Surviving the Inaka: The Best and Worst Things About Living in Rural Japan
By Alex Sturmey
Before I moved to the inaka (countryside), I asked someone from my company what it was like living and working there. She paused for a moment and replied with; “Well, it’s the Japanese countryside.” Then quickly added, “but you’re going to have some stories.” Having indeed survived to tell my tale, here are some of the best and worst things about life in the inaka.
Worst: Having to hide in a bush (and other awkward places)
Villages in the inaka are often pretty small and it’s very likely you’ll be easy to spot. I would often run into my students, followed by jeers of excitement and eager bickering as to whether they should follow me.
A friend once told me that to avoid interacting with his students on a Friday night, he hid in a bush when he saw them approach. He said it was all going swimmingly — until one of them found him. He was gifted the name “Mr. Bush” for the rest of the school year.
My students would also somehow find me in the most awkward of places, jumping out of the tall grass like a horde of Pokémon (before the release of Pokémon Go where this is now a good thing). I’d have to dip and weave between side-streets, which added a lot of extra time to my journey.
Best: Random acts of kindness
Between casual interactions with shopkeepers who invited me to eat lunch with them to the ramen restaurant that gave me and my friends free chips once they found out we were from the U.K., my life in the inaka was full of instances of people doing kind things. Even when I got lost in the first few days and asked someone for directions, they, not having a pen or paper, took to drawing a map in the mud with a stick then eventually gave up and walked me home.
However, there were some stranger ones.
I lived next to a graveyard, and the woman who ran it told me that when I died, I was welcome to a spot there.
I didn’t know if she was getting paid by the bodies, and though I was grateful, I did make sure to double-check my windows were locked at night.
Another friend told me that one of his students stole a shirt he was hanging outside. It was returned to him the next day, dried, folded, pressed and cleaned with a letter of apology on top. I like to think it was a kid doubling as a superhero whose powers are to wash people’s clothes in a timely and inexpensive fashion.
Worst: The staring
People staring at you is a certain aspect of inaka life that you’ll have to learn to put up with. The key to surviving it, I found, was to turn it into a joke. I found that staring back would repel their optic onslaught with my superior foreigner retinal stamina, on par with a budget cyclops. A friend told me she once wore a mask wherever she went to avoid being seen. I tried the same, but apparently a balaclava draws more attention than it deflects.
However, sometimes, people wouldn’t want to back down. Not wanting to appear weak to my rival, I would keep staring in return. This often made for some very awkward situations, where neither of us would back down; Mr. Sato and I are still staring to this day — I’m going to his family BBQ on the weekends now.
It was the same with children, but I found making a funny face to get a laugh was often a safe response, though, much to my disappointment, this seldom worked on adults.
Best: Being part of a community
I managed to meet countless people in the inaka, thanks to the community atmosphere. Looking back on the matsuri, I’m reminded of the times people dragged us over to their table to chat with them or when we actually took part in the festival show to cheers and excitement. People in the countryside will make a lot of effort to include you in village events, and often go out of their way to involve you in activities that offer a chance to discover local culture.
Worst: Being in a bubble
When sitting on the train, I could often be secure in the fact that I would have an empty space next to me. We began to call it the “Gaijin Bubble,” and although it didn’t make me feel great at times, not taking the problem too seriously helped. It extended way beyond this. When arriving at a restaurant, one of the staff members who sent us upstairs radioed ahead to say that the foreigners were coming. I felt proud that I had reached a status whereby I was being announced to others upon entering a room.
Best: Learning to take initiative
If you take anything away from these articles, it’s that in the rural areas you need to take initiative in everything you do. You have to be proactive in living — that means not hiding in your room eating cereal in the dark. Say “yes” to each opportunity (well, maybe not every one) and treasure the good times. Above all, a sense of humor is key. To survive one, two or five years in the inaka, you need to nurture your ability to see the funny side of things as much as you can.
In the end, you’ll have stories you won’t forget: good and bad but always memorable.
This is the Part 5 in Alex’s six-part “Surviving the Inaka” series. To read more:
- Part 1: Dealing with foreigner celebrity status
- Part 2: Learning Japanese
- Part 3: Making your own fun
- Part 4: Teaching in a countryside classroom
- Part 5: The best and worst things about living in rural Japan
- Part 6: Leaving the countryside for the city
Do you live in the inaka and recognize some of these experiences? Got a question for Alex or want him to cover something he hasn’t yet? Let us know in the comments!