by Zoria Petkoska
Even the hardcore city-lovers have days when the urban jungle is suffocating, overwhelming, energy-draining enemy. It makes a lot of us think about ditching city life for more comfort, but ultimately we are scared of the unknown. And the city is our playground and we play well on most days.
However, the Japanese countryside, or inaka in Japanese, has a lot of advantages, and as population declines the local governments are now adding perks and benefits to attract residents. Recently, the news that rural Japan is giving away millions of free houses went viral, because let’s face it – we are living in the times when no one can afford to own property.
Another piece of viral content making the rounds was the jaw-dropping news that Iga city, a ninja town, has a shortage of ninjas and they offer high salaries to prospective new ninjas. Subsequently foreigners went wild trying to apply for the job and move to the small town.
Of course, both news were spread with excitement that glossed over some issues. For instance, there are the administrative hurdles that limit foreigners from owning a house, missing previous owners cause ownership transfer troubles, the cost of repairs and taxes make the house not really free etc. And the ninja town actually issued an official statement to say, and we’re summing up here, “please stop applying for the ninja job! It’s fake news!” They did use the phrase ‘fake news’.
Still, this shows that there is potential love chemistry between the countryside and city-dwellers flirting with the idea to move. Globally, more and more young people are driven away from cities due to a housing crisis, while on the other hand, digital technologies have made working remotely possible and now even old-fashioned companies are starting to embrace some form of it.
Here are some pros to moving to the Japanese countryside, many of them probably valid for most of the world.
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from Michael Wolf’s famous photo series “Tokyo Compression”
You know those mornings when your cheek is pressed against the train glass and you’re more physically close to random strangers in a forced hug than you have ever been with most of your family? The countryside is free from that circle of Hell.
If you get to work remotely from home, there’s no commute. But if there is any commute, depending on where you move, public transport is either uncrowded or in case of really remote places you might need to drive – but either way, no rush hour madness anymore! And roads are known to be in great condition even in rural Japan. Depending on the job you get, you might even get a free car to use or carpool with others. When in the countryside, walking and cycling to work might be the first options, because it’s easy to live close to work when rent is not expensive and the town is not huge.
Japan’s trains are no joke – they connect the country so well that you can travel from Tokyo down to Kyushu in a day only using local trains on the Seishun 18 Kippu train pass for example. Add to that the bullet trains and highway buses and you see a vast network emerge. This means that living in a small town doesn’t necessarily lead to total isolation, as you can always easily and quickly hop on a train to wherever you want to be.
And let’s admit one thing to ourselves – in the busy city lifestyle rife with overtime hours and long commute there’s not much time to enjoy the city during the working week. So if the only time you actually have fun in the city is the weekend, you can still do that on the weekend with a slightly longer train ride between you and your destination. That train ride is bound to be a bit more expensive too, but you will already have a lot of money saved up because of point no.3 on our list below.
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As the giveaway of akiya (abandoned houses) aptly illustrates, the real estate market in the inaka is not as cutthroat as in Tokyo. Fewer prospective renters and more properties available translates into lower rent and more spacious apartments and houses. In fact, most of the people who have made the move from the big cities to the small towns (Japanese and foreigners alike) cite the housing problem as their main trigger. Some families just wanted to have a garden and a pet, some wanted to have space for hobbies like crafting, painting or music, and some just had enough of living in a shoebox that costs much more than it should. In the countryside, rent as everything else is much cheaper.
Furthermore, in the big cities you are often rejected as a renter even when you have found a place and are willing to pay everything for it, as the Ministry of Justice survey confirmed a huge housing discrimination problem. In contrast, in the countryside, depending on the work you’re in, you might even get incentives like a free house or apartment, or support in finding and renting a place.
To be fair, Tokyo and other big Japanese cities are quite clean and not very polluted for their size. Tokyo skies are so clear you can often see Mount Fuji and Tokyoites wear face masks mostly because of contagious illnesses or just to hide their tired faces. But still, any big city is bound to have more pollution, more garbage, more pests. The smaller towns and the countryside are always cleaner as there are less people living in close proximity.
There are testimonies of many urban dwellers now turned countryside people who say they’ve made the move to improve their health. They say food is also fresher and tastier from the source. On top of that, they are free of other types of pollution we’ve taken for granted in big cities – noise pollution, light pollution etc. To put it simply, it is more peaceful in the countryside in every respect.
Everyone in the big city is living the same lifestyle – commute, work overtime, commute, sleep, repeat. The little free time they have they use to see their family and long-time friends, so it’s no surprise people have no time for you. Another big city curse is moving around depending on the school and the job, so for many people meeting their neighbors is pointless if it’s not going to last.
But humans are social creatures and we are known to really suffer from loneliness. It might seem counterintuitive to look for friends where there are fewer people but moving to a smaller town may help in becoming part of a community. People in the countryside on average have more time and patience for others, as well as curiosity about the newcomer. Meeting one person is enough to start you up, they will introduce you to everyone else!
Foreigners have shared their stories of being invited to people’s homes, celebrating many occasions together, being given care packages of local produce, invited to the local matsuri where locals teach you to dance and so on. Even going to the countryside for a day or two as a traveler gets you a lot of genuine smiles and locals striking up a conversation with you, especially if you can speak some Japanese.
If you can find vending machines on top of Mount Fuji, you know you can find them anywhere. In the countryside and in smaller towns, there may be fewer shops in between, but it’s not like there are none. Small towns and even rural areas have modern conveniences – of course electricity, water, internet, as well as shops, bars, restaurants. Many have built modern and elegant art museums, community centers and organize events, so there is also an element of cultural life. Many areas out of the big cities are full of history and sightseeing spots like castles, temples, shrines – so living there, you might be closer to the places that everyone is paying a lot to get to.
For instance, living in the small town of Matsumoto means that you can live in a castle town!
Choosing a place to live is one of the biggest and most stressful life decisions, so think carefully about what you prefer and what suits you more personally. Some people thrive after moving to the inaka, enjoying the community and the benefits we listed above. But some might face difficulties, like for instance not having a driver’s license in areas where driving is necessary, not speaking enough Japanese, not having the job opportunities they want. So, before you move somewhere, you should give the place a few visits, secure your job situation and make sure you have a support system.
*Featured image by https://www.photo-ac.com/