Nine years ago I was waiting for a message/call from my parents to tell me when my JET Programme placement letter arrived and where I was being sent while touring Europe with two friends. We were in London when I got the call from my dad.
- "You're going to Towada City in Aomori Prefecture. It's got a university so it can't be too small/rural."
- "What kind of university?" I asked.
- "An agricultural* university," I believe he replied.
- "It's definitely a rural placement!" I thought.
(*Actually, it's a veterinary university.)
So if you opened your placement letter and freaked out a bit when you saw the words "Aomori Prefecture," don't worry, you're not alone.
As you will soon be tired of hearing, "every situation is different" (ESID), but from my personal experience as a five-year JET ALT turned lifer (I got married so the move to Towada became permanent), I can say that Aomori is a great place to live.
To be honest, all of Aomori Prefecture is basically by definition rural, but there are definitely benefits to rural placements. The main thing is that you will get to experience a side of Japan that few outsiders get to see. If you need to, you can always visit a big(ger) city and get a decent sense of city life/the city experience, but you can't really get the full small town experience just by visiting. I've been able to plant and harvest rice, pound rice into mochi (rice cakes) using a giant wooden mallet and mortar, dance bon odori (a kind of folk dance) in a yukata (light cotton summer kimono) in an outdoor art park, and do so much more that I probably wouldn't have had a chance to experience in a bigger urban placement.
And the food here is so much fresher and cheaper than Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc. Sure, if you want a specific type of international cuisine or ingredients from back home, Aomori can't compete with bigger urban cities, but if you're buying seasonal, local produce, Aomori beats Tokyo for quality and cost any day hands down. Every time I travel to a big city in Japan, I come back to Towada and am amazed at the deliciousness of simply seasoned (if at all) fresh, local vegetables, fish, &etc..
Heard about the crazy expensive giant tuna from the Tsukiji market fish auctions? Chances are that came from Aomori (Oma Town) and you can eat it freshly carved right before your eyes for a reasonable price at the Oma Super Tuna Festival in October.
If you're not yet convinced that life in a rural prefecture will be your thing, well, just try to keep an open mind. Hopefully you'll see when you get here what a great place it is.
(The local JET community is great too. Although I didn't hang out with many people from outside of my city/local area even when I was still a JET, I still keep in contact with the current JET community through Facebook, etc. Even though I haven't personally met most of them, from my online interactions with them, they seem like a pretty good bunch.)
Speaking of which, my number one tip if you are coming to Aomori on the JET Programme this summer is to join the Aomori JET Facebook Group (assuming you use Facebook). You will be able to find your predecessor (or someone who knows them) and/or a re-contracting JET in your placement city/town/village or at the very least someone who lives nearby.
If you are planning on getting a car, you should also join the Jet Lemonade Stand (青森) as leavers will probably start listing their cars there within the next couple of months. TIP: Even if you don't need to drive for work, if you have a license and can afford to get/maintain a car I would highly recommend considering getting one. Aomori is big and spread out and the population isn't big enough to support a highly developed public transportation system. Lots of interesting places are not easily accessible by public transport. Having a car will give you freedom to explore all the various places and events** Aomori has to offer. Also, having a car will make life in the winter (which lasts almost five months) a lot more bearable
(**Shameless plug: if you're interested in getting an idea as to the types of events we have in Aomori, check out my other blog Towada & Beyond for a sampling. Although I haven't been able to post events from every single city/town/village in Aomori yet, I've got at least one event for most places. See the Aomori Events by Location page for a list of annual events in your specific placement location.)
And while I am dispensing unsolicited advice, I would also recommend relying on your predecessor or other ALTs living in your placement city/town/village for specific advice as much as possible.
For example, when it comes to choosing a cell phone provider, even within the prefecture there is a lot of variation in terms of which companies get good reception in specific areas. For example, when my husband lived in Hirosaki City, he used AU and it was cheap and had good reception. But in Towada AU reception is not very good so he switched to Docomo after we got married. (After the big 2011 East Japan Earthquake & Tsunami, Docomo phones could still receive and make calls, but AU lost reception almost immediately and nothing came through until a couple of days later.) Softbank has better reception than AU (although still not as good as Docomo), but the Softbank store in Towada has rather poor customer service. So even though it is a little bit more expensive, we generally recommend that Towada ALTs stick with Docomo for its reliability (we have lots of schools far from the city center) and good service.
Other places are probably different, so it's best to get advice directly from the people who know your specific placement the best--current JETs and/or other people living there.
Oh, and for those anxious to hear from your contracting organization (CO), in Aomori, COs are officially allowed to contact new ALTs from Thursday May 26, 2016, so you might want to start checking your inbox (and junk mail folders, too!) to see if you have any messages. (Note: Some COs might not email you first, but mail you information directly instead.)
Anyway, I've rambled on quite a bit, so I'll end here. Feel free to get in touch via the comments section if you have any questions about my experience (past as a JET and/or ongoing as a permanent foreign resident).
(Note: All comments must be approved by me first, so don't worry if your comment doesn't show up immediately--I will see it! Also, if you don't want the comment to be published but instead would like me to email you a reply directly, just mention that and include your email address in the comment and I'll email you and delete the comment without posting it.)