Urban vs. Rural: Which Japan is a Better Fit for You?
In all the years I have spent in Japan, I have been fortunate to live and work in a number of different areas. From the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, to the suburbs like Chiba and Sakai, and even into the extreme countryside with places like the small farming town of Mabi-Cho in Okayama Prefecture.
I’ve had some great times, and a few truly awful times in all of them. However, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that these places are very, VERY different. As such, it is important that you think very carefully, if you are coming to live and work in Japan for the first time, about where you would like to live. Are you a city dweller or a countryside rambler? Or do you prefer somewhere in between. Let us look today at some of the ups and downs of living in these various different regions of Japan, so that when the time comes, you can make an informed choice.
When I first arrived in Japan back in 2006 for the first year or so I worked in the biggest city of them all, Tokyo. Living in Tokyo is as fascinating as it is challenging. It is, in all probability, the most Westernized area in Japan, so if you are worried about suffering from the dreaded “culture shock” its effects are probably going to be the least severe if you live in Tokyo.
This is a proverbial double-edged sword however. Whilst living in Tokyo allows for the smoothest initial transition to life in Japan, in all honesty, if you are planning to move around Japan during your time here, then you are probably just kicking the problems further down the road. Living in Tokyo, eating western food all the time, surrounding yourself with a mostly English speaking, Europe and America-centric group of friends isn’t really giving you much of a chance to get to grips with the language, cultural and social differences you will feel in Japan compared to your country of origin.
Certainly from my own perspective, when I moved to Okayama, some two years after arriving in Tokyo it was a huge culture shock. To go from being one in a sea of thousands, to literally the only white guy in the entire village was a source of huge personal anxiety. At the time I did often criticize the people in that village for their backward, culturally ignorant attitudes to foreigners, but in truth, looking back on it, I was probably equally culpable of not making the required effort to assimilate.
Mabi-Cho was a place of great scenic beauty, but that is, sadly, all it was. It literally had nothing else to do. There were a couple of convenience stores, a supermarket and that was basically it. Addtionally, the last train back from the local social centre of Kurashiki was around 8pm. So going out into town wasn’t really much of an option either.
I still believe that, had I been married with kids at the time, Mabi Cho would have been a wonderful place to raise a young family. However, as a young, single man with all the associated needs and desires, I found the area sorely lacking.
However, the city can be a lonely place too. As I mentioned before, in a place like Tokyo you are but one, amongst a crowd of thousands. In such a big crowd, one’s voice can often be lost and ignored. Living in the city, where people are often so busy that you seldom see even your closest friends can also be a very isolating experience.
Overall, I think what I have now, living in the suburbs of the often busy, but far smaller city of Osaka is a happy compromise between the two extremes.
Osaka is multi-cultural, whilst still retaining that distinctive Japanese charm. Also, although housing here is noticeably more expensive than when I lived in Okayama, it’s still pretty cheap compared to the likes of Tokyo.
Overall, I would say that one should definitely take the time to experience massive cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, and also equally devote some time to take in the best that rural Japan has to offer. However, if you are looking for a stable place to live, then I definitely, strongly recommend the medium sized cities dotted around the country, away from the political and business hub that is the Kanto area.
Overall, I think of all the places I have visited, lived in and worked in during my time in Japan thus far, my favourite would have to be Hiroshima. Hiroshima has a perfect balance. As a medium-sized city it fits into that perfect sweet spot between being big enough to be relevant but also still small enough to be compassionate.
The city reminds me a little of Edinburgh, in the sense that it is a great city to walk around and get lost in, with a new curiosity seemingly hiding up each alleyway just waiting to be discovered.
What really makes Hiroshima though, and to a large extent Osaka too, is the people. They are the warmest, kindest and most humble people you will ever meet.
This city certainly wins my grand prize as the best place to live. For sure, at some point in the future, I hope I will have the privilege of living in Hiroshima some day.