What You Should Know About Life in Rural Japan [Interview]

Today I'd like to introduce Sam Baldwin, author of For Fukui’s Sake: Two years in rural Japan. As the title implies, Sam spent two years in the inaka (the countryside) as a JET Program participant. While I, as a fellow former JET, can relate to some of his experiences in general, many more events are unique to the rural parts of Japan, some of which he talks about below.

So if you're headed to the inaka, or perhaps you're already there, here's a little taste of what living in the sticks is like. If you're currently living in the inaka, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments! -Ashley

Sam and Shiro, the school dog
Ashley:  First of all, why did you come to Japan, where did you live, and how long did you stay?

Sam:  After a year-long stint working in Canada, I returned to the UK to get a ‘proper job.’ I had graduated with a BSc in Pharmacology and began working in a lab as a research technician in the UK; it was all white coats and microscopes. However, after a year, I knew that laboratory life was not for me, and I began to dream of new adventures abroad.

A friend of mine was on JET at the time and kept sending me stories of his skiing adventures, and I began to set my sights on the Japanese archipelago and applied for the JET Programme.

Being a lover of snow myself, I requested Hokkaido and Nagano as my top choices, so when the acceptance letter from JET arrived my first reaction was “Where the Fukui is that?!”

Although I was disappointed at first to have been placed in Ono, a small, mountain town in Fukui prefecture, it turned out to be a perfect place for me and an incredibly enriching two years. Looking back, I wouldn’t have swapped Ono for anywhere else.

Ashley:  Would you mind sharing with us your favorite aspect of life in rural Japan?

Sam:  I loved the mountains, the lakes and the rivers in the area. There was a lot of rural beauty and places for me to explore which I did via bike, ski, snowboard, kayak and snowshoe. I also found a bar run by a keen mountaineer called Yasu, and he played a huge part in my enjoyment of the area, both as a guide to Fukui’s inaka secrets, and because his bar gave me a place where I could get to know the Fukui folk who came to drink there.

After becoming somewhat bored with my life and job in the UK, in Japan I felt like every day was an adventure into the unknown. I would often think how glad I was to have come to Japan, and how lucky I was to be living in Fukui experiencing all these new things.

Ashley:  How about the worst?

Sam:  Coming from the UK, which has a fairly cool, temperate climate, I found the peak summer heat and humidity in Fukui hard to handle. This was made worse by the lack of AC in my apartment and in the classrooms where I taught.

The other aspect that irritated me was the ongoing stares and whispering (“gaijin!”) which tended to accompany me wherever I was out and about. At first, I found this quite amusing and almost enjoyed the attention, but after a year of living in Fukui, it began to grate and I did enter a brief period in which I hated going out, and just longed to shop in Mitsua supermarket or eat at Hachi Ban Ramen without this unwanted attention.

Ashley:  What was your greatest challenge living in the inaka and how did you overcome it?

Sam:  Probably the language barrier. When I first arrived, I had only done a few months of evening classes, so my Japanese was very basic, and as you’d expect in a rural part of Japan, the level of English that the average local spoke was generally low or non-existent.

This led to some frustrating times, especially during those early days when I needed to carry out what would be easy, everyday tasks back home, like bank transfers, or setting up an internet connection over the phone. I made a number of mistakes due to not being able to communicate properly, and sometimes had to leave the post office/bank/bus station frustrated.

However, the locals were very patient and helpful, and as my Japanese improved and I got to know the locals better, this stopped being such a challenge.  A kindly family ‘adopted’ me and Keiko, the wife and mother, gave me free weekly Japanese lessons for my entire stay. They were incredibly generous with their time and gave me real insight into everyday Japanese family life, as well as helping me improve my Japanese.

Ashley:  What was the most unusual thing you experienced?

Sam:  Before I came to Fukui, I had no idea that snakes would be frequent visitors to the school. One of the teachers used to catch them by the tail and swing them round and round his head to pacify them before releasing them outside – I certainly wasn’t expecting that!

I think my school was also the only one in Fukui (if not Japan) that had a pet dog. I spent many a free period roaming the rice paddies and bamboo thickets with her, taking in Fukui’s wildlife and wild places.

And finally, probably the snow. My second winter was exceptionally heavy with the most snow in 25 years. Seeing snow over two meters deep in the streets was something new for me, and I even saw a building that had been completely crushed by the weight of snow. Most of my colleagues thought that winter was terrible, but for a snow lover like myself, it was a winter of dreams and I took full advantage of all the opportunities that a snowy landscape offers.

Ashley:  If you could live/work in the inaka again, would you?

Sam:  Yes - I would definitely live in the inaka again. The entire two years was an incredible adventure and I really fell in love with the rural beauty, the wild places and the people of Ono and Fukui. I probably wouldn’t teach English again though; it was fun but two years was enough for me.

Ashley:  What did you gain from your experience living in rural Japan that you don't think you would have gotten if you had lived in the city?

Sam:  I think that living in the inaka gave me a better insight into a more traditional side of the country, or at least a hidden part of Japan that you just wouldn’t find in a mega-city or the more famous areas. I also got to see that Japan isn’t always the crowded, overpopulated place many people think it to be.

I also felt that I became more part of the local community than I think I would have in a city. Ironically, despite having never been more linguistically and culturally removed from the local population, I felt more part of the community in Ono, Fukui than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.

And finally – living somewhere off the beaten track in Japan gave me an opportunity to document a way of life that very few westerners get to experience. What began as a blog led on to me writing for travel websites, glossy magazines and later national UK papers. That may well not have happened had I lived somewhere more conventional – so domo arigatou gozaimashita Fukui!

Ashley:  Finally, what tips do you have for SiJ readers about living in Japan, particularly for those who are also living in the countryside?

Sam:  Embrace it fully and whole-heartedly. Practice speaking Japanese with Japanese people as often as you can, even if you only know a few words, by throwing yourself into situations in which you’re forced to use it on a regular basis. For example, join a club or team or hang out with Japanese people who don’t speak much English.

Go out and explore the lesser known areas in your vicinity. In my experience, the crowded ‘must see’ sights aren’t normally the most enjoyable ones. I discovered many amazing places not featured in guidebooks (Japanese or English) and are generally visited very little. Get a map, take road trips, bike trips or just wander on foot to discover the hidden gems in your local area. In Japan, you can find fascination in the most seemingly mundane situations.

Find yourself a good local bar and befriend the landlord. It will become a source of information, a place to practice Japanese, and a place of comfort when times are tough. Get friendly with the locals, and you’ll soon discover that the inaka can be just as intriguing, fulfilling, exciting and strange as the city, in fact, probably even more so.


Thanks Sam!

To check out For Fukui's Sake, visit: ForFukuisSake.com

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