Nagara and the Outer Limits of Inaka

Chiba, Nagara-cho porch

Note to the Reader

Though the publish date of this article about a property in Nagara, Chiba is October 20th, 2020, it is written about a trip taken on August 19th, 2020. Sometimes things take longer to get done than you like, but don’t let that get you down.

Taking It to a New Level

We’ve explored a lot of relatively well-regarded areas in our adventures thus far, places like Atami, Nikko, Kamakura, and Nagano, and had a whole lot of fun — we’ve made new friends, seen amazing sights, dined at some outstanding sushi restaurants, had a few yucks here and there, and the properties we’re showcasing are selling at a satisfying clip.

This akiya thing is relatively new territory, in the sense that heretofore very few have bothered to engage with it. Conversely, it is also relatively old, in the sense that many have been aware of it for a few years, thanks to a slow trickle of generally negative, speculative clickbait articles.

Which creates a bit of a conundrum: there’s a whole lot of interest in these magical properties, but that is accompanied by a whole lot of reasonably held suspicion. There are oases of exceptional properties out there amidst the dilapidation, but it’s easy to get lost. We aim to provide some direction in rectifying that.

Thus, step one has been popular tourist spots like Kamakura or Nikko: they provide a comparatively low barrier to entry in a market that, as stated above, can understandably be a bit nerve-wracking. And we’re happy to work with these areas — they tend to be highly regarded for a reason — however, if we were to stick to just the popular destinations that are already top-of-mind, we’d be doing ourselves, our clients, and, really, our market niche a disservice as we’d be, by definition, precluding any direct interaction with those oases out there in the rough.

Now, if we were selling bread or washlets or, I don’t know, network engineering, that’d be cool and all, but those products and services are all relatively well accepted in the common discourse of modern commerce and so I would argue they aren’t exactly exciting. On the other hand, our clients are going out on a limb with something that is generally understood to be untenable, and discovering that the opposite is true. I think that is pretty awesome.

And it gets even better the further out you go and the deeper you dig. So, this time around, suit up for adventure like you probably never expected to see from a real estate consultancy and follow me to the unknown reaches of Japan’s Outer Limits.

To the Great Beyond

Thus, step one has been popular tourist spots like Kamakura or Nikko: they provide a comparatively low barrier to entry in a market that, as stated above, can understandably be a bit nerve-wracking. And we’re happy to work with these areas — they tend to be highly regarded for a reason — however, if we were to stick to just the popular destinations that are already top-of-mind, we’d be doing ourselves, our clients, and, really, our market niche a disservice as we’d be, by definition, precluding any direct interaction with those oases out there in the rough.

Now, if we were selling bread or washlets or, I don’t know, network engineering, that’d be cool and all, but those products and services are all relatively well accepted in the common discourse of modern commerce and so I would argue they aren’t exactly exciting. On the other hand, our clients are going out on a limb with something that is generally understood to be untenable, and discovering that the opposite is true. I think that is pretty awesome.

And it gets even better the further out you go and the deeper you dig. So, this time around, suit up for adventure like you probably never expected to see from a real estate consultancy and follow me to the unknown reaches of Japan’s Outer Limits.

Dumpster Diving

In addition to serving our clients’ desire to explore properties in particular territories, I also spend a few hours a week digging through the purported trash of completely unheard of locales. Why? Because I’m an unrepentantly curious person — something that’s gotten me into trouble just as much as it’s revealed spectacular opportunity to me over the years — and this is, to me, the definition of fun, especially when you uncover hidden gems, which happens often enough!

So one day I was poking around in a few districts of Chiba Prefecture, and noticed I kept getting hits in a particular subdistrict of a city I had never heard of — Nagara — called Osakabe. While I’m familiar with Chiba’s most popular areas (the coastal region roughly between Kujukuri and Choshi, and the southern end of the Boso Peninsula), Osakabe is quite the anomaly and this invariably triggers in me an insatiable desire to explore.

Now, just as Japan is full of akiya of various qualities, Japan is also full of municipal governments of varying levels of efficiency. Not all, but many rely on excruciatingly dated management systems, so much so that, unless a client really wants to explore not just properties but also the depths of Japan’s world-famous bureaucratic hangups, we just discount those areas to begin with.

But that’s really for efficacy’s sake, and not exactly a matter of quality. Simply put, if we can work in a district that doesn’t have a bunch of red tape and in which properties that satisfy our clients’ needs also exist, why go somewhere that only adds to our workload?

But again, I’m a tinkerer, and so in my own free time I’m totally open to putting myself through the bureaucratic ringer in pursuit of adventure. Nagara, then, is a perfect time sink for me, as it has a bit more difficult to navigate than what we typically serve up to our clients.

Welcome to Jigoku, Nagara Style

Sometimes, in order to explore these listings, one needs to apply for a certificate of authorization to do so! The standard process requires you to fill it out, sign it, hanko it, slam it judiciously into an envelope, and send it indignantly on over to them the good ol’ fashioned way. Nagara is one of these places.

Fortunately, Nagara, while endearingly analogue, also appears to be quite flexible and friendly, so upon contacting them to make sure that my understanding of the process was correct (it was), they gave me a pass and said to just bring the documents with me when I visited.

Phew. I was worried there for a minute.

So I printed the damn things, filled them out, and placed them gingerly on a shelf to be used when the time came. Mission accomplished!

Chiba Time

I had gotten the documents out of the way and was excited to get on over to Nagara and check the place I had identified out, but that enthusiasm was premature. The owner had requested to be there for the walk-through, and since they don’t live in the area, we needed to find a time that worked for them. This was to be either a Tuesday or Wednesday ::rolls eyes::

You might think this is ridiculous, and you would be very right. But again, curiosity frequently gets the best of me, and when barriers go up, when the alarms start sounding, when red flags start waving, you better believe I pull out the big guns and get ready for a fight. There is nothing I hate more than bureaucracy, and when it bears its stupid, incorrigible teeth, I sure as hell grab my best tooth-smashing sledge and swing mightily like Thor.

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.

Adventure Awaits!

As I mentioned, Nagara is located in an area that I’m guessing almost no one has ever heard of or thought about. And there are a lot of places like that in Japan! But most of them have train stations, however tiny or quaint.

Matt at Mobara Station

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 to which — Mobara — is a cool 8km away. From Mobara I would have to take a bus, which isn’t always terrible as I’ve outlined in previous entries, but that there are only 5 departures for Nagara per day certainly made things a bit more, uh, fraught.

Having responsibly mapped out my route like a Big Boy, I set out for Nagara on August 19th, more than 2 hours early because the path ahead of me was convoluted at best and it seemed prudent to afford myself at least 1 fuck up. 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, sat down proud of myself for making it that far, and promptly spaced out.

The Gauntlet as Imagined by Nagara

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 when I noticed. But again, Nagara is very much not the city, and I would soon learn the definition of pain.

Chiba Nagara fields 2I signaled to the driver that I’d like to disembark at the next stop, and subsequently alighted into a beautiful sunlit landscape of rustling, russet rice fields circumscribed by pine-laden hills too big for their britches or mountains yet grown into theirs (something the US Geological Survey also has difficulty differentiating). There were few people, fewer cars, and the wind blew in a mysterious, disorienting direction.

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, and with no hope of a return bus coming in the next few hours, which may as well have meant ever.

My only recourse was to steel myself for a long, lonely walk back to my intended destination in the relentless, blinding sunshine. Google Maps kindly informed me would take about 45 minutes, and 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.

Salvation!

The above is perhaps a bit hyperbolic: there are far worse circumstances to be in than trekking to a house for sale that you’re interested in with a bunch of camera gear on your back and a water bottle. But when you habitually wear jeans and all black everything, 30 minutes of the sun beating down on you 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 the town hall, though I was passed by just as many kei cars as I was by construction vehicles, which might give you further insight on just how rural the area is. Fittingly, I also passed a good number of akiya on my quest for salvation, however not the kind that anyone of sound mind would be interested in.

For almost all of the journey, though, the road was skirted by immense fields of flaxen rice, a peripheral accoutrement that added an ephemeral, timeless quality to the hike. Sure, it was wicked hot and blindingly bright, but with all senses accounted for it was also a very enveloping experience. Or so might’ve said Proust lol who writes like that^.

Nagara town hallEventually, I spotted a large building in the distance there against the emptiness, just past the only 7/11 for miles and a string of abandoned gas stations with sadly apologetic, faded, handwritten signs thanking their customers for years of patronage staring out at you from behind their broken, glass facades. Amidst the dilapidation, it really was kind of monolithic, and for that quality I noticed it, and 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.

Pleasant Conversation

I entered the town hall’s premises, and was confronted with a pristine and notably modern veneer, something at considerable odds with the scene outside, and that is something that I think of as a recurrent theme of Nagara’s — it’s not hard to think of it as an oasis.

I approached the Residents’ Window, introduced myself, and stated that I had an appointment to view akiya that day. After only so long and with no hiccups at all, the gentleman at the counter guided me over to the newly established booth devoted to assisting potential relocatees, a service which also oversees the purchase of akiya.

I sat down in one of those ubiquitous padded metal chairs so often encountered in office settings, and soon was speaking with the manager on duty that day. She was outstandingly helpful, informative, and honestly just a real pleasure to speak with, which is an odd thing to say considering the difficulty I had getting to that point, but again, oasis, refuge in the midst of unrest.

We got to know each other a bit — I described how I got lost on the way there and explained what Akiya & Inaka is up to, and she regaled me with her experience as an accomplished macrobiotic chef and showed me videos of her chainsawing trees for lumber to build her house with — and then, after an hour or so 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 deep into a cul de sac of sorts on the outskirts of Nagara-cho, it is even more removed from the notion of city life than the rest of the town

The Nagara Property.

The house was built some 30 years ago by a then-recently retired couple, predominantly using imported Swedish lumber. It has remained in the original owners’ hands for its entire life, and they have done a spectacular job of keeping the property in excellent condition. They have also made a number of additions on the original structure.

The main building has 2 stories, the first containing the kitchen, bathroom, and living quarters. The kitchen is admittedly a bit tight, but aside from that it is perfectly functional. The toilet and bath are separated, and while the toilet is just about what you’d imagine, the bath has a spacious entryway, and features stained-glass windows.

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 the expansive rice fields that surround the property.

In front of the house, there is a spacious wooden deck also offering views of the fields, on which the owners are keen to nurse a 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 simply being there is a complex issue, and I intentionally wrote about it in a deliciously negative light in the early part of this entry because that’s what all you clickbait addicts love: vitriol.

Now, don’t get me wrong: having to deal with yet another layer of complexity in an already immensely complex process isn’t something I enjoy. But purchasing an 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, the understanding of which is key to navigating the akiya market.

Standard akiya practice dictates that agents have very little if any contact at all with the properties they are managing. Really, they’re just 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, no one wants them, and they don’t deserve your attention because they are by definition bad, and 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 town hall rep that 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 good 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.

Osakabe cabinThey proudly showcased pictures of the life they partially spent at this spectacular cabin over the years, smiles and family members and fishing rods galore, all 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

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.