Inaka By Any Other Name
I have had many enquiries made regarding Japan’s rural vacant housing. Be it Shizuoka or elsewhere, though, I also encounter a peculiarly strong, negative, and knee-jerk reaction to akiya. Some insist, “Sure, they’re cheap, but they’re too much work!” Others whisper cautiously, “Those are dangerous places! You should 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 . I’ve been sorely disappointed so far looking through Fukuoka’s offerings. But, like most things, these statements aren’t universal, nor are they based in any kind of objective, quantitative research . They’re just feelings about the leaving the glamorous, convenient, “modern” scope of the city.
What’s Up With That?
What really bugs me, though, is that these are also blanket statements, which are almost always ignorant. It is odd that there’s a contingency of urbanites that ironically care a lot about something they’re also purportedly 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. It pops up often enough on my radar to motivate me to better documenting the properties, people, and experiences. This is explicitly to provide evidence, if only anecdotal, against the common akiya are bad narrative. Opening your mind and expanding your horizons frequently leads to positive developments, after all!
From Tokyo to Shizuoka
I’m now deep enough into my inaka exploration that friends are asking about what the hell I’m actually doing. So I figured it was a great time to get some of them involved!
Queue Thom, drummer, bandmate, longhaired metalhead, and experienced woodworker.
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 spending a weekend at a renovated abandoned corporate retreat to case abandoned properties isn’t a hard sell. Conversely, he was pretty chuffed to hear of the opportunity!
A Train to the Sticks
Late one Friday night, after the crowds thinned, we masked up, grabbed our bags, and met at Shinagawa station to jump on the near-empty Tokaido train line. This was the first leg of our trip, to the outskirts of famed vacation town Atami, in Shizuoka.
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 good network of seasoned akiya vets, salt-of-the-earth farmers, and Urban Escapees down there, This makes it an excellent resource for boots-on-the-ground intel regarding all things Getting Out of Tokyo.
That train ride takes a good 90 minutes, so in addition to our boots, backpacks, and a can-do attitude, we also came with snacks and drinks. Nothing short of the available at Japan’s fine kombini establishments.
This first part of leaving the city for the strange wilderness of vacant houses has become something of a ritual. Or, if not, at least provides mental preparation for the impending experience of the hunt.
Tokyo is so convenient and is so easy to get stuck in that leaving its warm embrace for the wide world can require decompression. Easily enough, you can exorcise the stress of metropolitan coronalife through a few drinks, idle conversation, and the gatan-gaton of the train careening through the night. Once you do, you are much better able to enter the slow life of Japan’s rural regions.
I’m willing 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 comparatively slow local trains allow you to check out for a bit on the way. 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, 1 stop out of Atami. Interestingly, this has been recently renovated by Kengo Kuma, architect of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium. We were greeted by a full moon brightly shining down on sleepy forested mountains brimming with the nocturnal sounds of inaka summer.
Yugawara marks the beginning of the Izu Peninsula, a mountainous extension of Japan into the Pacific from Kanagawa and Shizuoka. It is also an historical onsen town and holds the distinction of being mentioned in the quintessential collection of ancient Japanese poetry, the Man’yoshu.
Up an extremely steep hill 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).
We would stay here in 2 Japanese-style rooms on the 3rd floor. Both rooms opened up to a spacious veranda perfect for barbecues overlooking the city.
But we arrived after 11PM and were ourselves somewhat tired, so the barbecuing would have to wait for later. We retired to our rooms in the the solitude of Yugawara’s hills.
We got up at 8AM and made for the first floor kitchen. There, we had a simple breakfast of locally farmed eggs, toast from the nearby bakery, hand-made ume jam, and fresh-roasted coffee. The coffee was from Café Sampo, a charming local establishment also established in an akiya. A breakfast of local, wrapper-less ingredients in a spacious kitchen and served on local tōgei tableware sure is nice.
The building owner and our akiya informant, Masa, popped in as we were finishing, his compact kei car parked outside. We cleaned up what little mess we had made, composted it, and joined Masa in his boxy chariot below.
Driving in Tokyo isn’t great, though that’s hardly exclusive to Tokyo alone. I find city driving world-wide is veritably intolerable. Traffic, construction, concrete everywhere, it can be a supremely uncomfortable experience. This is one reason I prefer bicycles over cars: while not perfect, they make moving around much easier.
Driving in inaka is another story. Japan’s natural beauty really opens up once you’re sufficiently outside the city limits. More often than not you’ll be cruising through luscious dreamscapes swirling with natural colors and devoid of humans. Inaka driving offers a reprieve from the never-ending barrage of anxiety that cities so easily provide.
So off we went, heading south towards the extremely isolated reaches of Izu City, the Amagi Mountain Range.
Second Leg of the Trip
The second leg of our journey between Yugawara and Atami is a mountainous, curvy affair. Near the end, it nosedives on a rollercoaster ride down to Atami’s beaches. I highly recommend this on bicycle — the dramatic twists and colorful arrows of that descent is absolutely exhilarating.
Atami’s main drag is a straight shot past the beachfront and its establishments, and the resort hotel-peppered mountain steppes watch over it all. 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. If my 34 years have taught me anything, it’s that resort towns like Atami might look nice at first, but their core is kitsch. 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. 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, affording travelers an excellent and uninterrupted view of the wide ocean.
That lasted for 20km, and then we once again descended back into civilization, into Itō, a town with a great deal of historical charm. The town sits along a river, lined with various showa-era restaurants, bars, and traditional flourishes . With its cobblestone walkways, kurenai–red lanterns, and 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, the temperature quickly drops, the light takes on a new, sylvan quality, and dense fog to begins to gradually descend. Shizuoka can be pretty dramatic.
The roads wind slowly up, suggesting a destination perpetually out of reach. 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. Masa told us we were in for a treat.
I thought he meant that this was a massive vacant ghost hotel that he’s been secretly renovating, but I was wrong. Instead, this was the very functional Hotel Harvest Amagi Kogen, and it had a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji 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 got back into the car and continued on our way.
From the hotel, it was only another 15 or 20 minutes. Through dense Shizuoka forests we went to the property, a large, 1-room wood cabin. It is sufficiently far away from civilization for most people, especially urbanites, looking for a weekend escape from it all.
Situated 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, we arrived at the moss-awning’d landing. This greenery feels much more cosmetic than merely untended, but even if the latter it looks good and provides a dramatic entrance.
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 revealing the concrete foundation. This overlooks much of the woodlands behind it, as well as 2 nearby cabins, only one of which is inhabited.
It’s hard to not think that this is actually a very interesting setup. It could easily be used for a picnicking area with a wonderful view of the flora and occasional fauna, provided the stairs were fixed. From experience this shouldn’t be difficult if you’ve got a mallet or sledge, axe or wedge, and bamboo or wood . That’s all you need to make 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. This fit with the outer appropriately rustic veneer, but was also quite spectacular in its own right. It is completely clean, with a functional and expansive kitchen area, wood stove, and spacious main floor. Up a flight of stairs, a tiny little sleeping nook was also a pleasure to discover.
The insulation stands true as well. This is encouraging, as winters bring heavy snow, making this cabin a cozy place to hole up in, especially for those more artistically inclined. Add to that no one around to complain about noise one might cause by hosting events, 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 . They do respond to calls, but you might end up digging yourself out of snow drifts in the colder months.
Additionally, it is quite far away from any kind of urban or suburban area. You’ll definitely need to come stocked for at least a few days if you choose to stay there.
This property could be a very good besso, or vacation house. Of course, you could live in it, but there are factors that make this place ideal for visits, not extended stays.
We toured the area a little more after seeing the main act, but 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. Aside from that, we had a generally quiet return.
From Shizuoka Back to Yugawara
We set up shop on the 3rd floor balcony that night. With the cool air blowing and the charcoal burning bright as the veggies and meat sizzled atop, and a cold beer in my hand, the 5 of us contentedly chatted away. I looked over the yet again sleeping town below, and felt very glad 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. Hopefully 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.
The End for Now
Each of these experiences have multiple people and places involved, all of whom interact with each other dynamically. I’m glad to explore these properties on my own, but to do so with friends really takes it to another 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 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!