Shizuoka view of Mt. Fuji

Headed for Shizuoka

While I have had any number of curious enquiries made regarding my exploration of the rural vacant housing market in Japan, be it Shizuoka or elsewhere, I’ve noticed that often enough I am also met with a peculiarly strong, notably negative, and certainly knee-jerk reaction to statements about akiya. Some insist, “Sure, they’re cheap, but they’re too much work!”. Others whisper cautiously, “Those are dangerous places! You’d do well to stay away from them.” Others still say, with a haughty authority, “Inaka sucks, why would you want to live there?”

Now, these statements can certainly be true — just look at Fukuoka’s offerings, which, so far as I can tell at the moment, contain absolutely nothing of interest (ouch!) — but, like most things, these statements aren’t universal, nor are they based in any kind of objective, quantitative research — that simply doesn’t exist…. yet 😉 They’re just, sort of, feelings about the general concept of leaving the glamorous, convenient, “modern” scope of the big city , I guess.

But these are also blanket statements, which are almost always a result of ignorance. So it strikes me as odd that there’s this contingency of Tokyoites specifically that ironically care a whole lot about something they’re also purportedly completely uninterested in. As if it weren’t conscionable to even consider an alternative to metropolitan Tokyo life or experiences.

If it’s not obvious, I don’t really like that, and it pops up often enough on my radar that part of my motivation in documenting these properties and the people & experiences behind them is to provide some sort of evidence, if only anecdotal at the moment and certainly flawed, against the common perception that akiya = bad. Opening your mind and expanding your horizons frequently leads to positive developments, after all!

From Tokyo to Shizuoka

So now that some friends of mine have been getting curious about what the hell I’m doing traveling to all of these vacant properties on this weird journey into the heart of Japan’s expansive dilapidation, I figured it was a great time to get some other people involved to see the wonders of inaka.

Queue Thom, drummer, bandmate, longhaired metalhead, and experienced woodworker.

Now, Thom and I have a long history of going on wacky adventures, usually on our bikes though not always, through Japan’s less-inhabited backwaters, so he’s not exactly a hard sell on something like taking a weekend to stay at a renovated abandoned corporate retreat to case abandoned properties. And, sure enough, he was pretty chuffed to hear of the opportunity.

In Shimoda, Shizuoka on a bike trip

A Train to the Sticks

So late one Friday night, after the crowds had thinned, we masked up, grabbed our bags, and met about halfway between our respective apartments at Shinagawa station to jump on the near-empty Tokaido train line and head to the first destination on our trip, the outskirts of the onsen-rich vacation town of Atami, in Shizuoka Prefecture.

There is a much longer story behind my relationship with that area, but that will have to be tackled another day. Suffice it to say, I have a pretty decent network of seasoned akiya vets, salt-of-the-earth farmers, and Urban Escapees down there, what makes it an excellent resource for boots-on-the-ground intel regarding all things Getting Out of Tokyo.

Now, our train ride takes a good 90 minutes, so in addition to our performance hiking boots, designer backpacks brimming with gear, and a hell yeah let’s do this attitude, we came prepared with the cheapest snacks and drinks Japan’s fine kombini establishments offer for the honestly not-so-long ride into the sticks.

Densha Decompressing

I’m starting to think of this first part of the journey out of the city and into the strange wilderness of vacant houses, which comes in a few forms, is now becoming something of a ritual, or at least provides mental preparation for the impending experience of the hunt.

Tokyo offers so much in terms of convenience and is so easy to get caught up in that venturing out from its warm embrace and into the wide and wild world around it is something that, at least subconsciously, feels like it requires some decompression. Once you’ve sufficiently exorcised the stress and worries that come with metropolitan coronalife, through a few drinks, socially distanced idle conversation from across the car, and the gatan-gaton of the mostly empty train careening through the night, you are much better able to enter the slow life of Japan’s rural regions.

I’m willing to go so far as to say that this transitory period is a necessity. With the speed and the services that bullet trains or airplanes or even buses provide, you’re still on the clock; Japan’s local trains, as comparatively slow as they may be, allow one to check out for a little bit on the way to a rural experience. Without that, your head might explode at the difference!

I guess it’s kind of like the bends, but society instead of water lol.

But First, Yugawara!

After 90ish minutes of decompression, we arrived at Yugawara Station, recently renovated by none other than Tokyo Olympic Stadium architect, Kengo Kuma, and 1 stop outside of Atami. We were immediately greeted by a full moon brightly shining down on a small coastal town situated amongst the mountains and forests that’s already gone to bed, lulled to sleep by the nocturnal sounds of inaka summer.

Yugawara marks the beginning of the Izu Peninsula (namesake is the city of Izu), a mountainous extension of Japan into the Pacific from Kanagawa and Shizuoka Prefectures. It is also an immensely historical onsen town, holds the distinction of being the only one mentioned in the quintessential collection of ancient Japanese poetry, the Man’yoshu, and up one of its many extremely steep hills there sits a previously abandoned corporate retreat that was bought as a fixer-upper by a retired engineer a few years ago for the alarmingly low price of ¥2,700,000 (~$26,000).

Yugawara at night

This is where we would stay, and had 2 Japanese-style rooms complete with tatami and futon on the 3rd floor of the massive residence, both of which open up to a spacious veranda perfect for barbecues overlooking the city and the bay.

But we arrived after 11PM and were ourselves somewhat tired, so the barbecuing would have to wait for later and we retired to our rooms in the the solitude of Yugawara’s hills.

Inaka Morning

We woke at 8AM and convened in the kitchen on the first floor for a simple breakfast of locally farmed eggs (over easy), toast (with handmade ume jam), and fresh-roasted coffee from Café Sampo, a charming local establishment recently opened in a (surprise!) previously abandoned building. This is not a king’s breakfast by any means, but a breakfast prepared with local, wrapper-less ingredients in a spacious kitchen and served on local tōgei tableware sure feels like it when the big city routinely provides you with so much less.

The building owner and our akiya informant, Masa, cheerily popped in right as we were finishing up, his sturdy and compact kei car parked just outside. We cleaned up what little mess we had made with breakfast — which notably included placing our scraps in a composting bin — and joined Masa in his boxy chariot to get a start on the hunt.

To Shizuoka!

Driving in Tokyo isn’t great, though that’s hardly exclusive to Tokyo alone. City driving world-wide is, in my personal opinion that I assume is also widely held, veritably intolerable. Traffic, construction, concrete closing in on you from every corner, it can be a supremely uncomfortable experience. This is one reason I vie for bicycles over cars: while not a perfect solution, they sure make moving around much easier.

Driving in inaka is another story. Japan’s natural beauty — attributable to the confluence of mountains, forests, and beaches that makes up so much of the country — really opens up once you’re sufficiently outside the city limits, and more often than not you’ll find yourself cruising through luscious dreamscapes swirling with the colors of the natural world with no other humans in sight. Sure, there can be construction and assholes there, too, but inaka driving at least offers you a reprieve from the never-ending barrage of anxiety that city driving so easily provides.

So off we went, heading south towards the extremely isolated reaches of Izu City, the Amagi Mountain Range.

First Leg of the Trip

The first leg of our journey between Yugawara in Kanagawa and Atami in Shizuoka is a mountainous, variable, and curvy affair, which then nosedives after only 10 km or so from the heights on a rollercoaster ride down to the beaches of Atami city proper. I highly recommend this on bicycle — that descent, with its dramatic twists and colorful arrows chiding you on, is absolutely exhilarating.

Coming from the north, Atami’s main drag is a straight-arrow drive past the beachfront and its establishments on the left, and the resort hotel-peppered mountain steppes on the right. Atami can be a beautiful town, parts of it reminding me of some magical elven setting in a fantasy novel. Other parts, though, not so much. It’s a destination resort town, and if my now 34 years on this earth have taught me anything, it’s that resort towns might look nice at first, but their core is kitsch, pure and simple. I like Atami, but after, say, 6 hours, I grow less enamored. Atami Castle is a great example of the kind of thing that gives me pause.

But Atami’s not that big a place, and so almost as soon as we started driving along its scenic shores, we were climbing back up the mountains to considerable heights. While the road from Yugawara to Atami is somewhat adventurous, the road between Atami and Itō is much less so. It is way up high, and skirts the coast, but is a far easier drive and affords the traveler a really excellent and uninterrupted view of the wide ocean that is the most prominent visual feature.

That lasts for about 20km, after which we once again descended back into civilization, into Itō, a town in possession of a great deal of historical charm. The town is situated along a river, lined with various showa-era restaurants and bars as well as traditional flourishes — cobblestone walkways, kurenai–red lanterns, worn wooden railings, it’s a step back in time for sure, and a real pleasure to spend a night or two there.

Into the Misty Mountains of Shizuoka

Now through Itō, we very soon entered the forest. Once in, it only takes a few minutes for the temperature to noticeably drop, the light to take on a new, sylvan quality, and, if you’re lucky, a dense fog to begin to descend ever so gradually. Shizuoka can be pretty dramatic.

There, the roads wind slowly up, suggesting a destination perpetually out of reach, and all the while there are wild deer ducking in and out of the sprawling undergrowth. These winding, wooded roads, sparsely populated, and full of eerie calm and endless green, truly feel like they’re pulling you in. They are very much entrancing.

As we emerged from the fog and into a clearing 30 or so minutes into our ascent, a large, white complex emerged atop the hill materializing in front of us, and Masa told us we were in for a treat.

Shizuoka Hotel

I thought he meant that this was a massive vacant ghost hotel that he’s been secretly renovating, but alas, I was wrong; this was a functional hotel (the Hotel Harvest Amagi Kogen, in fact), and it had a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji (claimed by both Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures) he wanted to show us.

He was right — it was a striking view. But the fog was too heavy and we could just barely make out Mt. Fuji’s peak. So we tried to take pictures with the deer and explored the premises a bit, and then got back into the car and continued on our way.

Almost There

From the hotel, it was only another 15 or 20 minutes through increasingly dense Shizuoka forests to the property, a large, 1-room wood cabin, sufficiently far away from civilization for most people, especially urbanites, looking for a weekend escape from it all.

Situated somewhere atop the Amagi Mountain Range, we pulled up to the cabin, only half visible from the road, and exited our vehicle into the cool, damp air. Down a flight of stone stairs lined with ferns and bushes, you’ll arrive at the moss-awning’d landing, and this greenery feels much more cosmetic than merely untended, but even if the latter it sure looks good and provides a very dramatic entrance.

Shizuoka cabin

To the right and past the air conditioning unit, there is a path around back that gets a little hairy, not for any overgrowth but for the dilapidated stairs down the steep incline the structure was built on which reveals the exposed concrete foundation. This overlooks a good portion of the woodlands behind it, as well as 2 of the cabins near it, only one of which is inhabited. It’s hard to not think that this is actually a very interesting setup as it could easily be used for a picnicking area or something of the sort with a wonderful expansive view of the flora and occasional fauna, provided the stairs were tended to first. From experience this shouldn’t be difficult if you’ve got a mallet or sledge, axe or wedge, and bamboo or wood — all you need to make tiny reinforcement walls down an incline, aka dirt stairs.

A Wood Cabin Deep in the Shizuoka Woods

Back up the imaginary stairs we went, and into the actual house, which fit with the outer appropriately rustic veneer, but was also quite spectacular in its own right. Completely clean, with a fully functional and relatively expansive kitchen area, wood stove, spacious main floor and, up a flight of stairs, a tiny little sleeping nook, this was a real pleasure to walk into.

The insulation stands true as well, which apparently is quite useful as the region dumps snow onto these properties in the winter, making it a cozy place to hole up in, especially for those of you who are more artistically inclined. Add to that that there are few in the area that could complain about any noise pollution one might cause by yourself or by hosting even the most reticent of guests, and it seems quite the gem.

There are, of course, downsides to the place. The aforementioned snow is not so regularly managed by local municipal services — though they do respond to calls — so it could be the case that you’ll need to be digging yourself out of snow drifts in the colder months.

Additionally, it is quite far away from any kind of urban or suburban area, so you’ll need to come stocked for at least a few days if you choose to stay there.

And all of this brings up a probably important point: this property seems to me to be a very good case of a besso, or vacation house. Of course, you could live in it, just as you could live in a cave, but there are certain factors that appear to make this place ideal for visits, and not necessarily extended stays.

We toured the area a little bit more extensively after seeing the main act, and soon got back into Masa’s car to head home to Yugawara. Along the same route we took to get there, we stopped at a Mega Don Quijote to pick up ingredients for a barbecue that night at our HQ, but aside from that had a generally quiet return.

Back to Yugawara

Out on the 3rd floor balcony that night back from Shizuoka, with the cool night air blowing and the charcoal burning bright as the veggies and meat sizzled atop, 2 local friends invited by Masa speaking with Thom — whose Japanese has gotten better over the years but is still not yet great — successfully about a wide variety of topics, and a cold beer in my hand while I looked over the yet again sleeping town below, I felt very glad, and content, where I was in that moment.

I think this is a pretty good, if long-winded, attempt at including the road trip element of this whole akiya hunting thing, and that it highlights a point I keep trying to make but am yet unsatisfied with my efforts: the experience surrounding the property is at least equally important as the property itself.

Rooftop dinner in Yugawara

Each and every one of these experiences have multiple people and places involved, all of whom interact with each other in a wonderfully dynamic manner. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to explore these properties in the first place, but to do so with old and new friends alike really takes this ongoing adventure to an entirely higher level.

Speaking of which, I’m putting together a multi-day bike trek across Chiba to check out some properties there while getting in some good camping. We’ve got other opportunities, too, including Shizuoka coming up. Lemme know if that sounds interesting — would love to get a troupe of explorers together for an Inaka Club experience!