What a JET placement in the inaka is really like
For a lot of people applying to the JET Program, the most stress-inducing part of the process is the period between being notified of your acceptance and receiving your placement. While JET does ask you for your preferences, unless you have an actual medical reason for needing to be in a certain location, they're notorious for giving people the exact opposite of what they requested. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of blog posts and forum threads online dedicated to tips and tricks for being more likely to get the placement you want, or at least getting one that you won't hate. This is not one of those posts.
Today, I'd like to talk about and dispel some myths regarding the most controversial of placements, those in the inaka, the Japanese countryside. For a lot of people, an inaka placement can seem like a death sentence. For others, it seems like an anime dream come true. For most, the reality - as reality tends to be - is somewhere in the middle.
And I definitely feel like I have a little bit of authority here. See the map? This is where I live. Go ahead, zoom in a bit. Notice how it's so far from absolutely everything. On my recent trip to Korea, it took over twice as long to get to the airport as it did to fly to Korea. I could have flown to Korea, gone through customs, and flown back to Japan in the amount of time it took me to get from my house to Kansai International. I know what I'm talking about.
(One thing that I can't claim to say anything about though are the few placements on outlying islands only reachable by plane or like way northern Hokkaido - y'all are on your own)
While a pros vs. cons list might seem like a good idea here, I feel that they're really dependent on what an individual considers to be positive and negative things. So instead of doing that, without calling anything good or bad, I'm going to be talking about some things that you should and shouldn't expect from inaka life, based on my own experience and those who I've talked to with equally rural placements.
To begin, here's what inaka life isn't.
It's nothing like rural living in the US. For a lot of Americans, when we think of the countryside, we picture something straight out of Little House on the Prairie. Fields of wheat that stretch on as far as the eye can see and isolated farm houses connected by a single dirt road. Not the case in Japan. Remember, Japan is really small, and most of its land actually isn't arable. That means that instead of just having nothing for miles upon miles (kilometers upon kilometers?), inaka living looks more like little pockets of homes and businesses separated from each other by maybe a ten to fifteen minute drive.
It's not all farmers and rice fields. While there without a doubt will be both farmers and rice fields, that's not all that people do. These are fully functioning, independent towns. They'll have government offices, stores, hospitals, and even a restaurant or two.
You won't be completely lost if you don't speak Japanese. You are being hired to teach in public schools where English is part of the national curriculum, after all. The Japanese English teachers will be fluent, and while average people may not know as much English as the people in a city, they'll do their best to help you out. Additionally, all of the road signs and a good deal of other signage and advertisements are written in English (or at least with English letters), so while you're still adjusting and learning how to read kana (because you should), you'll definitely be able to survive.
You won't be too isolated from other foreigners. Though you may be the only foreigner in your particular town, there's almost guaranteed to be other ALTs or other foreigners in your vicinity. Especially now in the age of social networking, it's actually pretty easy to connect with and get to know the other people in your area who speak your language (if that's what you want, of course!)
It isn't impossible to have fun. Sure, you'll have to do a little more advanced planning, but going out and having fun is definitely something that can happen on a regular basis. And I'm not even talking about going to Osaka or Tokyo or Fukuoka. Even your nearest small city will have things like bowling alleys, shopping centers, movie theaters, and bars.
It's not a romantic anime dream. Japanese animation is really good at being lifelike. You will see things that remind you of something you've seen in a movie or TV show. But please please please don't come in expecting your life to suddenly become this picture perfect image of what you imagine Japanese life should be like.
And here are some things you can expect.
Things can be far, and you will have to drive regularly. And yes, for Americans that means on the opposite side than you're used to. The nearest grocery store may be a fifteen to thirty minute drive away (or more), same goes for your school(s). Convenience stores, while ubiquitous in Japanese cities, are fewer and farther between in the inaka, which often means that it won't be possible for you to walk down the street for a snack at midnight as you please. That being said, however, driving does give you the freedom to go anywhere whenever you want, and driving in the country means less stoplights and traffic.
Things close really early. The banks close at 3:00 and the post office closes at 5:00. Many restaurants are only open for lunch or until maybe 7:00 at the latest. Gas stations are also generally not 24-hours, with some closing as early as 7:00. The ATMs also have closing times, but that's a nation-wide issue that I will most definitely be covering in depth on a later date.
You will see your students (and their parents and sometimes your coworkers too) outside of class on a regular basis. You'll probably live in the school district that you work in, which means that it's possible that some of your students may be your neighbors, and you'll definitely see them at places like the grocery store or local festivals. That also means that they'll see you, mind you. Anonymity is near impossible, but it also allows you to have deeper relations with your community.
Your schools will be pretty small. My main two middle schools have about fifteen students per grade, making the total population of the school only about 45 students. At my smallest elementary school, there's only one second grader. Being in smaller schools means that you'll get to work at all of the students, and they'll want you to participate more in school-wide events.
If you're in an elementary or middle school, you'll be expected to eat kyushoku (school lunch). Barring any dietary restrictions, everyone at school eats kyushoku. If you don't, you won't be allowed to eat with the students (either in a lunch room or their classrooms). Depending on things like how good a school district's lunch is or how much you're used to eating or how good you are at eating things outside your comfort zone (because I guarantee you, even if you like Japanese food, there will be things outside your comfort zone), kyushoku has the potential to be really delicious or hard to choke down. Read more about it all here!
Your nearby eating out options will be limited. You should just forget about casual trips to McDonald's and Starbucks right now. Those are things you need to plan ahead for. On top of that, you'll be hard pressed to find anything nearby other than casual Japanese dining. Depending on your location, ramen may even be hard to locate.
So hopefully this has provided a little dose of reality. Living in the inaka, though admittedly less convenient than the city, is like living anywhere. And as long as you know the limitations that you're working with, it isn't hard to get by.
Though, in case you've read through all of this, and still can't imagine living in the inaka, of all of the "tips" that I've seen to avoid it, the only one that I would endorse is to mark on your application that you can't drive. You might still be in an isolated small city, but you'll definitely have more urban comforts than if you were placed somewhere that required a car. So there's that.