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Why I Relocated to Nagano from the Big City

As convenient and vibrant as Japan’s major urban centers are, one expat explains why a change to a more rural area did him a world of good.

By 8 min read

There’s certainly no shortage of beautiful places to choose as a destination in Japan, whether you are coming here to travel, to work or to study. I recently decided to make Nagano Prefecture my new home. Unless you’re a winter sports enthusiast, Nagano is probably unlikely to figure in your top 10 — or possibly even top 20 — places to visit in Japan.

However, since moving here a couple of months ago to begin my new job, it’s fair to say: this place has grown on me.

Having previously lived in Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong, one would think that I may struggle to adapt to the more sedate, sleepy lifestyle of such a rural setting. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do I feel healthier and happier since I came relocated, from a practical point of view I also find that I have more money in my pocket at the end of the month, too.

I often see comments from foreign residents in Japan across social media as to why they love their own little part of Japan so much. Nagano has only been my home for two months now but I’ve very quickly fallen in love with the beautiful scenery, the relaxed approach to life and the warm, amiable locals.

Honestly, I feel it can stand alongside anywhere else in Japan. So, here are a few reasons why Nagano works for me.

1. Save, save, save!

One common complaint I hear from fellow English teachers in Japan —  especially those who have a partner and/or kids to look after — is that their monthly pay just doesn’t seem to stretch far enough. It becomes almost a month-to-month struggle to keep ahead of the debt and get people feeling like they’re just one bit of bad luck away from a total financial meltdown.

Moving to Nagano won’t make you rich, but it can help make what money you do earn go a lot further.

Rent prices here are among the cheapest I’ve ever come across in Japan. A typical one- or two-bedroom apartment will set you back around ¥40,000 to ¥50,000 per month — approximately half of what you would pay for similar digs in Tokyo or Osaka. Additionally, if you can handle living in a single person, one-room apartment similar to those offered in the bigger cities by the likes of Leo Palace, then your rent could go as low as ¥20,000 per month.

To put this into perspective, when I first moved to Tokyo back in 2006, I was paying ¥75,000 per month for a single-room apartment. It certainly hasn’t become any cheaper since then.

Rent isn’t the only area where you will make big savings. My first trip to the supermarket also proved to be a pleasant surprise with daily essentials such as bread, milk, vegetables and meats all coming in at around 20 to 30 percent cheaper than I paid for the same products in Osaka. If you feel like trekking to one of the farmers markets held around the area, you can buy local produce for even cheaper.

2. It’s rural (well, not really)

Many people who break free of living in the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo (or even Osaka), speak of their initial joy at escaping the daily drudgery of noisy, overcrowded trains and streets so packed one can barely stop to gather their breath. To be fair, in time the countryside can also grate on you for any number of reasons and you can find yourself missing the superior shopping, variety of busy bars, vast selection of eateries and host of crowded cafés that accentuate big city life.

Luckily, Nagano is a little over an hour away from Ueno by shinkansen. A weekend trip — or even just a one-day excursion — to Tokyo is within easy reach. And at only ¥8,000 or so each way, even the tightest of monthly budgets could allow the weary worker or the stir-crazy student a monthly trip to the bright lights, big city if the urge grabs them. You can even cut this price in half to around ¥4,000 each way, if you take the slower train (around three hours) from Shinonoi (just outside Nagano City) to Shinjuku.  If you fancy a trip down to Kansai, then Matsumoto Airport has regular flights down to Osaka Itami. The flight takes about 45 minutes.

So, for me, Nagano offers a healthy balance between rural tranquility and easy access to Tokyo or Osaka when I feel the need to be an urban cowboy.

3. Less foreign distractions

Whether you’re working or studying in Japan, if you have ambitions to remain here long-term, then learning Japanese is going to be a high priority for you.

… you’ll pick up both the language and the intricacies of Japanese daily life […] more effectively in a rural environment.

However, in my opinion, where many language students go wrong is in choosing to study at a school in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka. Now, there are of course a multitude of excellent schools for Japanese in these larger urban locales, but my experience tells me that you’ll pick up both the language and the intricacies of Japanese daily life — such as eating local food, understanding regional customs and assimilating into traditional culture — more effectively in a rural environment.

To put it bluntly: there are more foreigners in Tokyo, so you’re more likely to slip back into your native language. Here in Nagano — apart from monthly meetings with other English teachers — my day-to-day business is conducted almost exclusively in Japanese. It’s what language professionals call a “total immersion environment.” Nagano also has some excellent Japanese language schools to choose from, such as ISI Nagano Business and Language College in Ueda City (accepting applicants for the October term right now, though the application deadline is June 1).

4. The great outdoors

Cherry blossoms reflected on the lake.

Of course, as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, Nagano’s credentials as a skiing and snowboarding destination are world renowned. For people like me who have almost no experience with such things, there are plenty of other outdoor activities to take part in.

The Japanese Alps provide excellent hiking and mountaineering opportunities.

If that sounds a little too taxing, then you’ll also find plenty of gentle hills and lush forests waiting to be explored in the Yatsugatake mountain area as well. Camping and hiking are popular throughout the entirety of the prefecture.

In my opinion, Nagano’s best natural assets are its plentiful and diverse range of onsen, or natural hot springs. Whether you want to soak in a hot mountaintop bath as you watch the misty morning clouds gather below or soothe away those aches and pains in one of the many mineral-infused baths, using the likes of sulfur, salt or radium — whatever takes your fancy in terms spa-type recreation, there’s plenty to choose from.

Onsen resorts such as Karuizawa and Hakuba may be better known to tourists, but I recommend seeking out the smaller, more remote onsen if you can. They have a charm, a romance and a distinctly local flavor about them. There are hundreds to choose from, but my personal favorite is Togura-Kamiyamada onsen town. Located in Chikuma City, about 20 minutes from Nagano City by car or train, this beautiful mountainside town has a combination of onsen, bars, restaurants and local events to suit all tastes and budgets.

Another pleasant retreat is Shibu Onsen. Approximately 45 minutes from Nagano City by train, Shibu Onsen also offers the chance to take in local wildlife at the nearby Jigokudani Monkey Park.

Omachi City, to the south of the city of Nagano, also offers a variety of ryokan and hotel options for weekend getaways.

For the history buffs among you, definitely check out Matsumoto City. Matsumoto Castle is among the most famous of its kind in Japan,with various festivals and events taking place on the castle grounds throughout the year.

5. Clean air, lots of sunshine

As I write this final paragraph, I’m looking out across my desk through the window to bright sunshine in the sky. The tree-laden mountains form a perfect foreground to a cloudless blue sky. The difference in air quality once I got out of Osaka was almost immediate.

Nagano is clean, safe and peaceful but certainly not dull. In Osaka, as much as I love the city, at times it almost looked as if it had been drawn with dark ink. There was a grayish-black haze around many of the buildings and at times a cloud of smog seemed to just hang over the place. Coming to Nagano, it’s almost like someone up above has finally figured out how to open the skylight. The colors are vibrant, the air pure and the streets immaculately clean.

I can say without hesitation, that if you choose to come to Nagano for work, study or pleasure, you certainly won’t regret it.

Do you live in — or have you relocated to — a less urban area of Japan? What are some the pros and cons of your choice? Let us know in the comments!

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