Surviving the Inaka: Leaving the Countryside for the City
By Alex Sturmey
On October 26, 2016
My time in the countryside was coming to a close. I was off to Tokyo to join the big leagues. One final time I went to my local train station; fighting off weeping students, confused shop owners and wasps dive-bombing my face until the end.
Apart from a reduction in wasp-related injuries, you’ll have to adjust to some pretty big changes if you decide to leave the rice paddies for more urban pastures. So what are some of the major differences between living and teaching in the Japanese countryside versus the city?
My year of fame is over
One of the biggest changes is the loss of the foreigner celebrity status. I am no longer a special snowflake.
I was so used to being bombarded with questions in stores, that when, one late night in the 7-Eleven, a clerk asked me something I didn’t understand, I assumed they were inquiring what country I was from. I broke into my minute-long introduction, spouting my standard monologue: where I was from, what I liked, what my opinions were on the fluctuation in gold prices during the 1970s. The clerk simply nodded and then held up a plastic bag. I don’t go back to that shop anymore.
Even at neighborhood matsuri, I’ve had to get used to being another person in the crowd. No longer are people at tables inviting me and my friends over to practice their English or coming up and asking for our photos. The chance to take part has also greatly diminished. When I tried to sign up for one, I was told they were full but if I put my name down now I could enter the 2019 event.
Although it was upsetting to say goodbye to my rockstar status (especially as I had just perfected my signature), after a year of constant stares and racking up a “free fish and chips” debt at the local ramen shop, it’s a relief for it to be over. Now I’m able to live out my criminal fantasies of crossing the street without a sea of eyes on me. It’s nice to be able to melt into the city crowds.
Talking no longer comes with risks of getting a mullet
Learning Japanese in the countryside, as I have said before, was a mix of luck, frustration, tenacity and donuts. One of those isn’t true. Getting to grips with the language was always about forcing yourself out into this new and scary environment to pick up as much as possible by trial and error — simply because you had no choice.
In my town, it could be as easy as going to the local bar with a study book and striking up a conversation with the owner or a patron. I once tried the same tactic in Tokyo. After stringing a broken sentence together in Japanese, the man I was speaking to simply said, “Oh, don’t worry. Japanese is hard. Let’s talk in English.”
Wanting to avoid my past mistakes when getting my haircut, for weeks I poured over flashcards, preparing to give the most eloquent, poetic descriptions of my desired hair outcome and carefully cutting out pictures of heads at different angles just to make absolutely sure. When I sat down in the hair salon and attempted to describe in detail what I wanted, the barber responded with: “So you want to look like the picture?”
There’s less opportunity for spontaneous, forced learning in Tokyo since, nine times out of 10, you can fall back on English.
Students speak English better than I do
Compared to rural Japan, where I felt students saw English as a chance to have fun, in Tokyo it’s all about using it for future careers, travel or to pass the dreaded high school entrance exams.
I once pulled out a colorful ball to a group of first years at the junior high school where I now teach. In Ibaraki, I had students mesmerized by this spherical feat of engineering, while in Tokyo a student raised her hand and asked if I could explain the past progressive tense. I still only understand one of those words.
In the big city, most of my lessons have moved away from a fun excuse to play to that of a rigid learning structure (annoying because it means I have to actually learn English).
Although at times the inaka was difficult to survive, it gave me some unique experiences — experiences which, having moved to Tokyo, I realized I was extremely lucky to have. So, if you’re out there in the smaller towns, enjoy every minute and be grateful for the chance to be part of something very special. It will be over faster than you know it.
This is the final part in Alex’s “Surviving the Inaka” six-part 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!