I moved to South Innai in late April 2012 with my wife, S, and our cat, M. We
had been living in Tokyo until the summer of 2011, and for the next nine months we stayed with S’s family in another town in Oita Prefecture. We had been planning on moving to the countryside
since leaving Tokyo and had been looking for a house to rent for about six months. After nearly a year in limbo, we were ready to begin life in the country.
I was raised in a semi-rural setting in the U.S. state of Montana, but had lived mainly in cities since leaving high school in 1995 and had never lived in the Japanese countryside. I didn’t know what to expect, though I had read about rural life in Japan and had spent some time on farms in Oita Prefecture in the past year through WWOOF Japan. At first we didn’t think much about adapting to or integrating into the local society, probably because of more immediate concerns about making sure the house was livable and getting the garden started.
The next two years was a time of adjustment, discovery and learning. That journey hasn’t ended, but enough water has passed under the stone bridge that I can look back and see different steps and stages with some clarity. Some things have been easy (potatoes grow without much help), some have been difficult (winters are cold with uninsulated walls), there have been pleasant surprises (the property’s many fruit trees) and less pleasant ones (wild boars in the rice field), but all in all I have found Innai an incredibly pleasant and stimulating place to live.
The Japanese countryside is often described by the media in dire terms. The shrinking population and low birthrate have hit rural communities the hardest. Young people born in the countryside have been choosing for several generations to leave family farms to live in the cities. The elderly people left behind can do little as their neighborhoods dwindle to almost nothing (genkai shuraku), the homes of former friends and family sit empty (akiya) and once vibrant commercial districts fade (shatta-gai), leaving them with the fearful prospect of dying alone and unattended (kodokushi).
But, while these problems are real, after two years living in South Innai, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the future of the Japanese countryside. This area in particular has numerous incredibly positive attributes. Like the rest of Japan, it is safe, clean, and boasts efficient public services and high-quality infrastructure. The natural environment is beautiful with many opportunities for outdoor recreation—from hiking and swimming to hot springs and picnics. It has a mild climate that allows nearly year-round food production. Most of the food we don’t grow ourselves is produced within about thirty kilometers of our home. It is a twenty-minute drive to a small town, forty-five minutes to a larger one, an hour to an even larger one, and less than two hours to Fukuoka, one of the nation’s top cities. Nearby airports have flights to cities all around Japan and many countries in Asia; you can even fly direct to Hawaii.
I believe modern societies like Japan are in a transitional period between a structure in which the best jobs are concentrated in the cities, and a system that will enable more flexible choices between rural and urban. This transition has been caused mainly by technology. With high-speed internet access (available everywhere in South Innai), people can live far from the companies they work for and enterprises based in one area can provide services to people anywhere in the world. In many industries, there is much less of a need to be close to one’s supervisors, coworkers, clients and customers. As this transition progresses, some people will be drawn to the countryside by its many charms. It may take ten, twenty or even thirty years, but I believe a new type of lifestyle will come to exist in rural Japan, one that incorporates traditional modes of life centered around the fields, mountains and sea, but also is deeply incorporated with a globalized, high-tech world.