I have now lived in three different parts of Japan Tohoku, Kanto and Hokkaido. I honestly don't know a lot of foreign people in Japan who have lived in so many areas. Just moving to a foreign country is difficult and then moving from place to place inside of the country can be extremely difficult. You have to to basically get rid of half of the things that you own, call a moving service, spend almost 1000 dollars getting re-situated and then you have to start from zero all over again. When I say zero I mean that in the most broad sense you can think of. I would say the hardest thing would be making new friends though.
Good friends are hard to come by in Japan. Especially if you are living in the country side. You are going to get the occasional person who is just curious about you and wants to hang out, but getting people who you actually connect with is difficult. After of a year of living in Iwate prefecture I actually had a huge group of friends. I think that was the luckiest I have been in Japan but I think that comes down to the fact that I was doing a lot of different hobbies while I was living there. I was doing Judo, skateboarding, practicing Judo and I was the drummer in a punk band.
I am not going to lie, that life-style was the happiest I have been while I have been living in Japan. However the job I was working was hardly making ends meet. I was only making a little over 2000 dollars a month and since I recently had graduated from college I still had a little over 10,000 dollars in student debt. This made it almost impossible to put a dent in my debt.
Although I was living in Iwate it wasn't as inaka (country) as you would expect. I had three train stations in my town, convenience stores on every corner, good places to hang out and drink, a music studio you could rent in the town, a huge video store and plenty of places to eat food. There even was an amazing Indian restaurant. All of these things and many people still think that it's the inaka, but as I late found out, it was far from it.
So after a lot of thought I realized that if I was going to try to get rid of my debt I was going to have to switch jobs and the easiest job to get in Japan if you are an English speaker with a college degree is an English teacher. So I quit my job and I initially thought that I would be able to stay in Iwate. I interviewed with Interac and they said they most like had a position for me that was right next to where I was currently living. I was really excited about that. Then it turned out that that position was taken by someone else. I had already quit my job so I either had to take another position in another part of Japan or be without a job.
So I had to move. It was a really difficult thing for me. I had friends, a band, a place to practice judo and the town that I was living had just opened a skate-park. Other than the fact that the pay was terrible at my job it was perfect. I moved to a city called Matsudo in Chiba prefecture
Matsudo was a really interesting place for a number of reasons. There were lots of foreign people living there. Not just from America or the UK but from all over the world. I met people from India, Nigeria, Jamaica, China and lots of other places. It was on the border of Tokyo so it was really easy to go have a good time on the weekend. The only thing is that I didn't really understand how much I was going to be paid while living there and a lot of expenses came up that made things really difficult there.
My first month with Interac the paycheck was great. I thought to myself "well this seems like it is going to work out". The only thing was they realized that they had accidentally paid me 200 dollars too much on my first month. I was completely shocked. The next month the pay was ok but considering my rent was way higher than it was in Iwate and I had a few more expenses, it was kind of difficult. Then December and January came and if you have ever worked for Interac you will know what I am about to say, the pay is almost cut in half. When you are on winter vacation you only get paid for the days where you are working. That means some months you are only making around 1,600 dollars. If you live like a monk then yes there are ways you can make it work but it isn't easy. I wound up eating pasta all the time. I would buy bulk sauce and pasta from a market and budget myself to only spend around 600 yen (6 dollars) a day.
Matsudo was huge though. The population was 500,000 people. It had I believe over 8 train stations, lots of department stores, a Starbucks, lots of video stores and convenience stores were everywhere. Not only that, I could get lots of great foreign food. I could get Indian food and kebabs right down the street from my house. There was also a world class bakery in Matsudo. I hadn't had bread that good the entire time that I was living in Iwate. So there were many benefits to living there.
The main thing that I would say was different was there was no real downtown area. I think that Hanamaki in Iwate became a city before trains were a massive influence on the community where as Matsudo seem to spring up around the train stations that were in that town. So if you wanted to go out and hang out with someone in Matsudo, you were most likely going to be doing it right by the train station. That was OK but that doesn't give you much of a chance to socialize with people that you have never met before. In Iwate there were plenty of open space bars where you could talk to lots of people you have never met before and just socialize. Everywhere in Matsudo was a commericial izakaya where each group of people is divided into little cubicles, so there was no chance to socialize and don't even think about going out to drink by yourself.
One thing you should also keep in mind about where you choose to live in Japan is how close are you to the airport. Iwate wasn't too bad. It took about three and a half hours to get to the airport and wasn't that expensive. Matsudo was in Chiba prefecture so it was amazing. It only cost me 12 dollars to take the train to the airport in Narita. I think it only took me about 40 minutes to get there too. Now I live in Hokkaido and this is the most remote place I have ever lived in my life. It literally takes me 2 days to get to the airport. There is a possibility that I could do it in one day but it is almost impossible. There is an airport by where I live in a city called Hakodate but it honestly costs more to fly and I would have to put my car in parking for the entire time I would be gone and would end up costing way more than taking public transportation.
Why did I move to Hokkaido? Honestly, it was all about the money. I was making 2650 a month with Interac and paying about 440 dollars a month with rent. I had also applied to JET before and didn't get in and that was a big let down. Applying from inside Japan was really difficult and sine I got in I figured I should take the job. So with JET I would start out making 2800 dollars a month with no rent to pay. I would have to work more but still, the pay when you factor in rent is much better but, there is a pretty big trade off for that extra cash.
Where I live is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is a small fishing village that used to have a population of around 15,000 people but now it is only 4,700. Like many places in Japan the population is shrinking for many reasons. People are all leaving to get jobs in larger cities and not many people here are having children. This town has tons of abandoned houses and buildings. There is also one section of the town that has a bunch of streets where they were going to build housing but that is exactly when the population started to drop. So there are a bunch of streets with only one or two houses on them and the rest of the area is just surrounded by weeds. There are old businesses that have been locked up for years and houses that look like you could kick them over if you wanted to. The wood is completely rotted.
There is no train station here which is hard to believe. When I think about Japan I think about good public transportation but here there is virtually none. There is a bus that runs to the closest city with a train station but it is really expensive. It is about sixteen dollars one way to take a bus that drives for about an hour. For something that is considered a local service sixteen dollars is a lot. That meant that I had to buy a car. I spent around two thousand five hundred dollars getting a car, my license and all of the other small expenses that come up when you get a vehicle. I am happy that I can drive but driving in winter here is brutal. Some nights you have to stay at around 25 miles an hour just because of the visibility factor, not to mention you can slide off the road if you aren't careful.
The thing that I would say really separates living in a urban area versus a rural area in Japan is you are most likely going to feel isolated. I am sure you have heard this before but guess what, it was 100% true. I used to go out and play music, skateboard and have a couple drinks and I could still walk home from the train station. That was what I used to be able to do after work. It is so cold here the only real option is going home and turning on the heater and watching movies or reading a book. Doesn't sound that bad I'm sure but after two months or so it starts to get to you. You get all this pent up energy because you have no way to spend it. The only way you can calm yourself down, so to speak, is have a couple of beers after work. I really don't like drinking that much, honestly. It has just become something where if I don't do it I won't be able to sleep. I wouldn't say I'm an alcoholic or anything like that. I don't drink everyday and I usually have two beers max. However, I used to almost never drink.
With all of this pent up energy and stress every weekend and I mean every weekend I go to Hakodate. I used to go there on Saturday and just kind of relax but now it has gotten to the point where I stay in hotels on Saturday night because I don't want to go back to where I live. I just need to decompress. Hotels aren't expensive though, so it's not a huge deal only about 38 dollars. That includes coffee in the morning. I don't stay in a hotel every time I go to Hakodate but if I could I would. I have found people who skateboard in Hakodate but that is over an hour away to do something that I used to be able to do down the street from my house. There is no place to play music where I live either. Some teachers where I live say I can play the drums at their schools but if I played like I really want to I know they would shop up in a few minutes and tell me to stop. There is no place to do Judo here either which one of the things that I enjoyed doing the most in Japan. The only thing there is that is even close to that here is Sumo. Let's face it though, who actually wants to do Sumo.
There is also only one grocery store in town. The food they have there is alright but when I used to live in Matsudo there was an Aeon down the street from me where I could get food from all over the world and on top of that there was a Yamaya in my town where I could literally get greats snacks that I used to eat while I lived in America. There was also a Costco just a little whiles away. Matsudo had a lot going for it honestly. If I could have found something with just a little better pay, I might have stayed. It all comes down to the fact that I really need every cent I can get to pay back my loan. I am so sick of being in debt and I can't wait until I am out of debt.
That is why I am pretty sure that I am going to stay here in Hokkaido at least until all of my debt is gone. I used to only be able to send a few 100 dollars a month back to the USA but now I can send around 500 to 600 no problem. I think that all really comes down to the fact that I don't have to pay rent. It is a really tough thing to realize that you can't afford to live where you want to. It really made me realize that I am fully an adult now. I can't make choices simply because I want to. I have to think about what is in the best interest for me in the next few years. I really do miss living in an urban area in Japan but I have to think about all of the time and effort I put into getting into the JET program and the opportunities I will have once I leave the program. For now I am contracted until August 2016. That is along ways away and I am sure not sure I will stay for a third year.
Winter can really bring you down in Hokkaido. Everything that is wrong with your life gets magnified because you are stuck in your house all of the time just thinking about your life and every choice you have made that wound you up where you are. I know many people live in this town and have lived in this town there whole life and I honestly feel a little bad for them. There is no chance to be cultured. It is just scraping by in terms of an existence.
Recently I came back from America and I told my students about my long trip back to my hometown and how different it is compared to when I lived there when I was in high school. I told them to think about if they came back to this town in 10 years and what it would be like if there was a new train station and a shopping center and one of the students said "I'm going to come back here and 10 years and no one is going to be here". It was shocking to here that opinion come from someone who is so young. I don't know if he is right or not but if things continue in the trend they have been than yes, this town will eventually fade away. It is hard to believe but when you think about it analytically then it is probably what will happen and I'm in the middle of it; viewing it objectively as a foreigner.