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Saturday, April 17, 2010


You know you live in the countryside when . . .

Okayama Prefecture is considered Japan's inaka (countryside). When I first came to teach at a university here, my students, who were all from the local small towns, would introduce themselves as being from inaka, and then laugh as if this was the funniest thing in the world. To me, the word "countryside" has a nice image: rolling hills, green grass, and cows. But I get the feeling that inaka in Japanese is more like saying you're from "the sticks." It just doesn't sound as good. "The sticks" sounds kinda scratchy.

Equally confusing, however, is that the definition of inaka in Japanese can include highways, tall buildings and lots of traffic. The image is not the same as small-town living in the United States, for example.

So, do you live in inaka if a high-rise was built in the middle of your rice field? Here are some guidelines to know if you are truly living in Japan's countryside:

You have kumitori dutifully marked on your calendar each month.

If you do not know what kumitori means, you're definitely not living in the real inaka. Kumitori is an actual event: Two men in jumpsuits come to your house carrying large unwieldy hoses, really big ones, that suck out the contents of your pit toilet. Then, you pay them in orange tickets according to your "output." The reason you mark kumitori on your calendar is not to remind you the toilet needs to be cleaned out (heck, you look into the toilet and see that for yourself), but rather to remind yourself not to invite anyone over to your house that day. The smell would kill them. Besides, your personal smells should be kept to yourself.

Your neighbors know what you're going to do before you do.

These inaka people have an uncanny way of knowing things before they happen! It must be all that standing around and observing. Inaka people can think about something for hours before they make a move. So they usually have spent a lot of time considering what you'll do next. So you may as well do it.

The most common ailment people die from is politeness.

I always feel over-fed, over-gifted, and over-favored. Country people are so traditional, so unfailingly polite, so friendly that I believe this is what gets them in the end — exhaustion. You know you could never pay back all the favors, no matter how much you try, and in the end, you'll probably die of guilt.

People drop by on Sundays, unannounced, and stay all day.

I know to always clean my house on Sunday mornings and have coffee and cakes on hand because surely someone will stop by. But recently, I was caught off guard because I had just returned from the U.S. and wasn't quite in the groove yet. My body was in Japan but my brain still in the U.S. I was lying on the sofa in my cow pajamas reading a Natsume Soseki novel, and had fallen asleep. I was in a deep state of jet lag, saliva was drooling out of my mouth and I was snoring.

Suddenly I was awakened by commotion in the genkan. "Amy!"

"Just a moment!" I yelled, jumping up from the sofa. I managed to put on a pair of jeans and to throw a flannel shirt over my pajama top, and went to see who was standing in my genkan. It was the Nakagawas, the former owners of my house. "We came back to the island for hoji," they said. They sometimes come back to the island for funereal rituals like this.

Startled into Japanese mode, I put out the slippers and started apologizing for the house, "Sorry my house is so small and insignificant!" I complained. "It's old and . . ." Whoops! Are you supposed to say these things when the guests are the former owners of the house?

After an hour or so, they brought out o-bento and started preparing lunch for the three of us.

The husband went off to hoji ("Can I borrow your truck, Amy?") while the wife stayed behind. As soon as he left, one of the minshuku owners came by with her daughter. We all had coffee and cakes (again). Then the priest came and tapped on the window, but seeing how many people were inside, said he'd come back later. At 3 p.m., when everyone had left, I looked down at the cow spots of my pajama top peeking out from under my flannel shirt. Whew!

I'd survived another Sunday in the real Japanese countryside.

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