Surviving the Inaka: The Best and Worst Things About Living in Rural Japan

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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.

Face among ivy.

Picture for illustration purposes only. (This isn’t me.)

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:

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!

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.

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  • coolbones says:

    All you need to teach English in Japan is a pulse. I “taught” in Japan for half a year in 2007 as a Frenchman and a high school graduate to boot. I was not even close to fluent either, with a heavy stereotypical accent.

    A university degree is only required for a visa. If you have your own visa (I was on a working holiday one) then it’s a complete and utter free for all. Japanese people have more trouble landing a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s than non-Japanese of any country have at getting into an eikaiwa to teach English. The whole industry is a joke.

  • Alex Sturmey says:

    Hello! Glad you enjoyed the article. Honestly, it’s a bit of a dichotomy, and I must say I’ve probably experienced a lot more hospitality in the countryside than I have in the big city. Haha the graveyard was actually pretty good. Oddly peaceful at times. It was also pretty useful when my city was flooded, as it was built on the high ground so offered some extra protection!

  • Alex Sturmey says:

    If you’ve got one chance, I’d say take it. I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could come over, and am very happy that I took the opportunity. In regards, it is true that a lot would require a BA, however, that’s in the teaching field. In your field, I’m not really sure I could offer any advice on what they might need, but places like the Gaijinpot website, Daijob and LinkedIn are all great places to start.

  • Romano K Amatdjais says:

    hi there Alex. read ur experience in Inaka. although it has its downs u got alot of ups out of them. what i wanted to ask is how u landed a job there. what steps can i take to work in Japan or the possibilities to live there

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      It’s actually relatively easy to “find” a teaching job in Japan. Gaijinpot have an excellent job database which I’d highly recommend using. If you’re specifically looking at going into teaching (either public or private) going to the websites of some of the most well known ones is a good first step: Heart, Interac, Nova, Gabba and AEON just to name a few. I believe for most, if not all, English teaching jobs you are required to have a BA degree – it doesn’t matter the field. Hope that helps.

  • Chris Vlachos says:

    Having grown up in a rural area (Epirus, Greece), I know that there is one thing you will never have when living in a small community: Privacy through anonymity. In rural areas, everyone knows everyone and when it comes to older people, they can even tell you, with an accuracy that would make even the greatest genealogists green with envy, what degree of relative is the old lady living at the end of the valley, or the kids that you got into so many fistfights with when you went to elementary school together. 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 runnaway 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.
    I could continue my rant all day long, but this is not an article about rural Greece, or my memories. 😀
    (Please forgive me for my terrible English – I’m a Gaijin too! 😛 )

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      I have to agree. It can get a little…annoying at times. Any escapade that I, or another foreigner in the area did, seem to spread like wild fire, and I was often told at school the next day, by a teacher, student or parent that they had heard “what I did”. I think living in the inaka is literally living in the extreme of society. You’re either going to be gifted with some amazing stories of kindness (like your food on the doorstep situation) or it’s going to just be a literary of annoyance and downright painful experiences that just seem to muddy any and all of the greatness that the inaka can offer.

  • Neil Burgess says:

    I had the same experiences living in Kyushu, very different from Tokyo or the big cities.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      I have a friend who actually moved straight from my city into Kyushu, and said he finds it hard to even step foot in Tokyo/large cities simply because of the views that Kyushu has to offer!

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