About 4 months ago I started using my weekends to visit akiya in the Greater Tokyo Area. I decided to pitch in on local farms and explore local communities, and this was done for a few reasons:
- I’ve been scraping, cleaning, and structuring data on abandoned properties for about a year in my free time. I figured it was about time for me to get firsthand experience with the properties.
- I’ve always been something of a devil-may-care adventure seeker. Japan’s inaka has proven time and again to be an excellent resource for scratching that itch.
- I sorely needed some real exercise. Resistance bands and jogging just don’t cut it.
It’s really been an eye-opening, exhilarating experience. The potential out there is incredible, and I find it really hard to not daydream about all of the potential applications. For example, socially distanced corporate satellite campuses. I daydream about isolated, full stack production studios. I’m sure many could imagine outlandish fixer-upper weekend projects. The point is, there’s a lot of information that points to this and more being possible, and for way cheaper than Tokyo prices.
But, there’s a catch: the vast majority of these properties are indeed fit for demolition. Compounding that, information regarding these properties is scattered to the wind, making it hard to uncover the good ones. That’s an issue that feels like it should be addressed. Queue my seemingly insatiable thirst for putting things as they should be.
My first step was documentation. As I said, I’ve been picking away at that in my spare time for about a year. Then Corona hit and I started getting cabin fever, so I took the second step of going to inspect properties. Now, with interest in rural life and telework slowly building among the metro populace, a reasonable next step is narrative documentation of the experiences surrounding the akiya themselves. Looking into this, you’ll quickly realize that municipalities are concerned with building sustainable communities, and not just housing.
To that end, I took a long weekend last week to go on a marathon akiya expedition. The experiences on this trip aptly highlighted the value inherent in some of these properties. Part of that trip is detailed below.
Weeks ago, an associate of mine, Parker of Parthenon Japan, mentioned that a friend of a friend had a vacant property down in the Jomyoji district of Kamakura. Aware of my interest in akiya, Parker suggested we make a day trip to go check it out.
Curious, but also starved for any chance of respite from the CoronaChaos of 2020, I took him up on the offer. Last week we washed our hands, donned masks, carefully got into his car, rolled down the windows, and made a socially distanced trek down to Jomyoji.
The drive down was a relaxing, lazy one, peppered with casual conversation while cruising along under a bright morning sky. Unexpectedly, we listened to the Grand Theft Auto soundtrack as we drove, and I must applaud Rockstar Games for devotedly curating that. It is a serious piece of gonzo media that has legitimate merit in conversations regarding perception and art.
After about 90 minutes, we pulled into the designated meeting spot in Kamakura’s charming antique atmosphere right around noon. There, we met our property owner, Peter: photographer, etcher, and curator of the Kamakura Print Collection. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and shielded sunglasses, I expected him to suggest we set out on a safari, but no, he just suggested lunch. This was also very acceptable.
Back Alleys & Jomyoji
Following his lead, Peter took us through the Jomyoji temple grounds to the Ishigama Garden Terrace. A cute, aptly named establishment, the Garden Terrace serves Japanese takes on a few classic Italian dishes. The view and atmosphere were spectacular, and we spent an hour or so getting to know each other. We traded professional anecdotes and laughed over childish jokes — a great combination.
Once we finished lunch, we went back through the winding, wooded paths of Jomyoji to Parker’s car. We then made our way to the house, which Peter built 28 years ago but has recently been lying vacant. I expected this to be a “typical” akiya, but I was mistaken! It is a real gem, and extremely unique in the residential market for the following reasons.
Exploring a Vacant House
Tucked away in a secluded neighborhood, the 2-story house is surrounded by plum trees (梅) and hydrangea (紫陽花). This foliage does a good job of hiding the building, providing added privacy for those concerned about it.
The house sits on an elevated piece of land, so you must ascend a stone staircase to access the landing. These stairs terminate not at the front door but at the entrance to a small garden pathway leading to the vestibule.
Inside on the first floor, there is a wide genkan that splits in three directions. There is a study on your left, a dining room to your right, and a hallway straight ahead that takes you deeper inside. The hall and dining room both lead to a large, Western-style kitchen with cupboards and central prepping island.
Up the stairs to the second floor, there are 2 Western bedrooms and a Japanese living room with tatami. A shower room faces the back of the property, looking out into lush green forest through wide windows. Additionally, there are verandas overlooking the rest of the city from the house’s high vantage point.
Back down to the first floor and out the back, there is a path leading up to a forest. If you ascend this path, you’ll find the Ten-En Hiking Trail, which leads to the Konandai district of Yokohama 7 kilometers away.
But I left something very unique about this property out. Peter is a professional photographer with decades of experience in analogue, boutique printmaking, which requires a darkroom. Fittingly, in addition to the lovely environment and floor plan, this property also has a real darkroom.
I have never seen nor heard of this before, and was quite stunned to discover such a feature in an already outstanding house. This is partly due to all of the work I and my photographer comrades do in Japan’s independent music scene, partly as an appreciator of the arts, and partly because it is basically an unheard of element of residential Japanese properties. Very cool.
From Pittsburgh to Jomyoji
Once the formal tour was over, Peter’s wife dropped by and we sat outside chatting over chilled tea. I picked Peter’s brain a little about his art and experience, we talked about how I’m handling property data. Somewhere along the way, my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania came up.
It turns out that Peter is also from Pittsburgh, which is sort of neat. It isn’t that small a city to be surprised when you bump into someone from there halfway around the world. It’s a little bit weirder when its in not such a metro area like Jomyoji. When it’s an accomplished artist and you’re talking to them because of an outside-the-box abandoned house project, its weirder still.
But things got downright eerie when Peter recognized my last name and even knew my grandfather’s best friend. That threw me for a loop, and we ended up talking about all the people and places we have in common. Talk about a trip!
After spending some time enjoying our tea, our mutual acquaintances, and the rustle of the leaves in the wind, it was time to move on. We parted with a great understanding of Peter’s Jomyoji house, and some great footage to boot!
A Wonderful Experience
Hopefully, the above communicates some of what I intend it to: The human part of the whole property quest. I think it’s easy these days, especially living in a city like Tokyo, to get caught up in the ownership part of real estate. But we live amongst our fellow humans, and can forget statements like we’re all in this together actually mean something. Namely, that we live together.
Throughout the process so far, I’ve learned a lot about property, land value, construction quality, etc. That goes with the territory, after all. But something I don’t see or hear very much in conversation about where to live is the communal aspect. This is something that strikes me as suspiciously absent from such a major decision making process. That goes double now that Corona has us all pretty well in its social distancing grip.
This trip’s focus was on a Jomyoji property, sure, but in doing the leg work — in research, in communications, in planning, in physical movement — there was so much more to be gained than the prospect of a mere financial transaction. To whit, by pursuing a hobby in a hands-on manner and by doing so putting yourself out there in the world with others, you’re putting yourself in a position that can very easily expand your own and others’ horizons, and probably in unexpected ways.
I think that’s valuable.