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We couldn't imagine starting a family cramped inside a city apartment, so we moved to the Japanese countryside instead

Tom Miyagawa Coulton   

We couldn't imagine starting a family cramped inside a city apartment, so we moved to the Japanese countryside instead
  • Tom Miyagawa Coulton grew up in Tokyo and London, but after getting married, he was done with city life.
  • He and his wife found a nonprofit organization to help them relocate to the Japanese countryside.

The wooden structure, padded with green bamboo, toppled over and hit the ground with a thud. Inside the now inverted frame, me and a fellow drummer reached up with our sticks to keep the beat going.

We were following orders from everyone in the village: "Whatever happens, the drums must not be silenced." The summer festival on the Japanese island where I had just moved to was taking place and at its centerpiece was the yagura, a heavy wooden structure carried shoulder-high through the streets and tossed along the way. The more it fell, the happier the gods.

No one volunteers to be one of the two drummers inside the yagura. Having recently moved to the island, I drew the short straw.

Back in 2014, my wife and I had just gotten married and were living in a tiny, rented apartment in central Tokyo.

While I was born in Tokyo — to a Japanese mom and British dad — we moved to England when I was six, and I grew up just outside London. I moved back to Tokyo as an adult and in 2009, I met the woman who went on to be my wife.

As much as we enjoyed city life, we increasingly felt the need for something different. We longed for a life closer to nature, away from the big city treadmill and the ever-present crowds.

We wanted a slower-paced lifestyle

We approached the staff at Tokyo's Furusato Kaiki Shien Center, a nonprofit organization that assists people — both local and foreign — interested in relocating to the Japanese countryside. Free consultations can be booked on their website. We went to them with a vague idea of living somewhere warm and close to the sea. Within five months, we were moving into a traditional Japanese cottage on the picturesque island of Osaki Shimojima in the Seto Inland Sea.

Osaki Shimojima forms part of the Tobishima Kaido island chain — seven islands connected by bridges to mainland Hiroshima. Our picture-postcard harbor town of Mitarai with its white-walled period buildings, is frequently featured in films and commercials, most recently in the Academy Award-winning film "Drive My Car."

My Japanese wife was recruited as the island's rural revitalization officer — a local government post designed to help people transition to life in the countryside. Along with a three-year contract, the job also came with accommodation.

Although I was doubtful about my own prospects on the island as a photographer, writer, and translator, editorial departments came knocking, asking me to cover stories west of Osaka. Early challenges with sluggish internet are happily a thing of the past — the island now boasts broadband internet speeds rivaling Tokyo. Slowly, other digital nomads are beginning to see Osaki Shimojima as a viable place to live and work.

These days, we're running a tea shop and raising a son

Since our move in 2015, we renovated an akiya, an old abandoned house, converted a former Taisho-era post office into an English-style tea and scone shop, reclaimed disused farmland to grow vegetables, and keep a couple of beehives. Recently we turned a vacant lot opposite the tea shop into a community herb garden.

We also have a three-year-old son who is made especially welcome on an island where 70% of the population is over 75 years old. The villagers call out his name and chart his progress as he darts about the narrow streets causing mayhem. Just to compare, roughly 30% of Japan's population is over 65, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Life on the island runs to a different beat. When we first arrived, we would find bags of vegetables on our doorstep with no note attached. It needed weeks of detective work to track down the benefactor. Our neighbor keeps us stocked with glistening Japanese yellowtail or seabream after a successful morning out at sea. We try to keep it reciprocal with gifts of English tea, but sometimes it is hard to keep up.

The locals welcomed us into the community

We owe so much to the locals for helping us learn the ropes of village life. They patiently show us the best way to grow vegetables, tend our citrus plants, and fish for squid. "After casting, let the lure drop down for the time it takes to light a cigarette and take a long drag" — advice once heard, never forgotten.

We learned how old Japanese houses have thin walls. My father was at our Mitarai home watching England play in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final. When locals passing by on their afternoon constitutional heard the unrestrained yelling at the TV, they interpreted it as a heated marital row. This led to weeks of worried looks.

The wildlife on the island can be challenging. From time to time, a poisonous black centipede called the mukade pays the house a visit. Now, we sleep with mosquito nets during spring and summer for peace of mind. At night the mountains become the preserve of wild boars foraging for earthworms and fallen citrus. Stay a few nights on the island and you're sure to meet one.

Japan has an aging population and they are incredibly tough

Farmers in their 80s, even 90s, still scale the steep terraced citrus fields to tend their oranges and lemons, thinking nothing of lugging 40-pound cases of fruit back down to their trucks. The island's loudspeaker system blasts out jingles at 6 a.m., 11 a.m., and 5 p.m., signaling to the farmers to head out or head home. Taking things easy is a foreign concept. If you're not working, you're skiving.

Anyone under 60 is considered a whippersnapper and this brings responsibilities like joining the festival group or the volunteer firefighters — the first responders to any emergency. Next year, I will be the dancho, or group leader, for the summer festival. It's a badge of honor, and after eight years, I'll finally feel like I've earned my stripes. And I'll make sure to allocate some other poor soul to keep drumming inside the yagura.

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