This is my tenth year living here in Kitahiroshima. Before that, my first stint was in Sapporo from 2004 to 2006.
Lots of things have changed, but I am still proud to call myself an American transplant, or an American Dosanko 道産子 (どさんこ), which is what people from Hokkaido are called. The kanji characters are the do from Hokkaido, san means products, and ko for child.
On that note, I’d like to share some questions to ask yourself especially if you’re thinking about making the move here.
Can you handle the cold?
Because I shite you not, it is freaking chilly. Now, if you love winter sports and don’t mind it at all, then welcome. I still think being cold beats being hot and humid all the time–like in other (southern) parts of Japan.
But seriously, think about it. If you’re not healthy, being in a cold climate is not the best place to be. You’re more likely to fall prey to different types of viruses. Granted, you’re surrounded by nature, but if your immune system is shot, there’s no way you’ll be healthy enough to enjoy outdoors. You’ll be cooped up mostly indoors, not exposed to fresh air, because your body is trying to recuperate from an illness.
Are you okay living in a small city?
Because Sapporo is a lot smaller than you’d think. Yes, it’s the fifth largest city in Japan, with almost two million people, but it’s still small compared to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya.
And resources are not as developed as the the major cities. You’d have more medical options in Tokyo if you needed specific care–so think about your medical requirements. Do you need special drugs that are difficult to get? Do you require treatment with specific equipment or specialists?
Think about financial and legal needs as well. How complicated is your business? If you need someone who can deal with international contracts or taxes or whatever, you won’t easily find those professionals here.
There are only three subway lines, for god’s sake. The Hokkaido JR system is comprehensive, but not as complicated as that of Tokyo’s. I mean you get so dizzy just looking at the Tokyo transport map. The “international” airport only goes to less than twenty cities not located in Japan, and most of them go to China.
More importantly, competition for jobs is fierce–even for Eikaiwa teaching. Because it’s not a particularly big city, there are not that many customers taking English lessons in Sapporo. Your pay is also going to be significantly less than what you would get in Tokyo.
There aren’t that many kinds of other jobs available, either–and that’s for Japanese people, too. Most young people leave Hokkaido and venture out to Tokyo and Osaka for jobs. Sapporo is just not a very big economic hub. But if you can speak Japanese fluently and want to get into agriculture and forestry, you might have some options there. Oh, and good luck trying to find recruiters to help you find a job.
How much of a foodie are you?
Because if you’re looking for authentic ethnic food of the non-Japanese variety, there’s not much here. Of course, seafood is amazing–but there’s no Taco Bell. Just kidding 🙂
I mean, there’s no Taco Bell, but there’s one or two “Mexican” restaurants in Sapporo. There are a few Thai restaurants run by actual Thai people. Indian curry–real curry–has become more popular so that’s a blessing. Same with Chinese food. But let’s say Greek food or Turkish food–what’s that? You’ll be hard to find those here.
Along those lines, how homesick will you get for your home food? Because if you want to cook it at home, you won’t easily find the stores that will be selling those specific flavors or spices. You’re going to have to rely on having someone ship them to you from back home, or go to Tokyo and find them there.
Do you need a visa?
I guess this should be the topmost question because you’re going to need it just to even set foot in the country–or stay longer than a month, anyway. As I mentioned above about the lack of resources, visa sponsorship that comes with a job is not as common as that in the other cities. We do have lots of students at Hokkaido University on a student visa, but you need to prove that you have the monetary means to support yourself. If you live outside of Japan and need a visa first, try doing that to get entry into the country. You can then try living in other parts of Japan and then think about moving up here.
Then again, you can go the route I went and marry a Japanese national 🙂
Are you okay making tradeoffs?
Particularly, what is your budget for rent, food, and entertainment? Because some things are cheap in Hokkaido, and some things are shockingly expensive.
You’d think that because Hokkaido is smaller, all things are cheaper–but the reality is different. Rent might be cheaper and the rooms are bigger than Tokyo’s, but transportation is expensive. Single ticket subway rides start at ¥210. Tokyo? ¥170. Don’t even get me started on the JR lines.
Your heating bill will be super expensive, as winter lasts forever–but then again, if you live in Honshu, your cooling bill will probably be the same. You pay the price for air conditioning use. Again, trade offs.
Food is also more expensive. In Tokyo, a basic, simple ramen dish starts at ¥600 (last time I remember). Here, they start at around ¥800. While it’s not really that much of a difference, it does add up.
Shipping is super expensive–even for giant online retailers like Amazon. If you order anything from Honshu and you get it shipped to Hokkaido, be prepared to pay the premium for having to skip islands. The distance between Tokyo and Sapporo is just too great.
Apply this to airline tickets when you’re planning to visit back home. Trips from Tokyo will usually be ¥30-¥40,000 yen cheaper than than starting from Chitose Airport. If you want to go back to the US, you can fly home roundtrip from Narita for less than $1000. But if you start from Sapporo, mark that up way higher.
Are you looking for Japanese culture?
I hate to tell you this, but you just won’t get “traditional” Japanese culture here. You’re better off living in Kyoto and even Tokyo–just anywhere away from Sapporo if that’s what you really want. The closest thing to “tradition” would probably be in Hakodate–but even the culture there is closer to Aomori’s Tohoku customs than Kyoto’s heritage. Hakodate is actually older than Sapporo, so much of the history would naturally occur in the city that is geographically closest to Honshu.
If anything, the traditional indigenous Ainu culture should be celebrated in Hokkaido. Ainu culture is most definitely different from Japanese culture. The language, the history, and the traditions are interesting–and so rich with naturalism.
But that’s a whole ‘nother issue that is uniquely Hokkaido’s. It is something that the Japanese government needs to address because its past actions have almost wiped out this rich history that is seldom told about Japan. The Ainu people deserve to have their culture represented, spread, and encouraged more in Hokkaido. (I’ll do my part with this blog.)
Are you willing to speak Japanese?
Because your quality of life will improve if you get to know the language. Most Japanese people have an allergic reaction to speaking English–and you’ll feel that a lot more in Hokkaido than in the other major cities. People don’t speak as much English here–or are more reticent to try it. Tokyo is an international hub for tourists and businesses, so English is pretty much given. Here, we’re still navigating the growing tourism boom, so many businesses and especially the travel industry are trying to catch up. This is great if you came specifically to Japan to improve your Japanese skills.
Even after 14 years of living here, I still get asked whether I understand or can speak Japanese. Yeah, I only passed the Level 2 of the Japanese language test. Shrugs.
But I’ve learned not to take it to heart. Just understand that the person asking is scared they might have to speak English, so I always reassure them that I can speak Japanese.
So think about these factors as you contemplate making the move.
With that said, I still love it here. Only Hokkaido for me.