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4 Tips for Surviving Life in Rural Japan

What is life in Japan's countryside like? How can you deal with the unique challenges of country living if you’re a teacher? Here's what I've learned from my experience.

By 4 min read 3

When I became an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), I was assigned to work in Shimane—the second least-populated prefecture in Japan. Moving here taught me that life in Japan’s inaka (countryside) is very different from living in a big city, and it also showed me wonderful things that inspired me to remain in the inaka for years.

If inaka living is in your future, here are some things about teaching in the countryside you should know.

You Might Need a Car

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But the views will be great.

I had traveled and studied abroad in Japan before moving to Shimane, so I thought I knew what the inaka would be like. For instance, I didn’t plan on driving because I assumed I could go anywhere via public transportation or walking.

One of the first things my new supervisor told me was that I needed a car. I was scheduled to teach at multiple schools—some in very remote neighborhoods—and public transportation in rural regions like Shimane can be infrequent or nonexistent compared to urban hubs.

Driving in Shimane was a major adjustment, but I eventually grew accustomed to it, and having a car gave me freedom. Getting to work was convenient, and during holidays, I drove to places like Himeji and Nagasaki. I also drove around Shimane and discovered things that travelers who stick to urban hubs never get to see (more on that later).

Make Friends The Inaka Way

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You may get dirty.

One difference between making friends in urban areas versus rural regions is that the inaka may offer limited activities or social circles. To make connections, you need to meet your community where it is. There isn’t much nightlife in Shimane, so I couldn’t meet people that way. Instead, I took up activities like mountain climbing and taiko drumming. I also join whatever local events are available, such as festivals, language exchange nights or beach cleanups. I made new friends by doing what the locals do.

Since communities in the inaka are smaller, everyone is more likely to know everyone to an extent. This makes relationships even more important than in the city. Sometimes, this comes with a lot of pressure—especially for teachers where you’re often expected to be a role model for students—but from my experience, if you do your best to be polite respectful and adapt to local life, your community will stand by you.

I finished my job as an ALT in 2020, and thanks to the connections I made, I could later find a job at a local university. My friends have also been invaluable in helping me feel at home and get through situations (even with dangerous weather). Be proactive and get to know your community—it will be worth it!

Learn (Any) Japanese

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Your first lesson is haggling with this guy.

Language resources such as translation services or multilingual information exist in the inaka. Still, they are often more limited than in places like Tokyo, so learning Japanese is usually more necessary. If you are anxious about learning Japanese, know you don’t have to be fluent to see positive results. Just a little studying a day goes a long way to make things easier. Plus, the locals love to see you use Japanese! People are likelier to appreciate your willingness to learn than critical of what you don’t understand.

Moreover, if studying Japanese is your goal, the inaka is the best environment for immersion learning. In well-traveled areas such as Tokyo or Kyoto, it is common for people to speak English to foreigners, even if they would prefer to speak Japanese. In the countryside, you will encounter more opportunities to apply what you study daily.

Through daily practice in Shimane, I passed level N3 of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) within my first year as an ALT.

Treasure the Moment

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The sunset reflecting in Lake Shinji at Matsue, Shimane.

If you have a specific image of Japan, you may be disappointed by the inaka. It will challenge you in ways you don’t expect and give you a different experience than living in the cities. However, it can also be a treasure because it will show you a side of Japan many people don’t get to see. Seek it out and embrace it.

Before moving to Shimane, I tried researching the prefecture, but it still wasn’t enough. Only after I arrived did I learn how important and unique Shimane is in Japan. It’s a hub of mythology and ancient history. About one-third of the stories from Shinto beliefs are said to have occurred in Shimane and its neighboring Tottori Prefecture.

As a culture and history lover, I visited the sites of these myths on weekends. I also saw historical treasures like the excavation site of one of Japan’s largest settlements from the Yayoi Period (about 300 BCE to 250 CE), something I couldn’t experience living in the city.

Every part of Japan is different, and if you learn how to appreciate it for what it is, there is so much to see, do and discover. Just because a place is rural doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent place to live.

What do you think of living in the inaka? What was your experience like? Do you have any tips? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Earl Higa says:

    Is N3 of the JLPT the same as JLPT3? I just ran into a Kanji of that designation. I assume the test included Kanji. Did you have any Japanese language instruction before going to Japan? If not, I’m quite impressed

  • Graham says:

    I enjoyed reading that. Thsnk you

  • Jeffrey Brown says:

    Just because a place is rural doesn’t mean it’s not a good place to live. I would pick a rural area over a suburban or Urban one any day no matter the country. 8 years ago I bought an rural Florida it was beautiful it was exactly what I wanted. 8 years later I am now living in a suburban setting in the exact same place, they have bulldozed all the properties leveled all the trees and built little tiny suburban gated communities. I hate it so bad, exactly what I didn’t want.

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