A Trip to Japan’s Traditional Inaka
In 2018, I was invited to participate in a program to “field-test” a new trailer home prototype in Tono, Iwate.
Tono is famous for preserving traditional Japanese culture, including the Tono Monogatari collection of folktales by Kunio Yanagita. Between the mountains deep in Iwate Prefecture’s forested valleys, the area is charming and eerie at once. A mesmerizing feature of Japan’s Tohoku region, to be sure.
Because of Tono’s strong connection to folklore, it is well known among Japanese people. Whether they could point to it on a map is another story. Tono is a textbook small, rural town, and has experienced considerable population decline over the years. As such, it is rife with akiya.
Tell Me About Tono
With a population of only 27,000, Tono has no shortage of sightseeing destinations. The city easily plays on its folklore connection with sites like Kappabuchi, a stream where mythical creatures called kappa supposedly live. They love eating cucumbers and sumo wrestling. They also love abducting children, assaulting unlucky swimmers, and removing mythical organs from human prey. So be careful.
Tono Furusato Village features several traditional thatched-roof farmhouses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Local delicacies include Jin’gisu-kan (barbecued lamb), hittsumi (wheat dumplings), and basashi. The Miyamori district of Tono is one of few regions in Japan with a local wasabi production industry.
Tono also has many local festivals, including the Tono Sakura Festival held in early May. It features a reenactment of the Japanese warlord Nanbu clan’s procession through the city center in the 1600’s.
There’s also the Tono Matsuri Festival in September, during which massive citywide parades and yabusame exhibitions are highlights. The city’s population is rumored to double from an influx of tourists during this event.
21st Century Tono
Tono also has a booming beer scene. In 1963, the Kirin brewery chose Tono to grow its patented hops. From the 2000’s, Tono started brewing craft beer using these legendary hops. In 2018, Tono opened its first brewpub at Tono Brewing. In early 2020, famous hop researcher Dr. Murakami, who developed about 1,000 varieties of hops over a 30 year career at Kirin, opened a jazz cafe.
Despite all of these attractions, Tono is facing the common hurdles of attracting tourists. They are also tasked with convincing young people to either stay in town or move back from the city. As such, Tono’s stakeholders are working hard to generate more buzz around the city. The trailer project is one example of that.
What is Next Commons Lab, and why did its member DIY build a trailer?
Founded in 2015, Next Commons Lab calls itself a “local startup school.” With teams in 12 rural locations across Japan, each Lab engages in a variety of projects partnered with the local government aiming to restore parts of the local economy. Next Commons Lab is a rare success story in Japan’s greater regional revitalization movement, in which housing plays a central role.
The setup is simple yet effective. The local government supports the program by making a special agreement with Next Commons Lab in which the members gain special city employee status, a basic income, and a housing stipend. In turn, the members work to on their projects, with the desired outcome being to spin it up into a profitable business.
Part of the success of this new effort is the diversity of members, an eclectic bunch from a wide range of backgrounds who are not necessarily locals.
As Tono looks to reverse decades of population decline, part of the appeal of Next Commons Lab is that it serves as a plan of action for people living in Japan’s major cities interested in exploring rural lifestyles while also giving them the chance to pursue new business concepts.
Why build a mobile trailer home in Tono?
Tadashi Ozeki’s mission was to build a viable trailer home cheaply enough to take to market. In contrast to the West, trailer homes are not widespread or popular in Japan. This is somewhat ironic considering Japan’s housing industry builds a lot of prefab housing materials, and portable trailers for commercial purposes are quite common.
If you can make it to Tono, which is 6 hours by train or 5 hours by car from Tokyo, you can see for yourself the monolithic sleek, black trailer home prototype. At 6 meters long by 2 meters wide, it shares the same footprint as a full size SUV. If you step inside, however, the trailer’s interior feels surprisingly spacious.
Tono’s economy largely revolves around lumber and textiles. Fittingly, the interior is covered in a combination of untreated cedar and locally sourced sheep’s wool. The wood is fragrant, and the wool diffuses the natural light, giving the entire trailer a very rustic if fluffy atmosphere.
Tono’s winter temperature can go below -20 degrees Celsius, so this wool is a must. And with just a small kerosene stove, the trailer quickly achieves peak toastiness. But fair warning: leave the heater on overnight and you may discover the trailer’s hidden potential as a sauna.
The interior is spartan with only a sleeping area, a writing desk, and a rocking chair, but quite comfortable. With a total area of 12 square meters, it is not unlike a small city apartment.
While this concept has been created to entertain the idea of mass production, this prototype shares its bathroom with the house next door.
Without a bed or bathroom, it’s hard to say this prototype is complete. That said, the quality of workmanship and insulation were impressive.
Does it make sense vs. building a traditional home?
Keeping in mind there are still people living nearby in temporary housing almost a decade after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster, this is a small project that can help solve a large need. Building a permanent home in Japan is expensive and several structural requirements must be met. Even the most economical of homes cost upwards of 10,000,000 Yen ($90,000 USD) to build. In contrast, a mobile trailer home can be quickly built to a high standard in a factory, transported wherever, and moved around whenever needed. Ozeki says that his trailer prototype was built for around 1,800,000 Yen ($15,000 USD).
Trailer homes are not a key focus of Akiya & Inaka (yet!), but we expect them to build in popularity in Japan. Trailer homes like this could be a viable alternative for those who don’t want to fully commit to a certain area. They can also be interesting for people who need temporary on-site housing while renovating a main house, as a spruced up guest bungalow, or for renting out as an Airbnb.
Which all goes to say, if you have a hankering for your own tricked-out Japanese trailer home, get in touch. We know just the guy.