Jared Boasen (above, pictured with his wife), who will write a monthly column for Hokkaido Explorer on life in the north of Hokkaido (the first installment can be found here), talks about his background, his career as a musician, and the sense of community in the tiny mountain town he calls home. This email interview took place in November 2012.
What is your background before coming to Japan?
Prior to coming to Japan, I made a living by working in the field of medical research as a technician for various laboratories in Seattle, WA and San Diego, CA. Outside of work, I was an active musician, composing, recording and performing at coffee shops, wineries and other small venues. In addition to music, I also taught Wing Tsun kung fu, and spent a great deal of time flying paragliders.
When and why did you first come to Japan?
Medical research was always intended just to be a stepping stone for me. It was great way to make a stable income while I developed the skills for the things I really loved to do. After five years of that work, though, I began to get restless, and was giving serious thought to just packing up and traveling somewhere new. Perhaps because of my many years of martial arts training, I initially considered going to China. But then one day, a new scientist arrived in our laboratory, a physician from Hokkaido University Hospital named Tomoyuki Endo. It turned out that he was also a musician, a jazz pianist and composer. I invited him over to my house and we jammed all day, and cemented a friendship that would change my life.
Influenced tremendously by his impeccable character, his kindness, and his wife’s fantastic cooking, I began to develop an insatiable interest in Japan. At his suggestion, I enrolled in an evening Japanese conversation course at a local university. After just one session I was hooked. Forget China. So affected was I by this class, along with Dr. Endo’s endless tales of life in Hokkaido, free dinners and excellent sake, I soon made up my mind that I would, when my language skills were sufficient, quit my job and move to Hokkaido. Three years later, in the summer of 2007, that’s exactly what I did.
How did you end up where you are now?
Arriving where I did required leaving quite a bit to fate. Although I had extensive experience in medical research, and although Dr. Endo said he could easily get me a job in Sapporo doing that kind of work, I wanted something different. If I was to go through all the trouble to live in an Asian country, I didn’t want to live in a westernized metropolis. Besides, I had long outgrown city living anyway. What I really wanted was the cultural experience that only a rural lifestyle could provide. Yet, there are no medical research laboratories in the Hokkaido countryside. In fact there are almost no jobs for foreigners of any kind except English teaching positions offered through the government run Japanese English Teaching program. (I say almost here because there actually are numerous jobs available to foreigners who are keen to spend their days filleting scallops or hauling in fishing nets. But finding this work a bit too much of a delineation from my then present pay grade, and future social/cultural aspirations, I forwent any in-depth search for employment opportunity along these lines. Yet, I digress.)
The only catch with applying for a job with the JET program is that you don’t get to choose where and to what entity you apply to. You can do so much as put down where you hope to end up, and then after that you pray. I indicated that I wanted to end up in a rural Hokkaido town surrounded by mountains and lots of snow in the winter. It would seem that they don’t get many such requests, because, though I could have theoretically just as easily ended up in Okinawa, surrounded by warm sandy beaches and U.S. marines, instead I got my wish.
I was sent to a tiny town surrounded by mountains in northern Hokkaido, famous for gold dust in the rivers, and for often being the coldest place in all Japan. I was thrilled beyond belief. It took but a day to decide that this is where I wanted to live. And, true to those convictions, even after quitting my post with the JET program, my wife and I continue to remain here.
Can you describe the town or region?
Because I will be writing so intimately about this place, I am reluctant to name it, though inquisitive readers shouldn’t have trouble discovering such information on their own. However, I can easily say that I live in Soya, the northernmost area of Hokkaido, in a tiny dairy farming town of 1900 souls. Of course, if you wish to argue that cows also have souls then this figure roughly quintuples. There is no train. But there is a bus. And you have your choice of three mountain passes from which to access civilization, though which side of the mountains that exists on, I leave to you.
Soya’s climate, which boasts a general inhospitableness towards rice, is composed predominantly of mountains, hayfields, forests, rivers and streams, in no particular order. Winters are punctuated by deep powder snow, sub 30 degree temperatures, and drift ice along the Ohotsuku Sea. Summers, conversely, can reach plus 30 degree temperatures, but are not anywhere near as miserable as Tokyo.
The people are warm and friendly, the community active, and the culture remarkably alive considering the slow and unrelenting breakdown of traditional social communication through the pervasiveness of modern technology. A vast majority of people grow their own food, and far too much of it. Which also means that a vast majority of these people’s friends who do not grow their own food, nevertheless have plenty of it to eat.
Besides teaching English, what kinds of things are you involved in?
As it was before coming to Japan, music plays a dominant role in my life. I continue to compose, record and perform all over northern Hokkaido. This year in June, I released a solo album called, the Road to Halleluiah, and have since been expanding my performance venues to include Tokyo, and even Korea. Aside from my solo music career, I also work to promote and support young, local musicians by creating and organizing community performance opportunities.
In addition to music, I continue to paraglide throughout most of the year. Now rated as an instructor and tandem pilot, I am currently working on pioneering and developing new flying sites in northern Hokkaido, and hope to start a tandem flying business next spring.
As for kung fu, seeing as there was a dire lack of people to train with here, I began teaching not long after I arrived. The class, which meets once a week, continues to grow and now serves about 16 students.
Though I don’t have too much spare time outside of these pursuits, when I do, I enjoy all the kinds of things that make living in the countryside so great: biking, fishing, gardening, and backcountry skiing.
Can you talk about your career as a singer songwriter in Japan? How did that come about?
Continuing my career as a musician in Japan was not so much a decision rather than a natural progression. That’s not to say that this progression was easy, however, for I had to learn how to sing in a whole new language, and how to interact with and woo a completely foreign audience. These challenges were daunting, but also incredibly motivating and exciting. But with each performance, I made new friends, new fans, and new connections that have slowly allowed me to expand my venues.
True to my original desires for moving to Hokkaido, I focus my performing predominantly in rural areas, and enjoy the intimacy and friendships that can be built through such an approach. Moreover, being in the countryside affords me innumerable opportunities to be out in nature, where most of my inspiration derives, and offers the peace and quiet necessary to record my compositions from the privacy of my own home.
Has your perspective on life in Japan changed since you first arrived?
Whether it be from the three years I spent preparing to come here by studying the language, and indefatigably watching samurai movies, or all the stories told by Dr. Endo, or all the sake he made me drink, I can’t be precisely sure, but life in the Hokkaido countryside has fairly well met my expectations. In all seriousness, what I did expect, or rather hoped with all my heart, was that life was going to be very foreign, and very different from what I knew, requiring me to learn and adapt and grow as a person. Luckily for me, I got my wish. And after 5 and a half years, I’m still not tired of it yet.
What stands out about life in Hokkaido, perhaps compared with the rest of Japan?
To be fair, I have actually never lived anywhere else in Japan other than Hokkaido. However, my wife’s parents’ home is in Kanto and her grandparents’ home in Shizuoka, both of which we make extended visits to every year. But if I was to say the first thing that strikes me as different here from there, it would be population density, and a stronger sense of community.
It’s just my opinion, but I think the isolation and the harshness of the climate has really forced people to work together and be more communal that would perhaps be necessary in a milder region of Japan. And even though this area has only been populated by Japanese for about 100 years, the culture and traditions here are arguably as strong or stronger than any similarly sized town you might find on mainland Japan, where access to cities and their distractions is far more easily obtained.
What do you hope to do with your monthly column?
As a foreigner who has managed to gain acceptance into this community, an insider with the perspective of an outsider, able to see all that everyone else sees and all that they do not, it is my hope to share with readers the humors, the trials, and the wonder of everyday life, from an area who’s voice, English or otherwise, is little heard beyond the walls of the surrounding mountains, let alone the international community at large. I wish that this column might pay homage to the place I now love and call home, and spark curiosity and delight in all who venture to read its pages.
Read Jared Boasen’s first column here. His column will usually appear on the 1st of each month.