Living Abroad in Japan
Prime Living Locations
© Ruthy Kanagy, from Living Abroad in Japan.
Used by permission of Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
Maps © Avalon Publishing Group, Inc.
The following prime living locations offer contrasts in climate, environment, industry, population density, history, cultural traditions, and dialects. We start with Tokyo, the nation’s capital; fly north to Hokkaido, the last frontier; south to Gunma and Nagano, in the central mountains of Honshu; west to the ancient capital, Kyoto, and to Osaka, center of commerce; and finally to Hiroshima and the four prefectures of Shikoku, squared off along the Inland Sea.
When we think of Japan, most of us think of Tokyo—that megalopolis where crowds of dark-haired people in suits are jammed onto trains by hired pushers; a city of skyscrapers where everything is digital and high-tech, and sushi and anime abound. True, Tokyo has the highest population density in the country (Osaka is second) and has hot, sultry summers and cold winters with snow (even blizzards—I was born during one). But Tokyo also has mountains, gorges, hot springs, and eight semitropical islands with active volcanoes. There’s a great deal of tradition in Tokyo, if you look for it, such as neighborhood festivals at shrines and temples. If you’re looking for English-language resources, a large English-speaking community, and a job where you need only minimal Japanese, you may find it in Tokyo—among 12 million neighbors. If you decide to live in the Eastern capital, take the time to explore the six other prefectures that make up the Kanto region—Chiba-ken (location of Narita Airport), Kanagawa-ken, Saitama-ken, Tochigi-ken, Ibaragi-ken, and Gunma-ken (ken means prefecture).
Hokkaido, the frontier island to the north, is strikingly similar to the U.S. Pacific Northwest in geography and climate, with cool summers, snowy winters, open spaces, and largely unspoiled nature.
Hokkaido is the largest prefecture in Japan in terms of land area (about the size of the state of Indiana), but with only 5.7 million people (less than 5 percent of the population of Japan) living near mountain ranges, lakes, wetlands, and plains. The land is 70 percent forested, 16 percent used for agriculture, and only 1.8 percent used for residences. The three characters in the word Hokkaido mean North, Sea, and Circuit.
People in Hokkaido often say that the island’s open space creates communities less bound to tradition, with more open attitudes. Based on my experience growing up in eastern Hokkaido, I would say this is true. You’re allowed to be an individual and move off the beaten track. If you have an idea for a business related to food, agriculture, nature, or outdoor sports, Hokkaido might have room for you. If you enjoy cosmopolitan city life, Sapporo (the island’s main city) has 1.5 million people and scores of foreign entrepreneurs, teachers, and house-builders. By airplane, you can be in Tokyo in an hour; by train, it’s a scenic 10- or 12-hour journey to the capital; and by ferry, a leisurely 20 hours on the waves. That is, if you need to go south at all, once you’ve made your home in Hokkaido.
Central Mountains: Gunma and Nagano
What if you want it all—to live close to Tokyo, but go rafting on rushing rivers, snowshoeing in the mountains, and sansai-gathering (wild vegetables) in the spring? All of these activities await in the mountains of Gunma-ken, just two hours north of Tokyo by special express train. A fair percentage of the Tokyo foreign contingent heads for the mountains during the sweltering summer months. One enterprising local town even rents rice paddies out to Tokyoites who want the experience of planting seedlings by hand in the mud and harvesting it in the fall. Less urbanization and more traditions are what you’ll see here, although most of the young people head for the city lights as soon as they’re old enough.
Nagano prefecture, the gateway to the Japan Alps and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is west of Gunma. If you’d like to live surrounded by snow-capped mountains, you can find a place here. Some areas of Nagano are summer resorts for city folk, such as Karuizawa. You can experience a rural lifestyle, connected to the earth and strikingly scenic, yet only two hours from urban Tokyo—thanks to the shinkansen (high-speed train) tracks laid down in time for the Olympics.
The West: Kyoto and Osaka
The Kansai area contains three major cities—Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto.
Kansai is the other end of the continuous industrial zone that stretches from Tokyo along the Pacific coast, where almost 70 percent of the Japanese population lives. Economically, Kansai plays a vital role second only to Tokyo. The three Kansai cities have distinct characteristics, yet are only an hour or less apart. Kyoto has a 1,200-year-old historic and cultural heritage, Osaka is the commercial center, and Kobe has a multinational feel. In this region, you’ll find historic spots, many designated as World Heritage Sites, as well as skyscrapers, business districts, restaurants, shopping malls—and Universal Studios.
In Osaka, the legend goes, people greet each other by asking, “Mokatte makka?” (“Making any dough?”). This supports the common notion that Osakans are supposedly more direct, pragmatic, practical-minded, and also impatient. These qualities have nurtured many products and ideas. Osakans speak Osaka-ben (ben means dialect), and are the only dialect-speakers in Japan who don’t switch to standard Japanese when they’re around Tokyoites—or so I’ve heard. In other words, they’re proud of their dialect and don’t try to hide it, as too often happens with speakers from other regions.
If you choose to live in Kyoto, you’ll have traditional culture all around you—countless Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, thousand-year-old festivals, and numerous universities where you might possibly teach. The Kyoto dialect is considered refined—or a soft touch. In Kyoto, people welcome you saying, “Oideyasu” (instead of “Irasshai”), and thank you with “Okini” (rather than “Arigato”). Kansai food is flavored differently than Kanto; the latter is more salty, with a soy flavor, while Kansai cuisine tastes sweeter. Kansai is only three hours away from Tokyo, thanks to the shinkansen.
Inland Sea: Hiroshima and Shikoku
Two hours further west from Kansai, you arrive in the Hiroshima prefecture. This is western Honshu, influenced by the Setonaikai (Inland Sea)—the scene of many fierce battles during the feudal period. The climate is also milder, with less wind and rain. Hiroshima is a regional city and very international, with a message for the world. Every head of state ought to visit the Peace Memorial Park and listen. Hiroshima also has mountains, small towns, and superb oysters in winter, cooked a dozen ways. Hiroshima dialect is spoken here, but so is standard Japanese.
Whether you cross the sea by ferry, train, bus, or car, in an hour you’ve piggy-backed over the Inland Sea islands and landed in Shikoku. Shikoku means “four countries” or districts, which make up the smallest of Japan’s main islands. From the northeast corner, they are Kagawa, Tokushima, Kochi, and Ehime. Shikoku is rural, with a slower pace, leaving time to enjoy the mountains, gorges, rivers, and beaches. Resident Americans and other English-speakers are active in their communities, producing English newsletters, radio programs, and websites. Many universities have native English speakers on the teaching staff.