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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Perks Of Living In A Rural City

For any of you people about to embark on your journey to Japan, let me offer a wee bit of advice... pray that when you do go, you go to a small city.

I'm not even talking a town, village or hamlet... I'm talking about a small city of around 50,000 people - and maybe no more than 75,000 people.


To get the real Japan experience.

I've got Japanese friends who would said they would hate to live or even visit my small city of Ohtawara-shi in Tochigi-ken, calling it boring.

I can't call it incorrect... but it does offer a small town feel, with a bit of big city sophistication.

What do I mean?

Well... I live in Toronto... it's where I was from before I went to Japan, and where I chose to live after my JET experience ended.

But it's not like I lived in the downtown core... but rather the suburbs... which unlike most US suburbs, was actually more akin to a small city... exactly similar to where I ended up in Japan.

Unlike a smaller town or hamlet, where everyone really does know your every move - and trust me, in Japan, you are being watched, a small city does offer a bit of anonymity, but at the same time, people aren't as closed or guarded...

Or maybe they are...

This is tough to explain.

People often look at my situation in Japan and claim I was lucky to have such a forward-thinking Board of Education... aha... and I was. That's what a smaller city can offer.

There is a simpler rustic ideal that folks in a smaller city have, and while they possess a certain sophistication and dreams of being a part of a large city, they aren't yokels.

Basically... Ohtawara-shi is a suburb of Tokyo - even though it is 100 kilometers north of it.

There are restaurants, schools, shopping malls, parks, hotels, love hotels... and yet, we are close enough that if you want to go out for some major partying, it's a two-hour regular train ride or one hour shinkansen bullet train away...

When the mood hit, I would accompany some lucky female AET or Japanese woman down to Tokyo, we'd drink and dance the night away in Roppongi. We'd stay away all night, and catch an early morning train back to our neck of the woods... or we'd crash at a cheap love hotel... whatever...

It's not like we needed to do that every weekend... to be honest, that would have been boring.

I've been in the singles bar scene in Toronto - and hitting it every Friday and Saturday night is not only fruitless and expensive... but it's actually boring... especially when you're a bit shy as I am. Yes... I am.

But in the small city... the people were the key. There was enough diversity for me to enjoy the company of plenty of people - friends to hang out with at the local bars. Women to chat up... hell, guys who want to pal around with you... there's NO big city office salary man crap...  where the group has to stick together... in a smaller city, the Japanese workers are more free to pick and choose who they want to hang out with - a blessing.

For me... I met potters, volunteer firemen, guys working at a car part manufacturing facility, housewives, university students, bank clerks - and no one was dressed like they are for work - IE not in uniform.

Now why don't I say the same thing for villages and towns and hamlets? Well, for the most part, those entities do offer what I described above... but it's smaller... and thus with less selection.

I've also found smaller communities to be a tad more close-minded.

I don't want to say those people aren't sophisticated... because I would be wrong. You can indeed be raised in a barn and carry sophistication.

I've got seven years of post-secondary education and I'm sure I might not be accused of being sophisticated... though I can turn it on and off as required... so I'm not going to embarrass anyone at the Cotillion. I do know which fork is a salad fork, by the way, and which is a shrimp fork.

But... I did find that smaller communities do tend to view strangers with a bit more of an eye... until they determine if you are one of them.

Larger communities... they are a bit more open right away... and conversely, you may fall in and out of relationships quicker depending on how you are perceived. 

That's why you really do have to step forward with your best foot.

When I arrived in Japan, the people there already KNEW I had a sense of humor... I mentioned that I loved telling jokes and hearing them on my application... that I loved to read comic books and watch comedy and played sports and enjoyed watching them.

That's not all I am, obviously... I mentioned I taught piano and clarinet - that sounds sophisticated, doesn't it?

My three references were a newspaper editor I worked with at the Toronto Star, the Dean at my college, and one of my music students (I also had a fourth reference from one of my female soccer charges)...

Each praised my ability to work well with others, calling on my sense of humor as key to making people feel at ease immediately (I'm not sarcastic, d'uh).

So... it's why when I was being transported to my small city of Ohtawara in the back of a panel van with no rear seats and was sliding around on my luggage, one of the Board of Education men decided it was cool to tell me a joke.

When I laughed at the crappy joke, all tension was broken... They laughed.. we all laughed...

I imagine that even if a smaller BOE wanted to tell a joke, that they might not for fear of coming off like bumpkins (which they might not be)...

Japan is weird... social standing matters... the smaller city folk knew they weren't big shots and thus didn't try to come off as such... the smaller places... they don't want  to appear small, and so puff up a little larger...

Seriously... I had a buddy AET who was told by his BOE to cut his hair.  He was in a small village... everyone had short hair.

In my larger place - a small city... freedom of expression was given as it would be in a large city... I got my ear pierced after my second year and grew my hair very long.... but I didn't look like a slob even if my hair was in that awkward stage because I dressed well... but my BOE... they thought I was cool. I know this because they told me that.

There's less pressure to impress - but admittedly, at that time, I did wear a suit and tie every day... certainly a tie... even when the teachers at the small city schools didn't. 

As well as the perks of the small city, I enjoyed the fact that I wasn't surrounded by the crush of humanity. I had room to breath... to get on my bicycle and not have to worry about being surrounded by people everywhere I went.

I could travel in to the bigger cities of Utsunomiya or Tokyo with ease via bike and then train - my only limit being that last train I would have to catch in order to ensure I made it back home.

I had all the comforts of a real bedroom community without all the pains of people.

Trust me... you might like people and the crush - but why do people seek the comforts of a getaway weekend? With a smaller city, it's easier to get away... heck, my buddy Matthew could even drive a car around without having to worry about traffic jams.

It's a simpler life without being too simple.

Andrew Joseph


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