Hi. My Name is Ian McDonald. After a massive 3 day gauntlet of introductory conferences in Tokyo, seeing Gunma from a bus window for the first time served up quite a shock to my initial expectations of what life was going to be like in Japan. The proud skyscrapers of Shinjuku thawed quickly into a sprawling green landscape guarded by mountains and hills in nearly every direction. I had been mesmerized by Tokyo, but after a couple of hours on the highway I realized I had only then entered Japan.
The first few weeks of living in my new inaka home were slow moving, but I explored the town of Higashiagatsuma a little more each day. Albeit secluded and completely different from Houston’s 5 million people, it was truly beautiful. I had plenty of time to realize that a super flashy, post-modern, technology addicted version of Japan was the wool that American pop-media had pulled over my eyes.
Like many other prefectures, stretching from the islands of Kyushu to the slopes of Tohoku, Gunma is choosy about how it allows its ancient towns and villages to be influenced by a rapidly growing pressure to become modernized or even internationalized. Fast food joints on every corner might be replaced by ramen shops, the default hangout might be a karaoke superplex, and the closest spot to grab a beer after work might be on the straw-matted floor of a traditional Japanese isekaya. It took a while for me to appreciate these cultural establishments for what they were. As a foreign resident in Gunma, keeping an open mind and embracing the local resources (natural and commercial) will accelerate you through any culture shock you might have.
“I still stare at the sun-splashed mountains and rivers and feel lucky that they still impress me.”
In the two years I have been here, I have come to think of Gunma as being a hub connecting two different communal habitats of Japan, no matter what your lifestyle is like. If you are a social savage and love to party, Takasaki and Maebashi offer dozens of bars and local music venues, and most of Gunma is only a two or three-hour train ride from Tokyo. Alternatively, the outdoorsy type in Gunma will find plenty of stuff to do year round; whether its hitting the slopes in Minakami, or hiking the mountains. I like to spend my time doing a bit of everything, and since Gunma in general sports a fairly outgoing community, I found that if I wanted to stay busy every weekend it was not hard to make plans with like-minded adventure seekers, culture nuts, or party animals.
To be honest, living in a very rural town had some drawbacks but there was a silver lining to my town’s “off the beaten path” location. I was lucky enough to live in a decent sized house rather than an apartment, surrounded by very few neighbors. Thus, massive house partys were a common occurrence and always concluded without any complaints.
I was raised as an urbanite and will be returning to the same in a few weeks. The American west coast has been calling my name for a while now, and I can’t ignore it any longer. However, even though this is my third and final summer in Gunma, I still stare at the sun-splashed mountains and rivers and feel lucky that they still impress me. Now I am ready to move on, but I will miss Gunma. It has become simply my home in the eastern hemisphere.”