Note to the Reader
This article was published on October 20th, 2020, but it is about a trip taken on August 19th, 2020. Sometimes things take longer to get done than you like.
Taking It to a New Level
We’ve explored a lot of well-regarded areas in our adventures thus far, and had a lot of fun! Yugawara, Nikko, Jomyoji, and Hijiri-Kogen, were all spectacular, and we’ve made new friends, seen amazing sights, sold some properties. A job well done.
This akiya thing is new territory, in the sense that heretofore very few have bothered engaging. Conversely, it is also relatively old, in that it’s been a popular story for a while. This is largely thanks to a slow trickle of generally negative clickbait articles.
Which creates a bit of a conundrum. There’s a lot of interest in these properties, but there is also a lot of reasonable suspicion. Exceptional properties are out there amidst the dilapidation, but it’s easy to get lost. We aim to provide some direction in rectifying that.
To the Great Beyond
Thus, step one has been popular tourist spots like Kamakura or Nikko. These places provide a low barrier to entry in a market that can be understandably nerve-wracking. And we’re happy to work with these areas — they tend to be highly regarded for a reason.
However, if we only dealt with popular destinations, we’d be doing ourselves and our clients a disservice. We would be, by definition, precluding any direct interaction with the oases in the rough.
For example, if we were selling bread, or washlets, or network engineering, that’d be relatable. Those products and services are well accepted in the common discourse of modern commerce. I would argue they aren’t exactly exciting, but we “get” them. On the other hand, our clients are exploring poorly understood properties and finding amazing things. I think that is pretty awesome.
And it gets even better the further out you go and the deeper you dig. So, suit up for adventure like you probably never expected from a real estate consultancy! Follow me to the unknown reaches of Japan’s Outer Limits.
During the week, I focus on addressing clients’ desire to explore properties in particular territories. However, on the weekends I also spend a few hours digging through unknown locales. Why? Because I’m an unrepentantly curious person . Over the years, this has gotten me into trouble just as much as it’s revealed opportunity . For me, digging through the unknown is the definition of fun, especially when you uncover hidden gems!
One day I was poking around in Chiba Prefecture, and kept getting hits in an area unfamiliar to me. That area is Nagara. Chiba’s most popular areas between Kujukuri and Choshi, and the southern end of the Boso Peninsula, frequently pop up, but not Nagara. This was quite the anomaly, and triggered my insatiable desire to explore.
Just as Japan is full of akiya of various qualities, Japanese municipalities also have varying levels of efficiency. Many employ dated management practices so bad we discount unless a client is requests otherwise.
But that’s really for efficacy’s sake, and not exactly a matter of quality. Simply put, if there are regions that are easy to work with, why go elsewhere?
But I’m a tinkerer, and in my own free time I’m open to exploring less-than-ideal locales. Nagara, then, is a perfect time sink for me. It is a bit more difficult to navigate than what we typically serve up to our clients, and also more unknown.
Welcome to Jigoku, Nagara Style
Sometimes, in order to explore these listings, one must apply for a certificate of authorization! The standard process is outstandingly analogue and requires signatures, hanko, snail mail, and lots of patience. Nagara is one of these places.
Fortunately, Nagara also appears to be flexible and friendly. I contacted them to make sure that I correctly understood the process, and they cerrtified me then and there. I just needed bring the documents with me when I visited.
So I printed the documents, filled them out, and placed them on a shelf for when the time came. Mission accomplished!
Hold On A Minute
I got the documents done with and was excited to get to Nagara and check the place out. However, that enthusiasm was premature.
The owner wanted to attend the walk-through, but we needed to align schedules since they don’t live nearby. This was to be either a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon. That’s right, folx: the middle of the work week.
You might think this is ridiculous, and you would be very right. But again, curiosity frequently gets the best of me. When barriers go up, you better believe I pull out the big guns and get ready for a fight.
There is nothing I hate more than bureaucracy. When it bears its stupid, incorrigible teeth, I grab my best tooth-smashing sledge and swing mightily like Thor.
There You Go
So I smiled, fuming on the inside, and typed my reply to the agent in my politest Japanese that next Tuesday would be fine, how about 1PM? Nope, needed to be in the morning.
How about the Wednesday after, also PM? Nope, they weren’t available on that date.
3rd Wednesday of next month? “Oh, that’s just wonderful! We’ll see you then,” they digitally chortled.
I wiped my brow, glistening with sweat from having been ceaselessly furled for the entirety of this written exchange, and leaned back in my chair, reveling in the fact that I had, at long last, booked the goddamn viewing date. Mission fucking accomplished.
As I mentioned, Nagara is located in an area that no one has ever heard of. And there are a lot of places like that in Japan! But most of them have train stations, however tiny or quaint.
This is not the case with Nagara. Prior to viewing the property, the agent and myself had agreed to meet at Nagara Town Hall. The closest station was Mobara , a cool 8km away. From Mobara I would have to take a bus. This isn’t always terrible, but with only 5 Nagara departures per day, things were more fraught than usual.
Having responsibly mapped out my route like a Big Boy, I set out for Nagara on August 19th, more than 2 hours early because I was certain I would fuck up at least once on the path ahead. This proved prescient.
I started at Hamamatsucho station on the Keihin-Tohoku Line, transferred at Akihabara station for the Chuo-Sobu Line, transferred again at Chiba station for the Sotobo Line, got off at Mobara station and boarded the 34 bus bound for Ozukura. I sat down on the bus, proud of myself for making it that far, and promptly spaced out.
I finally decided to pay attention to my surroundings only once I was one stop past my destination. This is dumb, but missing a stop isn’t such a big deal in the city, so I wasn’t too worried. But then I remembered that Nagara is very much not the city. I would soon learn the definition of pain.
I signaled to the driver that I’d like to disembark at the next stop. Subsequently, I alighted into a beautiful sunlit landscape of russet rice fields circumscribed by pine-laden hills. There were few people, fewer cars, and the wind blew in a mysterious, disorienting direction.
I wouldn’t say that I was lost, but I was definitely not where I was supposed to be.
Welcome to Nagara
This was my introduction to Nagara, the Land of Distance. Where the buses seldom dare and the roads are paved not with asphalt but tribulation. I was now kilometers off course with no one to blame but myself. Adding insult to injury, the next return bus was scheduled to come hours later, which may as well have meant never.
My only recourse was to steel myself for a long walk back towards my destination in the relentless sunshine. Google Maps kindly informed me would take about 45 minutes, so with a sigh I began my long journey to redemption.
It goes without saying that if I had a car all of this could’ve been avoided.
The above is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. There are worse situations than missing your stop on the way to see a house you’re interested in. But, when you habitually wear jeans and black everything, 30 minutes in the sun isn’t the best place to be, either. Oh well, lesson learned.
The backroads of Nagara are very sparsely populated. I don’t think I passed one person on my way back to town hall. I did pass many kei cars and construction vehicles, which hints at just how rural Nagara is. Fittingly, I also passed a good number of akiya on my quest for salvation. However, they weren’t the kind anyone of sound mind would consider.
For most of the journey, the road was skirted by immense fields of flaxen rice. Very Proust-ian, this added a peripheral ephemerality to the hike. Sure, it was wicked hot and blindingly bright, but it was also a very enveloping experience.
Eventually, I spotted a large building in the distance against the emptiness. It was just past the only 7/11 for miles and a string of abandoned gas stations with sadly apologetic signs thanking their customers for years of patronage. Amidst the dilapidation, it really was kind of monolithic. I noticed it for that quality, not for the fact that it was the town hall I sought . That realization only came a minute or so after first laying my eyes on it. I had, unbeknownst to me, arrived.
I entered the town hall’s premises, and was confronted with a pristine and notably modern veneer. This was at considerable odds with the scene outside, which is something that I think of as Nagara’s theme— it’s an oasis.
I approached the Residents’ Window, introduced myself, and stated that I had an akiya viewing scheduled that day. A minute later, the gentleman at the counter guided me over to the newly established relocation booth. Notably, Nagara has a new service which oversees the purchase of akiya.
I sat down in a ubiquitous padded metal office chair, and was soon speaking with the on duty manager. She was outstandingly helpful, informative, and a pleasure to speak with. This struck me as odd considering the difficulty I had getting there, but again, oasis. Refuge in the midst of unrest.
We got to know each other a bit was we sat there. I described how I got lost, and explained what Akiya & Inaka does. She regaled me with tales from as a macrobiotic chef and showed me videos of her chainsawing stuff. It goes without saying I like her a lot.
The Nagara Property
Then, after an hour or so had breezed by in pleasant company, she suggested that we head over to the property.
She picked me up in front of the town hall, and from there it took us about 15 minutes to drive to the property I had risked life and limb to view.
Tucked into a cul de sac on the Nagara outskirts, it is even more removed from city life than the rest of the town.
The house was built some 30 years ago by a retired couple, predominantly using imported Swedish lumber. The property is still in the original owners’ hands, and they have done a spectacular job of upkeep. They have also made a number of additions on the original structure.
The main building has 2 stories. The first contains the kitchen, bathroom, and living quarters. The kitchen is admittedly a bit tight, but aside from that it is perfectly functional. The bath has a spacious entryway, and features stained-glass windows. The toilet is just about what you’d imagine.
The second floor contains the bedroom, which is a cozy affair nestled into the angled roof. Across from the bedroom there is a sizable storage space that looks out onto expansive rice fields.
In front of the house, there is a spacious wooden deck also offering views of the fields. The owners were keen to tell us how they sip whiskey while watching storms come through.
The garden area is quite large, and spread out over the property. You wouldn’t notice it at first glance, but there’s a second garden tier that would work wonderfully as a barbecuing space.
Finally, there is a standalone annex across from the main building. The first floor is open to the elements and is a great space for gardening materials. The second floor was used as a bedroom for the owners’ grandchildren for sometime, and is now being used for storage. It, too, has a wide view of the surrounding rice fields.
The Name of the Game
As I mentioned at the beginning of this tale, the owners were present for this viewing. Their being there is complex, and I intentionally wrote about it negatively because everyone loves vitriol.
Having to deal with yet another layer of complexity in an already complex process isn’t something I enjoy. But purchasing akiya is a process, which flows through a system, what necessarily has constituent parts and is not singular in nature. Thus, any actor within that system is not perfectly responsible for its own circumstances, but rather is the reflection of the possibilities present within the system as a whole at a specific time. To whit, the owners’ desire to attend the viewing was merely a response to at least one stimulus within the akiya system (which we’ll uncover in a bit).
That’s an overly analytical way of saying, don’t hate the player, hate the game. Understanding this is key to navigating the akiya market.
Standard akiya practice dictates that agents have very little if any contact with the properties they manage. They’re merely gatekeepers without much more to offer than nominal stewardship, but that’s not their fault. This is one of the features of the accepted narrative of akiya that permeates the entire real estate system.
And that narrative is that akiya are akiya for a reason. That no one wants them, and they don’t deserve your attention because they are by definition bad. Because of this refusal to critically engage with properties that are outside of the unnaturally slim norm of what a property should be, but certainly not objectively undesirable, they sit on the market and rot along with their owners.
Pleasant Conversation, Cont.
Sure enough, the akiya rep who was taking me around had never been to the property before. In fact, this was the first viewing of it in the 2 years since it’d been listed. Holy shit, no wonder it’s never gone anywhere. And I bet the owners, too, were thinking, Holy shit, someone’s coming out?! We better host them well.
And that they did. Specifically because the owners came out, they were able to tell me about their history building it in the early 90’s, about the garden and the additions and the experience of importing so much foreign wood independently back then, about their grandchildren’s fortresses and ultimate decision to build the annex to better accommodate them once they grew up. This, in contrast to the typically cold, lifeless description offered by online listings and unfamiliar agents, was very welcome.
Making Memories in Nagara
They proudly showcased pictures of the life they partially spent at this spectacular cabin over the years. The pictures were full of smiles, family members, and fishing rods. Everything was centered around the house in which I was sitting in the kitchen of drinking tea and hearing these tales first-hand. And their heartfelt desire was to ensure that the next owner will have those same kind of experiences.
The property is gorgeous, as are the people who have lovingly taken care of it as it has taken care of them. None of this is communicated in the standard conversations that occur, if ever, about akiya, and for that, we’re all deprived of the beauty of not just the properties, but the lives that live through them.
Fare Thee Well, O Nagara
After our visit, the agent and I returned, briefly, to the town hall, and then to Shin-Mobara station, where she kindly dropped me off. Along the way, we spoke of the house and its owners, her own experience moving out to Nagara from Tokyo, of building a house on her own, and of the many qualities of living in such a secluded area.
In this context, her articulations served much the same purpose as the property owners’, extrapolated one degree from that of the house to that of the town. She painted a picture of a slower, more peaceful life, certainly not without its cons, but one in which she, at least, was able to find a bit more fulfillment, a bit more satisfaction than what the city had ever offered her.
Once we had parted and I sat on the train in my empty booth, with windows down and masks up, speeding lazily past the acres of rice now golden in the 4PM sunlight, on my way back to arguably the world’s biggest city, it was easy to reflect on the value props of the two almost diametrically opposed environs.
Consider, for a Moment
On the one hand, you have the image of the metropolis, storied for its convenience, safety, nightlife, and business, to name but a few. On the other, you have inaka, a place where nothing happens and there is no thriving but merely subsistence.
But here I was, traveling betwixt the two, with my laptop and an internet connection conducting my business, careening back towards a sardine-can life in an over-worked and inexplicably lonely concrete jungle in the throes of a pandemic, coming from a quaint little municipality no one could find on a map in which there is a couple who sit together and have a drink or two watching the storm come in from a distance on the deck they planned and built themselves so many years ago, but which now they intend to part with.
It seemed to me that the tables have turned a bit, and I thought to myself, “Something’s gotta give.” And then, well… that’s another story for another time.