I put on my boots and open the door to my house and step outside. Immediately the blinding white strikes my eyes.
To my right is a field of white all the way back to the hills in the distance and to my left is a wall of snow 8 feet high. In front of me is my driveway that has 30 cm of fresh snow that needs to be shoveled before I can move my car.
After 45 minutes of shoveling, I am in my car and driving down the road. But even here all I see is white. The road is white and lined by walls of snow taller than my car. It’s minus 10 degrees Celsius but my I’m sweating from all the shoveling.
This is a routine that I am very accustomed to now that I live in Hokkaido, but it wasn’t so long ago that the only snow I saw was the snow on top of Mt. Fuji. Shizuoka was always hot and sunny so what am doing in the land of snow and cold? And why do I love it so much?
Deciding on Hokkaido
I was living in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka before I decided to come to Hokkaido. Fujinomiya is a great town and I had Mt. Fuji in my backyard.
There were a lot of music festivals in Asagiri, I could camp at the Fuji Five Lakes, and there were many places to go hiking in the Southern Alps.
It was a great place for me, but being from Wisconsin it was too hot and too many people there. No matter how far I went hiking into the mountains, there were always a crowd of people. I couldn’t escape them!
I am not really a fan of big crowds, but the biggest reason for me to leave Shizuoka was the weather. It was always sunny and hot (besides the typhoon season).
I couldn’t live in a place that didn’t have snow. I am an avid snowboarder so I asked myself; where in Japan has the best snow? Soon after that, I bought a car that was good in winter and started my journey to Hokkaido.
I decided to buy a car before I left because it was cheaper to bring everything I could with me instead of shipping it all to Hokkaido. Shipping to Hokkaido is really expensive and besides, I needed to buy a new car eventually. So I bought a Nissan X Trail because it is big and good in winter.
I loaded up my car with everything I could and then sold everything else. Then I drove from Fujinomiya to Oarai in Ibaraki prefecture. From there I took the ferry to Tomakomai, Hokkaido.
The ferry took 18 hours but it only cost 26,000 yen for me and my car. It took a long time but it was cheaper than buying a plane ticket and shipping everything.
It was 32 degrees when I left Shizuoka, but it was a chilly 10 degrees when I got to Hokkaido. Even though it was April, it still looked like winter. All the mountains were covered in snow and all the streets were still lined with walls of snow. The air was crisp and fresh. It had an instant rejuvenating effect on me and despite being underdressed I felt good.
From Tomakomai I drove the last three hours to get to my new home.
My new home
I moved to a town that has a population of just over 4,000 people and is located about 45 minutes from Asahikawa. I grew up in a small town but my new town felt really, really small.
There is one traffic light in my town, one post office, one izakaiya, one convenience store and one small train station here. That is it! Well, that and a lot of snow and many foxes roaming the streets.
I started to have some reservations about moving to such a small town, but then I saw my house. I knew I would be living in teacher housing, but I never dreamed that that would be such a good thing.
My house is amazing!! It is a 3LDK with a large garage and even a large yard where I have a garden and space for campfires!
The best part is that I only pay 23,000 yen a month for it!
Here are two pictures of campfires in front of my house. Winter and summer versions:
My friends who live in other rural areas of Hokkaido have similar housing situations. Hokkaido is a good place to be an English teacher. Even my friends who live in Sapporo have nice apartments. The apartments are generally bigger than the apartments I have seen in Tokyo and they are a lot newer here.
There is just so much open space in Hokkaido that everything seems to be a bit bigger. The apartments are a bit bigger, the spaces between the houses are bigger and even the roads are wider. This extra space really makes the quality of life better here!
My new community
Everyone in this town knows me now. Quite literally, EVERYONE.
It’s not only because I am a foreigner and stand out on the street, but because I was featured in the local newspaper and even on a local TV program. They were really interested in me when I came here and went out of their way to introduce me to everyone in town. With only 4,000 people, it didn’t take long to meet them all.
I was surprised at how easily my town welcomed me into their community. I have always known that Japanese people are polite, but it was always a struggle to get fully accepted into their close circles. I was always just an outsider that everyone was friendly to.
But now I am a full member of the community here. They ask me to play on the town’s softball and volleyball teams. City Hall invites me to BBQ parties all summer long. I am involved in planning the holiday events for the children in town. I write letters to the mayor with suggestions for the town and he invites me to his office to discuss the ideas further. Once every three months I become the “leader” of my neighborhood and supervise the cleaning of the streets in my area (even though they are always clean to begin with).
It isn’t always fun, but it feels great to be a real member of this community. I get less “gaijin privileges” here and it actually feels great because it feels more natural.
This isn’t just limited to my town either.
The people in Hokkaido are much more accepting of foreigners. One reason why I think that is because that there are many people who live in Hokkaido who aren’t from Hokkaido. A large percentage of people who live here are transplants from other parts of Japan. This diversity creates an environment of understanding and less prejudice.
There seems to be a touch more of Western mentality in Hokkaido and that makes a huge difference for the people who live here. People here still hold to their traditions but they are far more open to new ideas than people in the other places I have lived.
I have also always believed that the colder the climate is, the warmer the people are. Hokkaido is COLD and because of that, people rely on each other more and that creates a bond between people.
My main job is as an ALT for a junior high school and an elementary school. I work for a dispatch company so I only make 250,000 yen a month. But my schools here are wonderful!
I taught at 14 different schools prior to coming to Hokkaido, but I have never experienced such a wonderful atmosphere in school. I have taught at great schools before, but my classes now are always genki and happy. It makes my job so much fun!
They don’t complain when I give them homework and they always seem to be smiling. There is also a noticeable lack of monster parents here as well. The parents here are fun to talk to and they invite me to their house for dinner or invite me to go out drinking. Both of which have never happened to me before.
All of these good things stem from the wonderful and general mentality of the people who live in Hokkaido.
I love side hustles! Finding ways to make extra money is a passion for me and every town I live in, I am searching for new ways to make money in Japan. I have even made a website to help other expats learn how make money in Japan. Check out The Yen Pincher to see all the ways that I use to make extra money in Japan. I make a lot of money online, but I have found many other great side jobs to do in Hokkaido.
Hokkaido has been an especially great place for me to make extra money. In addition to all the things I normally do (online) to make money, here are some of the bigger jobs I do for money. I use word of mouth to get these jobs and to promote them. I also use JMTY a lot to get jobs/customers/students etc. JMTY is awesome!
Eikaiwa: I started an eikaiwa school here and I charge each student 5,400 yen per month (four classes). That is less than what I charged in Shizuoka but it is more than what other eikaiwa schools charge in Asahikawa. I rent a room in my city hall for my classes and they charge me 200 yen an hour to use the room, which is really cheap!
Fishing guide: In summer, I am sometimes a fishing “guide” for children. There are about 20 children that come to the local fishery. Basically, I get paid to put worms on hooks and take the hooks out of fish. I get 10,000 yen per day and I do this once or twice a month.
Detail cars: I did this a lot when I was in high school and it works great here too. People in Hokkaido are very particular about the cleanliness of their cars. It is very common for people to take their shoes off before getting into their cars. I think it is an overkill, but their cars are very clean up here. But they are never clean enough for the car owner and that is why I can make money.
Detailing cars means that I clean the cars very thoroughly. Not only do I wash/wax the outside of the car, I clean every detail inside the car. I use toothbrushes and toothpicks to clean every crack. I use a large variety of cleaning products to clean the leather, plastics and even the tires and rims.
I shampoo the carpet and have several stain removing products that I can use for various parts of the car. It takes me about 3 or 4 hours per car (depending on size) and I get paid 10,000 or 20,000 yen. That is a lot of money but people are willing to pay it to make their car look new again.
Workshops: I like art and am always making something. Ever since I was young I liked to make dreamcatchers so I decided to do workshops and teach other people how to make them. I use a room in City Hall for this as well and it costs 200 yen an hour for the room. I promote my workshop for a month (mostly on JMTY) and I charge each person 2,500 yen for a 90 minute workshop.
I provide all the materials and I even have tea and some snacks. I usually have between 5 – 12 people sign up for each workshop. This is a very fun way for me to make money!
Ski resort: In winter, I work at the local ski resort. I go there after I finish my classes at school and most Saturdays and Sundays. I get paid 870 yen an hour and I sit at the front desk selling tickets. On weekends I can work up to 12 hours a day so my paycheck at the end of the month is pretty good! It is an easy job but I wish we had computers to use. We still handwrite every lift ticket and I only have a simple cash box for transactions.
Farms: One more major thing that I do to earn money is to help out on the local farms. After telling a few people that I was looking for ways to make money, I was soon getting a lot of emails from farmers looking for help.
I mostly work on tomato farms, which is pretty simple work, but it takes a toll on my body. My back and my fingers hurt at the end of each day, but it is a good way to make some extra cash.
I get paid in cash and I usually make around 5,000 yen for about six hours of work. The farmers are really friendly and generous, so in addition to making cash they give me more vegetables and other produce than I know what to do with.
No matter where you live in Japan, I recommend helping out the local farmers. They need the help and they will be generous with their compensation.
Cost of living
For me, the cost of living in Hokkaido has been much cheaper than the other prefectures that I have lived in. Housing here is cheap and my grocery bills are a lot cheaper.
Things like my town taxes and health insurance are the about same as before. For my 町民税 (town tax), I paid 170,000 yen last year and for my 国民保険税 (insurance), I paid 190,000 yen.
Here are some things that add to the cost of living in rural Hokkaido:
Car: Having a car is a bit expensive because of car tax, insurance and gas. Hokkaido really is BIG, so it often takes a lot of gas to get somewhere and that cost adds up fast. It would be really hard to live here without a car so it is an unavoidable cost for me.
Gas (propane): Another big expense here in that I didn’t have before is the cost of gas to heat my house in winter. In most rural areas they use propane to heat their houses and propane is really expensive. Living in a city or big town and being hooked up to city gas would be a little cheaper, but I don’t have that option. I have a large propane tank outside my house and a large heater in my living room.
It gets really cold up here and it takes a lot of gas to keep the house warm. I try everything I can to keep my heating bill down but it still costs about 5,000 yen a month in the winter. Gas is expensive in the winter, but there is no need for an air conditioner in the summer so maybe the cost evens out a little.
Shipping: Shipping is something else that can add to the cost of living up here. Shipping things to Hokkaido is far more expensive than shipping in the rest of Japan. In fact, sometimes online stores won’t even ship to Hokkaido.
Basically, there are a couple of things that cost more in Hokkaido but overall, I can save more money in Hokkaido. A big reason for that, is because it takes more effort to spend money here. Driving into town usually seems like too much of a hassle, so I don’t go shopping, eat at restaurants or go the bars much anymore.
When I first came to Hokkaido, I didn’t like not being able to party at bars as much as I used to. But now I love my lifestyle and don’t mind the lack of nightlife anymore. I still get out sometimes though.
Asahikawa is the second largest city in Hokkaido and has plenty of nightlife options. I have had many good nights out on town there, but it isn’t something I do often. Drinking and driving is out of the question and I refuse to spend money on a hotel. I could use the trains but the last train is at 10pm. That is way too early!
So if I want to drink in town, I often just find a parking lot near the drinking area and then sleep in my car. My car is comfortable to sleep in but it isn’t something I always want to do just for the sake of drinking. This has severely cut down on nights where I spend a ton of money on nothing more than good memories and a hangover.
Instead of going out drinking, I spend most of my nights camping or having a campfire in front of my house. This is a much healthier lifestyle and it is a lot cheaper.
Also, it is interesting to note that there are fewer mosquitoes in Hokkaido than you would expect. So campfires are great places to drink and relax with friends.
Shopping and Entertainment
In order to go shopping I have to drive into Asahikawa. That is 45 minutes away and though that isn’t far, it is far enough to deter me from shopping for things I really don’t need. I never just go shopping to see what I can find. Shopping trips for me now are for very specific things I need. This style of shopping saves me a lot of money because I am not shopping just for the sake of doing something.
If I get bored and want to do something fun, Asahikawa has most of the options that other cities have. Museums, concerts, zoo, sports fields, parks, restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, live music, Round 1 Sport-cha and other things of that sort.
I don’t feel like that I lack for anything living in rural Hokkaido. I might have to drive further than other people but you get used to it and I have all the benefits of living in a small town and all the conveniences of a city close at hand (relatively).
I do go to Sapporo sometimes and I like that city. It is about 2 hours by car if I take the highway, but the highway costs about 2,700 yen one way. It is the fifth largest city in Japan and it is a great place to visit. I would say that it is no different than Tokyo as far as the things it can provide. The only difference is the scale of it all.
I go there for all the big holiday parties because the more people at a party the better. New Years in Sapporo is always fun! Sapporo also has many great festivals to go to, pro sports games and some great music venues.
Sapporo is also my favorite city to drive in because it was built with a western grid style. The roads actually make sense there and it is easy to navigate. Traffic can get bad though and in winter, the roads are really icy in Sapporo.
Living in rural Hokkaido is wonderful, but it is still nice to go to a big city every now and then.
In my free time (summer)
Summers are perfect here! It is never too hot and there are many beautiful places to go. I go camping, cycling and hiking every chance I get. There are some touristy places like Sounkyo that are really crowded with tourists, but Hokkaido is BIG and it is easy to find places that don’t have any crowds. There are many hiking trails that don’t have a single other person on them! It feels like the nature here is more unspoiled than the other beautiful places in Japan.
Hokkaido has many lakes to enjoy and of course, swimming in the ocean is always an option. Though, the ocean is very cold up here.
Even driving in Hokkaido is a great way to spend time. The roads are long and go through some pretty spectacular places. The beauty you can see from your car window is truly something to see. Hokkaido is the perfect place for road trips by car or motorcycle and even a perfect place for cycling.
On long road trips there are many michi no eki (rest areas) that I use for sleeping in my car and there are many “rider houses” that are cheap to stay in if I travel by motorcycle or bicycle.
In my free time (winter)
During the winter season, I spend almost all my time at the ski resorts. Hokkaido has the best snow in the world!! The quality of powder snow here is unparalleled and it is consistent. Having a powder day here is almost a daily thing.
I especially love going to Asahidake. That is the highest mountain in Hokkaido and a great place to ski or snowboard. The snow is great and it is cool being able to snowboard on an active volcano that has huge steam jets coming out of the ground.
Snowmobiling, snowshoeing and sledding are also fun things I do with my friends during the long winter months.
Hokkaido is perfect for active people. I am never bored up here because there is always something new to try and other than buying the gear, most of these activities are free to do. They have the added bonus of being good for your body too. I am in better shape and feel healthier since coming to Hokkaido.
Did you know that Hokkaido is the only self sustaining prefecture in Japan? That means that Hokkaido produces enough food to feed all of the residents that live here. Hokkaido doesn’t need to import food from anywhere outside of Japan!
This is due to the amount of land available for farming and the population in Hokkaido. Also, the fishing industry up here is one of the best in Japan.
Hokkaido is famous for seafood, but I think it is expensive so I mostly eat rice and vegetables. The veggies are delicious, incredibly cheap, and I eat a lot of them! There is a local farmers market near my town that I often go to. You won’t believe the prices.
Check out these prices! This is why my monthly food bill was cut in half after moving to Hokkaido. 100 yen for a big bag of onions and 195 yen for 2 kg of carrots!
Hokkaido is also famous for dairy products. I’m from Wisconsin so I love milk, yogurt and cheese and I gotta say that Hokkaido has some wonderful cheese!
Bad news though if you’re a fruit lover. Most fruits can’t be grown in Hokkaido so they are really expensive here. Strawberries and melons are grown here but even they are really expensive for some reason.
Sapporo has wonderful public transportation, but other than that, Hokkaido doesn’t have a good public transportation system at all.
Trains: There are a few express trains in Hokkaido, but there is no shinkansen (bullet train) yet. They are planning on finishing the shinkansen track from Hakodate to Sapporo in March 2031.
There are local trains, but the network of tracks is not very expansive and it is getting smaller all the time. Because of the decreasing population, huge sections of track are being decommissioned and many stations are being shut down.
It is interesting to note that the local trains are diesel engines, which is fairly uncommon nowadays.
It is also interesting to know that the only reason why there is still train service all the way north to Wakkanai is because of the threat of Russia. The JR line that goes up that far is losing a lot of money every year because no one uses that train. Very few people live in that area and even fewer people use trains.
The Japanese run JR trains up there to prove that that part of Hokkaido belongs to Japan. The fear is that if the trains stop running there, Russia will think that they can just take that land like it did with the other northern islands. One rumor I have heard is that Russia wants to connect the Trans Siberian Railway to Hokkaido, but to me that seems unlikely.
Buses: Traveling by bus is also an option. There are tour buses going everywhere in Hokkaido. I actually have never used the buses in Hokkaido because I have a car, but these buses are certainly an option for people visiting. They can be a little pricey though.
Cars: Having a car is still the best option for people living in Hokkaido. Without a car everything becomes very difficult. Grocery shopping, going to the dentist or going out to see a movie all become big ordeals without a car. My town does have local buses and a train station. But there are very few options for departure times and both the buses and trains stop running far too early each day. Besides, I need a car for snowboarding and camping and sleeping in my car saves me a lot of money!
There are highways in Hokkaido and like the rest of Japan they are really expensive. However, there are many free highways in Hokkaido as well. These free highways make traveling by car really easy and if you sleep in your car at a Michi no Eki, traveling can be fairly cheap in Hokkaido.
If you are going to visit Hokkaido, I suggest renting a large car and plan on sleeping in it. This way, you can see a lot of Hokkaido and not have to pay a lot for lodging.
Living with snow
The snow here is both a good thing and bad thing. It’s good because it’s beautiful and I like winter activities, but it is bad for a number of reasons.
Shoveling is an everyday activity during the winter. Shoveling can be fun but when I am late for work and need to shovel my car out before I can leave my house….snow is stressful. I really don’t like having to wake up early just to go out and shovel in the dark and cold.
The snow also makes the roads dangerous. Hokkaido has the highest death rate from car accidents in all of Japan. Part of that is because everyone drives crazy fast and the other part is that the driving conditions can get terrible.
The sidewalks are also treacherous. Walking can be very dangerous here and having good footwear is a necessity. I had to buy spikes for my wife’s boots, because she kept falling while walking on the sidewalks.
My town had over 800 cm of snowfall this year (2018-2019), so snow is part of everyday life. Snow often cancels events and closes roads. It is often a pain, but the benefits of snow make it all worthwhile. Winter sports and activities are the best!
If you are considering moving to Hokkaido…
Did you know that there are a number of towns in Hokkaido that offer special deals to entice people to move there? These towns want people to move there so they offer a trial living period. You can see whether or not you like that town and want to live there.
It is possible to live in a house that they provide for up to three months. You still have to pay rent, but it is cheap and there is no key money or any long term commitments. It is something you should look into if you are planning on moving to Hokkaido. Check out their website for a list of all the towns and the availability of houses. Kuraso-Hokkaido (Japanese site)
Hokkaido is a special place to live and to visit. Whether you like big city life or outdoor adventure, Hokkaido has something for you. The people and the food are amazing and there is always a new place to explore or a new adventure to go on.
Summers are perfect here and offer a good chance to enjoy some of the best nature in the Japan! The winters can be long and tough, but there are many good sides to winter too.
Living in rural Hokkaido has some disadvantages but overall, my life is great here. My body and my mind are healthier. The whole Hokkaido community has made me feel accepted here and it is easy to make friends here. So for the first time in Japan, I feel like I have found my home.
I still grumble about waking up early to shovel though…