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Big Fish, Small Pond: Finding Purpose in Rural Japan

City life isn't for everyone. Here's how I found my place in rural Japan with a bit of luck and skill.

By 5 min read

As a young adult, my dream was not unlike many others longing to live in Japan: move to a big city like Tokyo, work and live there, speak Japanese. For those who have the grit, drive and talent, this path may very well be attainable. However, my goals changed quite a bit.

As I grew older, I realized that I was not too fond of the hustle and bustle of big cities. Moreover, the competition for work sounded stifling and soul-crushing. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and even the colder cities of Hokkaido can have a superabundance of skilled foreign workers—typically with impressive Japanese skills. Thus, I considered my chances in the rat race slim.

However, I was able to land a job at an eikaiwa (English conversation school) in a semi-suburban neighborhood in the Hokkaido city of Sapporo. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted from my life here. Still, it opened the door to something better and—thankfully—my career in Japan didn’t end there.

An unexpected offer

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Even chilly Sapporo can feel too busy.

By chance, and after nearly five years of working at an English school, I received an offer via LinkedIn from a doctor to work for him at a private clinic in Shinhidaka, almost two hours south of my home at the time. I had never met him before, nor had I applied for the job previously. Hence, the offer was surprising.

He said my bilingual English and Japanese skills, customer service experience and physical proximity to his clinic made me a prime candidate for a position at his clinic. It was a great offer. However, proximity was a huge factor because this clinic is in a relatively rural part of coastal Hokkaido. Thus, this was a significant caveat for other foreigners to work there.

I’m the only bilingual gaijin in the area.

To many foreigners, the big cities are where the action’s at, and convincing someone to uproot themselves and move to a small town can be somewhat of a hard sell.

At first, I wasn’t sold on the whole idea myself. My English teaching job was secure and my wife had been comfortably working at the same office for nearly a decade. The doctor, however, drove a hard bargain with benefits and better pay. After much deliberation, we decided to accept. I had, after all, been looking to finally get out of English teaching for a few years and find a job where I could actually use my Japanese.

Hence, we moved to Niikappu, a small town neighboring Shinhidaka with just under 6,000 residents.

Settling in, scoping out

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It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of decision.

After settling in, we needed to familiarize ourselves with Niikappu. One immediate concern was our lack of food options. Since our little town doesn’t have a supermarket, we either visit the town’s only two konbini (convenience stores) or take the 15-minute drive to Shinhidaka.

Now, however, the peace and scenery more than make up for the lack of convenience. For example, just a five-minute walk from my home is a beautiful view of the sea—something I’d never experienced before. And something I couldn’t experience while living in the city. I even spot horses roaming about. Niikappu is famous for its old imperial horse ranch, and horseback riding is still a popular activity.

Local talk

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Shinhidaka’s Nijukken Road is a popular cherry blossom spot.

When not at work, I spend a good part of my weekends looking for outdoor parks such as Hangandate Forest Park and getting the local experience with my son. These are the best opportunities to speak with the locals, specifically: other parents. Children aren’t burdened with formalities and just start playing with each other on the spot. I find these interactions extremely interesting, informative and satisfying.

I’ve also met some of the kindest people in rural Japan. It feels quaint but in a good way. I’ve since realized that foreigners in this area are far rarer than I’d initially realized and perhaps meeting a foreigner here spurs the locals to express more generosity than they otherwise might have. For example, some of the older folks bring up conversations about the town and ask where I’m from or offer my son treats.

I’ve learned all sorts of things about the area from them, such as Shinhidaka’s Nijukken Road, famous for rows of beautiful cherry blossoms originally planted to honor the emperor’s visit. Or the enormous clams that wash up on the beach sometimes.

Big fish, small Pond

Niikappu Station

On the job side of things, one of my responsibilities—aside from day-to-day clinic work—is aiding the doctor in his English studies. Part of the reason I was employed was to help keep his English sharp and to help him study for medical exams, which are all in English. 

It really hit me that I was the “big fish” in a small pond when foreigners from other cities came to our clinic who couldn’t speak Japanese. I’m the only bilingual gaijin (foreigner) in the area. As a result, I’m an invaluable asset to the Japanese staff at the clinic as I can translate for them and ask vital questions pertinent to our practice. 

While I realize plain dumb luck had some part in getting me to where I am, I feel like I’ve found a place where I’m needed and provide something to the community that others can’t. If I’d stayed in a big city like Sapporo, I’d have been a dime-a-dozen foreigner, but here I have something to offer.

The takeaway

Admittedly, I know this life isn’t what I’d initially dreamed of when I thought of living and working in Japan. Now that I have this life—someone valuable in a community to which I can contribute, enjoy and grow in—I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. 

If you ever find yourself burnt out by the endless grind and stress of living in the city, perhaps try making a switch to Japan’s rural life. Maybe then, with a bit of luck, the right skills and circumstances, you too could find your own slice of countryside in Japan where you’re needed.

Do you have a similar story? Think city life beats country living? Let us know in the

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