Why You Should Teach English in a Small Japanese City

by Jessica Foley

You just received your assignment for (insert teach-in-Japan program here) and your heart falls just a little bit when you don’t see TOKYO spring off the page. Instead, you scan the page and see: SHIZUOKA. Where is Shizuoka?! Or Saitama, Niigata, Gunma, Kanagawa…so you run to your giant wall map of the world (because every good world traveler has one) and find the tiny island of Japan. Upon locating this remote city, located a good train ride away from the capital, your heart may drop even farther. BUT have no fear!

Japanese temple

Smaller cities are the hidden treasures of Japan that have gone unappreciated for far too long.

You’ve actually been dealt an extremely fortunate hand. If you are one of the lucky foreigners heading to a more secluded city or if you’re trying to pick a destination for your request list, here is a list of the top reasons why cities like Tokyo and Kyoto are old news, and it’s actually better to teach English in smaller Japanese cities.

1. You’ll impress the heck out of Japanese people who live elsewhere.

In general, the Japanese are fairly impressed whenever they come into contact with foreigners. A simple konnichiwa blows the socks right off of natives. If you really want to astonish the locals, move to a smaller city and get a teaching job. Perhaps it is because of how remote they can be, but most Japanese believe that a foreigner could only be comfortable in a more developed area like Tokyo.

Smaller cities, privy to more seclusion from the hustle and bustle of more urbanized areas, are often not as rustic as city folk make them out to be, so maybe it is acquiring the local dialect that really seems to attract the shocked attention. Like most areas of Japan, the language used in smaller cities is a bit different than the standard Japanese.

For instance, in the town of Aomori, the language is fast-paced; those from the southern regions of the country claim that it is difficult to understand. It’s twice as impressive when you, the foreigner, begin to pick up on the vernacular as you work and travel around the country.

2. You’ll score the best views of cherry blossoms, have access to amazing ski slopes, and eat the tastiest apples of your life.

There are plenty of perks to living in a smaller town in Japan. If you’re not so into the glitz and glam and shopping sprees associated with busy Tokyo, and are feeling a little “temple’d-out,” your small-town address might prove its weight in gold.

If you haven’t heard about how wonderful the hanami, or flower viewing, is in Japan, then you need to come out from under the rock! As winter melts and spring approaches, one of the most popular activities is to check out the beautiful sakura, or cherry blossoms. The sakura season is fairly short and varies from region to region, depending on the weather.

Mt. Fuji

Some prefectures of Japan are an outdoor lover’s paradise, with plenty of activities catering to skiers, snowboarders, hikers, kayakers…you name it! If you’re looking to escape the humid summers that settle upon the rest of the country, Hokkaido is a great place to escape for some cooler weather. Some popular tourist destinations include: Furano, known for its incredible lavender field, and Sapporo, home of the world famous Sapporo Winter Festival, which features giant snow sculptures throughout the city, and of course for brewing the beer that bears its name.

For teachers assigned to small cities in the north, your first lesson will probably be to always give your teacher an apple. The apples of Japan are are giant, deep red, delicious pieces of fruit; you haven’t really had an apple until you’ve had one that you find difficult to hold in one hand. You’ll be begging students for this fruity treat!

3. You might learn how to plant and harvest crops, like rice!

The city life may include museums, a variety of restaurants, and an epic nightlife, but the one thing that city life can never give you is a healthy outdoor experience tilling the land. The primary crop varies from town to town, but one of the commonly cultivated crops in Japan is (surprise, surprise) rice. One of the benefits of teaching English in Japan in the inaka, or countryside, is honing (or, let’s be honest, trying out for the first time) your farming skills. Rural life in Japan usually centers on agriculture; even if members of the family have other jobs or careers, everyone is responsible for pitching in around harvest time.

The Japanese take pride in maintaining their traditions, especially in the smaller towns; for the sake of cultural sanctity, elders actively teach their young the ancient processes, despite new advances. With all the modern technology, planting and harvesting rice is much different these days. But in an effort to maintain heritage, elementary students annually return to their family farms to plant and harvest the rice by hand. Foreign teachers are likewise invited to participate in these practices.

There is nothing like standing knee-deep in muddy water surrounded by twenty first graders wielding sickles to truly make your day!

4. You instantly become a local celebrity.

No matter where you live and teach in Japan, big city or small, you are sure to stick out like a sore thumb. But in a smaller town, it is that much more obvious. The smaller towns usually only have a few foreigners, and it can be as few as just one foreigner in a town. Since Japan has a homogenous society, it is painfully obvious who isn’t native. This situation usually leads to you becoming a minor celebrity in town (15 minutes of fame, anyone?).

Geisha

After a while you’ll find that everyone seems to know your name and where you’re from. Students of yours will run up to you on the street or in stores to practice “Hello!” and “How are you?” You will have more invitations to dinner than you can count on one hand, and might even get to hang in a local’s cabin in the mountains. Most importantly, you will find yourselves surrounded by concerned friends in time of need and dire circumstances.

The benefits of living in complete immersion outweigh any shortcoming of being the minority in a small Japanese town.

5. You learn to get creative when it comes to getting around.

Unlike the rest of Japan, public transit isn’t always readily available, especially in the smaller towns. Many foreigners in the big cities will rely on bicycles and the trains to get around, while those living in the countryside tend to putt around in their own vehicles. However, not everyone is lucky enough to own a car while living in Japan, so you have to get creative. Most towns have the living essentials that can probably be accessed by bicycle or foot, but some are even smaller than that. 

At first, not having the freedom to get around at your own disposal may seem daunting, but it actually forces you to be social with the locals, and most locals will be more than happy to offer their services in helping you get around.

6. You’ll see some of the most impressive festivals in all of Japan.

Once you arrive in Japan, you will learn that festivals are a dime a dozen. The Japanese will come up with any reason to celebrate a variety of different holidays. Some of my favorite festivals span throughout an entire year, including Nebuta Festival, Ninniku to Bego Matsuri, and Towadako Fuyu Monogatari Winter Story Festival, just to name a few.

Torii gates

The Nebuta Festival is one of the most impressive; it features beautiful, paper lantern floats, and provides the opportunity to participate in rassera, a traditional dance. The Ninnuku to Bego Matsuri, or the Garlic and Beef Festival, takes place in a tiny, rural town famous nationwide for its garlic. The festival itself is run by local volunteers and serves up the best locally raised kobe beef you have ever tasted in your life. The winter festival at Lake Towada will be your very own winter wonderland. Although the trip over there must be taken with caution (it’s rather remote and cold, and potentially dangerous!), the views are absolutely worth it. See why I geek out over holidays in Japan?! They’re incredible, and the city-folk don’t know what they’re missin’.

Former ESL teachers in Japan out there...what experiences have you had in smaller, more bucolic Japanese towns and cities and what made them special?