surrounded by nothing but nature

JAIST, surrounded by nothing but nature

I’ve been living here for over 4 years and loving it but I’m more than ready to move back into a big city. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of living in rural Japan.

The Good

  1. Nature

You literally don’t have to go anywhere to find nature, we are surrounded by lush forests and several parks, and rows upon rows of rice fields. If you are a nature lover, rural Japan is for you. The air is also fresh and clean, which would be a big relief if you are living in cities like New Delhi, Seoul, Beijing etc that sometimes have smog for days.

2. Quiet

Rural Japan is peaceful and quiet. Only the insects in summer are loud. The cicadas wake you up at 4am in the morning, when the sun comes up in summer. The JAIST campus may be having over 2,000 people during the day, but you would think it’s an abandoned campus save for the occasional hum of air conditioners. I guess Japan in general is just a more quiet country, even in the cities it’s never as loud as it is Nairobi. Only the announcements and jingles at train stations could be considered ‘loud’.

 3. Cheaper Cost of Living

Rent is so much  cheaper than in the big cities. I was living in subsidized student housing, where I paid a rent of ¥17,000 per month for a spacious 1LDK. In a Tokyo university that had been my second choice, the cost of an equivalent room was going for ¥80,000. Kindergarten costs in rural Japan, ¥10,000 for a student with a bit of income on the side, for example; while in Tokyo, would be impossible to get into a public kindergarten halfway through and private ones cost ¥150,000. I would say the cost of groceries is about the same though; the biggest differences in cost are rent and childcare. Even if you don’t have kids, you can save a lot more in rural Japan.

4. Fresh Food and More Delicious Sea Food, especially in Ishikawa Prefecture

The say sushi in Tokyo is unpalatable. The sea food, atrocious. If you want a good meal in Tokyo, go for the meat, but not the sea food.

Here in rural Japan, even the sushi in kaiten-zushi (kinda like the fast food of sushi) restaurants is really tasty.

If you are coming to Japan for the first time, of course all the food will taste strange to you. But after you have been here  a while, you will start to appreciate the taste and enjoy the fresh sea food this side of Japan has to offer.

Ishikawa Prefecture

Ishikawa Prefecture

5. Relatively Safer

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Rural Japan is even safer because well, the population is a lot lower and everyone seems to know everyone. In the supermarket, if I get separated from Jeremy, I don’t panic. It happens for example, when I am deciding which type of cooking oil to buy, something that would not be of interest to a preschooler, and he goes exploring the toy section. I know I will find him at the aisles of interest to kids. Now that he is older, he sticks by my side as I involve him the shopping decisions. In Tokyo, I would definitely be worried if he went missing from my side.

6. More Friendly

It feels to me that there are more friendly people in rural Japan than in the cities. If you are asking for directions, people here are more likely to stop what they are doing to direct you. I guess the pace of life is slower and the stress levels are lower, so that could be a contributing factor. I have experienced more than my fair share of hospitality and help from a lot of Japanese people here. Specific examples include the fact that I am currently “home-staying” with the Nishikawas as I save for the move to Tokyo; my coworker is helping me with the moving preparations, one time my friends and I planned to walk to a nearby waterfall but an older lady and her daughter drove us there in their cars (that was before I got a car), and so many more.

So with all these, why would I be willing to move from Rural Japan?

The Not-so-Good

  1. Limited Job Opportunities

This is one of the main reasons even Japanese people are leaving their rural prefectures for Tokyo or Osaka. Career opportunities for non-Japanese speakers are even more limited in rural areas. The population in Japan is declining, but even more rapidly in the rural areas, read more about this in the Atlantic (Can Anything Stop Rural Decline?). Even if you got a job here, career growth would not be assured.

2. No Social Life

Yes, it is true. Life in a rural area is boring, even more so in Japan. I used to be quite the social butterfly in Nairobi (back then, I would never have described myself that way, but comparing the me now to the me back then, that is accurate). There is only one restaurant that serves as both a cafe and bar next to JAIST. There is literally no place for students to just hang out after the lab work is done, which it never is. Jeremy has so much more fun than me, there is no lack of parks and playgrounds for kids. I like parks too, but once in a while I would love to hang out with just adults of my own age, grouch about life in general and laugh at adult jokes. And I don’t want to do it seated on the floor of an izakaya chugging beer with a cloud of smoke hanging above my head.

Smoking is allowed indoors at Izakayas, (Japanese beer dens?)

Smoking is allowed indoors at Izakayas, (Japanese beer dens?)

Don’t even get me started on dating. It is hard enough being in Japan (they themselves aren’t dating each other, reports the guardian: Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” is part of a looming national catastrophe.); but now I am in rural Japan; and then I am a foreigner (scary); a black foreigner (even more scary); got a PhD (is that intimating? I don’t know); single, never married, parent (a strange concept here); and over 25. Well, I did a whole post about it. Most of my friends also graduate and leave, it’s hard making new friends and then watching them leave. I wish there was some kind of permanence to it all, like the kind I had in Kenya.

I also worry about Jeremy growing up black here, he already knows the vocabulary “gaijin” which means “foreigner”. In Japan, human beings are divided into two groups, Japanese and foreigner. I don’t think it has ever occurred to them that they too, are foreigners to the rest of the world. If you told a Japanese kid or even some Japanese adults that if they went abroad, they would be the “gaijin”, it wouldn’t register. But this is a topic for another day.

3. Inconvenient Access by Public Transport

I wouldn’t actually cite this as a problem for me specifically as I have got a car and can pretty much go anywhere I want, whenever I want. You need a car to get around in rural Japan. If you have a sick kid that you have to take to the hospital, the playgrounds, or if you yourself need to get anywhere, access by public transport is quite limited.

There is an obsession with cute culture in Japan, but it definitely works on this bus.

There is an obsession with cute culture in Japan, but it definitely works on this bus.

4. Kiss Anonymity Goodbye 

Most people are quite well meaning, so it is not like the gossip is malicious. The longer you stay in rural Japan, the more you start to get known and thus famous. People will discuss what they saw in your shopping tray at the supermarket. You are basically a local celebrity. Here is a quote from this blog about the best and worst of living in rural Japan (which actually inspired this post):

 If a foreigner is so foolish as to set their foot on one of those villages, they should prepare to face dire consequences: unblinking eyes that follow you everywhere, recording even the slightest gesture; incessant questioning about the reasons that brought one so far out of their city and into this piece of god-forsaken paradise, where even time seems to flow slowly; gossip that revolves around how alien the foreigner looks, how alien their movements/gestures are, as well as the villager’s interpretations on the reasons behind the foreigner’s stay in the village (that range from being a spy or a runaway convict, to other, darker themes); and of course, these random acts of kindness like finding fresh chicken eggs, or cheese, or vegetables at your doorstep in the morning, that make rural areas so special, revolting and lovable in equal measures.

When you are new, you won’t know what’s going on. After a while, and if you speak Japanese, then you will start to realize just how famous you are becoming. This could be a good or bad thing. I definitely would like a little anonymity sometimes 🙂 The good is you get invited to a lot of events and you experience countless acts of kindness, the bad is that you have to give up some privacy.

 

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7 Responses to What it’s Like Living in Rural Japan

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! I really enjoy your blog. I’ve been considering the pros and cons of living in a rural area of Japan if I am placed there for a job, or decide to attend a school in a small town. This helps so much!

    Like

  2. PePa. says:

    This was a good read SK I must admit.A different twist in writing,I guess you should read my coffee house tales in SKETCHES OF DIVERSITY,should bring you back to Kenya for a while,or FIRESIDE STORIES: this should be sketches from my past,this would evoke your emotions about home husnayot.wordpress.com ;Beautiful piece you did there SK

    Like

  3. PePa. says:

    This is an amazing piece @SK ,actually never pictured some of these countries’ rural set ups as that enthusing but I love this.

    You should read my blog husnayot.wordpress.com and get that feel of home again;one for example is THE SKETCHES OF DIVERSITY:Tales from a coffee house ,or FIRESIDE STORIES:sketches from my past which would evoke your emotions about home.

    Like

  4. Ruth says:

    very Interesting piece you shared Savvy but good luck with your new home!

    Like

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