About 4 months ago I started using my weekends to visit akiya in the Greater Tokyo Area and integrate with local communities while pitching in on rural farms. This was done for a couple of reasons:
- I’ve been scraping, cleaning, and structuring data on abandoned properties for about a year in my free time and figured it was about time for me to actually get some firsthand experience with the properties.
- I’ve always been something of a devil-may-care adventure seeker, and 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: socially distanced corporate satellite campuses, isolated, full stack production studios, the most outlandish fixer-upper weekend projects you could ever imagine, there’s a lot of information that points to these things 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, and information regarding any of these properties is as good as scattered to the wind, so it’s really hard to uncover diamonds in the rough. 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, and 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 actually getting out to inspect properties. Now, with interest in rural life in response to Coronavirus and the adoption of telework slowly building among the metro populace, a reasonable next step is narrative documentation of the experiences surrounding the akiya themselves, as one thing you’ll quickly realize if you look into all of this is that one of the biggest concerns many municipalities have is building sustainable communities and not just housing.
To that end, I took a long weekend last week and went on a bit of a marathon akiya expedition which aptly highlighted some of the value inherent in pursuing these properties outside of the property value itself. Part of that trip is detailed below.
Weeks ago, an associate of mine — Parker of Parthenon Japan — aware of my interest in akiya mentioned that a friend of a friend had a vacant property down in Kamakura and 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, and so last week we washed our hands, donned masks, carefully got into his car, rolled down the windows, and as socially distant as possible, began our trek down to the storied suburbs of Kamakura.
The drive down was a relaxing, lazy one, peppered with casual conversation while cruising along under a bright morning sky listening to, unexpectedly, the Grand Theft Auto soundtrack. Let me take a minute and applaud Rockstar Games for having such devotion in curating that — its a serious piece of gonzo media that has legitimate merit in conversations regarding perception and art.
After about an hour and a half, we pulled into the designated meeting spot in Kamakura’s charming antique atmosphere right around noon, where we met our property owner, Peter, photographer, etcher, and curator of the Kamakura Print Collection. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sporting shielded sunglasses, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had suggested we set out on a safari, but instead he suggested lunch, which was also very acceptable.
Following his lead, Peter took us through the Jōmyōji temple grounds to the Ishigama Garden Terrace, a cute, aptly named establishment that 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 through professional anecdotes and increasingly childish jokes — a great combination.
Once we finished lunch, we made our way back through the winding, wooded paths of Jōmyōji to Parker’s car en route to the property, a house Peter had built 28 years ago but which has been lying vacant for some time. I expected this to be a “typical” slipped through the cracks house, but I was quite mistaken. It is a real gem, and quite possibly extremely unique in the residential market for reasons I am about to explain.
Tucked away in a secluded neighborhood, the 2-story house is surrounded by plum trees (梅) and hydrangea (紫陽花), which does a pretty good job of obfuscating the building from public sight — a decent bit of added privacy for those of you concerned with that type of thing.
It is situated on an elevated bit of land, and to get to the front door you must ascend a stone staircase, what terminates not at the front door but at the entrance to a small garden pathway leading to the vestibule.
Inside on the first floor, you’re greeted with a wide genkan that splits in three directions: to a study, a dining room, and a hallway taking you deeper into the house, past the stairway to the second floor. The latter 2 both ultimately lead to the kitchen, which is quite un-Japanese in its size, cupboards, and central prepping island.
Up the stairs to the second floor, you will discover a number of bedrooms and living rooms, some in the traditional tatami styling, and others more Western. A shower room faces the back of the property, looking out into lush green forest through wide windows, and there are front-facing verandas overlooking the rest of the city from the house’s high vantage point.
Back down to the first floor and out the back, if you ascend the path leading up into the forest (which admittedly needs some maintenance) you’ll soon arrive at the Ten-En Hiking Trail, which goes all the way to the Konandai district of Yokohama, some 7 kilometers away.
But I left something very unique about this property out. You might recall that Peter is a professional photographer and etcher, with decades of experience in analogue, boutique printmaking, the practice of which requires a darkroom. Sure enough, in addition to this property’s lovely environment and welcoming floor plan, it 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, partly because of all 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.
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 (some very cool stuff!), we talked a bit more about how I’m handling property data, and 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, but it isn’t that small a city for it to be a surprise when you bump into someone from there on the other side of the world. It’s a little bit weirder when its in not such a metro area. And maybe even a bit more so when it’s with an accomplished artist and you’re talking to them because you’re working on a outside-the-box abandoned house data project.
But things get downright eerie when that person on the other side of the world that you’re talking to about your weird project in a non-metro area recognizes your last name and knows your grandfather’s best friend. That kind of threw me for a (good) loop, and we ended up talking about all the people and places we have in common. Talk about a trip!
After spending a good while sitting there enjoying the company with our tea, our mutual acquaintances, and the rustle of the leaves in the wind, it was time to move on and we parted with a great understanding and great footage of a great property and a promise to meet up again soon.
Hopefully, the above communicates at least some of what I intend it to — that is, the human part of the whole property quest. I think it’s probably pretty easy these days, especially living in a city like Tokyo, to get caught up in the ownership part of living amongst our fellow humans and forget that statements like we’re all in this together actually mean something. Namely, that we live together.
Throughout the process so far, it goes without saying that I’ve learned a lot about property, land value, construction quality, pain points, etc., etc. That goes with the territory, after all. But something that I don’t see or hear very much of at all in discussions of where someone chooses to live is the communal, the human element, and this is something that strikes me as suspiciously absent from such a major decision making process, and that goes double now that Corona has us all pretty well in its social distancing grip.
This trip’s focus was on 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.