This is my contribution to the blog carnival sponsored by Sophelia at http://sopheliajapan.blogspot.jp/. So go ahead and check out her site for more cool writings on the theme of: “New Beginnings”.
This is the story of moving from one no-name Japanese countryside to another.
After four years living in the countryside of Toyama Prefecture, I needed a revolutionary change that would turn everything on its side. I needed everything basic to change, while still staying in Japan. I’m a big believer in the effect of our surroundings, so I grabbed a map and began searching.
I looked at the main island of Honshu with Toyama at the center on the Sea of Japan side and knew I would have to depart and head for a new island. To the north was Hokkaido: natural wonderland and snowboarding heaven … but damn it looked so cold. Then there was Shikoku. A mountainous island full of mysterious inaka (countryside), and yet maybe it was a little too … inaka. And so Kyushu was left, a land full of captivating treasures.
I had thought of traveling to various parts of the island so many times, but being so far from Toyama the expense was often too much.
“What if I just lived there?” I thought.
Yes, set up shop on this volcanic island in the far south. To sunshine and blue skies! I decided it was Kyushu.
But I have to go back to one detail about this move, and the parts I wish to communicate to you.
I was moving from one no-name inaka and looking for another one just the same. This is a feat so uncommon among gaijin in Japan, I cannot think of a single other person who has done the same. Surely similar moves must be made out there, but I’ve never seen one in four years. You see, when I first came to Japan it was with the JET Programme. When you fill out your interview forms there is a section asking where you would like to be placed, and whether you would like to be in an urban, suburban, or rural location. I’m pretty sure I filled in the suburban or rural for preference, but then also wrote down Tokyo and Kyoto as the top places I wanted to go. I suppose I didn’t know anything else at the time. Perhaps many people come to Japan like this: “There is Tokyo as the big futuristic city, and then there is Kyoto for the traditional beauty, and then I suppose everything else.” As a third place I either wrote down Fukushima as it seemed to be a more rural place in the north yet still close to Tokyo … or I wrote down Miyazaki far isolated in the south, which I remember reading interesting stories about in a book … but that would be really random thinking back, and to be honest I can’t remember which I picked.
Anyway, like many fresh young Jets, I was sent somewhere I never knew existed, Toyama. I was shocked at first (like most, I’m sure), but soon after researching, and quickly after arriving, I figured there couldn’t be a better place in all of Japan for me. A very rural area with small towns lined along the U-shaped bay of the prefecture. There is the Sea of Japan on one side, and some of the tallest mountains in Japan shooting straight up to the clouds on the other. Though separated from the rest of Japan by those titanic mountains, it’s also only an hour train-ride away from the charming city of Kanazawa, and a three hour train to Tokyo or Kyoto. Toyama also belonged to a region called Hokuriku which is comprised of Fukui, Kanazawa, and Toyama Prefectures, all three of which recently rated the first, second, and third best places to live in Japan (1st: Fukui, 2nd Kanazawa, 3rd Toyama). In this respect, I could have done a lot worse.
The initial move to the unknown Japanese countryside can be a startling one. I remember my own dark homesick moments, realizing tickets home where just a desperate click away. And yet because of the strangeness and unexpected initial lows one feels, a person can become even more deeply connected to that place in which they feel stuck. After a couple years I had gotten used to the inconveniences of the inaka, and even came to love them: lack of convenience stores, access to comfort food from home, unable to use ATMs past ridiculously early times in the evening, people staring at you everywhere, small amount of foreigners to relate to, trains that run only once an hour, lack of English, unintelligible dialects, everyone recognizing you wherever you go after your first month, etc. All of these things compose the culture shock that can either break you, making you resent the poo-dunk no-nothing countryside you were exiled to when all you wanted was the big lights of Tokyo or Osaka (I’ve met handfuls of these unfortunate types), or it can make you’re experience unbelievably satisfying in the Japanese countryside.
Overcoming these troubles can often be no small feat, and like many things in Japan, can take a great deal of time more than anything else. But once you do, all of these things become treasures. Your experience in Japan becomes solidified by a love for your newfound second home and the wonderful country people that comprise it. I truly do love Toyama.
So why would I leave it all?
For the sake of a new beginning, of course!
It seems to be drilled into me, and I think this is something I may share with my fellow young Americans, or any young moderns around the world perhaps: the need to drastically change everything about every 2 years. I spent about a total of three years in San Francisco for university, and that was enough. After that I spent a year back home, which was enough. Then I moved to Japan. Actually after two years I moved within the prefecture signifying a change much larger than I expected. But after the total of four years in the same area, I needed a big one. As perfect as Toyama felt, it couldn’t survive the apocalyptic need for adventure inside.
So on to Kyushu.
I didn’t want to live in a big city, which ruled out most all of the major cities, especially Fukuoka. Nagasaki and Kagoshima seemed a little far removed, rendering it not an ideal spot to access all others. Saga didn’t have the mountains I needed. Due to my current job which most often requires people to live in cities, my locations were limited. No openings in Miyazaki, only in Kumamoto City of Kumamoto making it undesirable, so what was left was the medium-small town of Nakatsu in Oita Prefecture.
Oita – after research the name came to mean mountains, countryside, and most of all onsen. All of which are the 1,2, and 3 on my list of favorite things in Japan, so that was it.
“Ehhhhh??? Oita??? Why not Fukuoka or something?” Everyone reacted.
“Well, Fukuoka looks too big for me.” I replied.
“Well, at least you’ll be close to Beppu for onsen.” They rationalized.
“Yeah, but actually I’m pretty far from Beppu.”
“It’s famous for fried chicken and a castle.”
Both my aikido and kyudo sensei in Toyama had lived in Fukuoka for long periods of time, and so when I said I was moving to Kyushu I could see them sad, but excited for me because maybe I’d be going to Fukuoka like them. Both were equally shocked when I said Oita.
I remember my aikido sensei half-joking with me saying that I could have gone anywhere in Kyushu, but instead chose Oita, the place with the least amount of opportunities for good martial arts.
My kyudo sensei said, “Wow, it’s really country, dude.”
All others didn’t have a clue. Why after getting so well used to Toyama would I decide to move all the way to a place nobody knows about? Maybe if I moved to a bigger city it would make sense. People would nod their heads and say “Oh, cool, going to the big city in Kyushu! Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Kagoshima!”
But that’s not it at all.
Nobody seemed to get it.
That’s the whole point …
Going to a place nobody knows in a land far far away.
That is what a “New Beginning” means to me.
So now I’ve lived in my new no-name home of Nakatsu in the countryside of Oita Prefecture for about six months. My first thought is “Damn, that’s gone by fast!” (I suppose after living in Japan for four years time goes by a little quicker than it used to.) My second thought is … I’m happy.
Even bigger than moving itself, or anything else I can imagine, I got married during the move and my wife from Toyama and I live together here, so how’s that for new beginnings? That has defined a lot of the move, and responsible for most of the happiness.
I called for big change and that’s what I got. I love the countryside here, and feel comfortable here with all the inconveniences this new inaka brings. Everyone stares at me and expects me not to speak Japanese. Other foreigners are few and far between, and the island of Kyushu brings a whole new background to Japan which changes everything for the exciting adventures I wanted.
And yet, at the same time – things haven’t changed at all inside.
Each new beginning is different, for me, for you, and for anybody else. The more “new beginnings” we open, the more detailed and difficult to explain they become. But perhaps they make for more interesting stories.
New beginnings are about the unknown.
So where is your darkness? Where do you want to shine your light?
If you’re like me, find a place nobody knows about in Japan, and you’ll surely find something new.