How two months in the Japanese countryside changed my perspective on cities

I grew up in the suburbs of Sweden’s second largest city (which, by global standards, is quite a tiny spectacle). This small town is in many ways an idyll; the proximity to both the sea and forest are common attraction points for people who choose to relocate there. But there is also the proximity of the city. By spending just 15 minutes on the express bus, you’ll be in the center of Gothenburg enjoying all the luxuries and conveniences that city life brings. On the whole, you could say that my childhood home offered the best of both worlds.

The suburbs remained my home for the first eighteen years of my life. At this point, I relocated with my mother to an apartment right on the border of the city. Suddenly, I no longer had immediate access to all the things I used to. Now, the only parts that were immediately accessible were the ones offered by the city: convenience, entertainment, population diversity (this did not exactly apply to my impressively uniform childhood town), experiential variety, and plenty of nonsensical things to spend money on.

Commuting to my high school was much less of a hassle and living in an apartment felt safer than a lone-standing house, but I still routinely missed some of the small town luxuries I used to enjoy, such as proximity to nature, calm and quiet, and beautiful views not tainted by brick apartment buildings. It was a bittersweet move.

The things I experienced during my first move were amplified after the next; after spending a year traveling the world, I moved to San Francisco to attend Minerva Schools. San Francisco is by no means a massive city compared to most metropolitan giants around the world, but it is dense, and the center of town is just as bustling as any other major U.S. city’s (except during the night; San Francisco is a city that sleeps like a baby).

After my first semester, I hated the city. I found it noisy, dirty, hostile, and way too hilly (this last one is, thank god, San Francisco specific, though), but after finishing my second semester, I had fallen in love and did not want to leave. Somewhere in the process, the favorable aspects of SF started outweighing the downsides.

Still, I decided to swap the city lifestyle for something completely different this summer. Thanks to the partnership between Mistletoe and Minerva, I had the opportunity to relocate to Japan for the summer and intern for Hakuba International School Foundation.

It will be apparent to those familiar with Japanese geography that this entailed an experience very different from what most tourists experience in Tokyo or Osaka. Hakuba is a village located in the northern Japanese Alps, a rough five-hour bus ride from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. The town boasts an imposing 9,000 people and prides itself primarily on being a popular ski resort in the winter (Nagano Prefecture hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, in which Hakuba played an essential role). The summer (or green season as it is locally called) does not present the same activity level as the winter, and is thus strikingly peaceful.

All of a sudden, I was thrown back into a setting where the other half of what I had grown up with took precedent: that of the countryside. The proximity to nature, the quiet, and the comfort of recognizing people’s faces on your weekly commute to the local grocery store were restored.

Only this time I was not even close to a city. The closest major hub was Nagano, a city of approximately 1 million people, located a mountainous one-hour drive from Hakuba. Also, this time I was older and at an entirely different stage in my life.

And I loved it. And was frustrated by it.

In many ways, this summer was my childhood revisited. It made me realize all the things I had been missing living in cities for the past few years. But more interestingly, it made me realize the things I desire the most from city life: convenience and opportunity.

It is time to reimagine the city.

We have caused major viruses like smallpox and polio to go practically extinct. We have created weapons so powerful they could eliminate humankind forever. We have built structures 500x taller than ourselves. We have put humans on the moon. But we have not yet managed to successfully combine the advantages of the city with the benefits of the countryside.

Maybe it is time to look at the problem from the opposite angle. People frequently move to the suburbs to be closer to nature without foregoing the benefits of the city, so why shouldn’t the opposite be possible too? People moving into the city should not have to forsake the perks of nature but should be able to revel in these while enjoying the conveniences of city life as well.

This article serves to provoke a thought process and more consideration for this problem. Urbanization has long entailed a sacrifice of calm, natural beauty, and health, but this does not have to be the case going forward. For instance, what are the roles of cars in a city and how can we reimagine our city grids to decrease pollution and noise levels? Hopefully, the future will see a world of cities planned to integrate the best of nature with the best of the concrete jungle.