Rural Japan FTW

There are so many great things that happen when you start digging around in rural Japan (or, presumably, rural anywhere): novel culinary experiences, large doses of fresh air, dynamic scenery, unfamiliar languages and dialects, stories from the locals, and so much more. But taken all together, this accomplishes something quite spectacular and uplifting — the opportunity to engage with people you otherwise wouldn’t know and even become part of communities you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

Traveling on your own to parts unknown is, I think, an apex experience in humanity. When you put yourself out there into the universe, with all the risk and reward that that can entail, it really pays off to be proactive in your pursuit of uncertainty as well as in your humbleness when you find it. And with that, comes the development of new relationships, both personal and professional, which ultimately can blossom into friendship, something the world can always use a little bit more of.

One of those new friends is a guy that goes by the name of Cory. An excellent dude by all means with an interesting background and an eye for adventure, he reached out a few months ago to get a better read on what we’re doing in rural Japan. His inquiry wasn’t out of any general interest, but rather because he lives out in Minakami, Gunma prefecture with his family in a beautiful riverside akiya where he runs a consulting business. Through his experiences out there, at the intersection of adventure and industry, he’s become a huge proponent of escaping the city. Doesn’t hurt that he’s well connected to a number of akiya owners in the area, too.

Rock & Rural

One reason I’m so actively exploring various regions of Japan right now is that, even though I’ve now spent years digging around in akiya info and developing methodologies to leverage it, this is an entire country we’re talking about.  By traveling around, we integrate with communities far and wide, using their input and anecdotes of a wide swath of characters in a variety of environments to constantly update our understanding of the landscape.

So we chatted back and forth over text and zoom for a few weeks getting to know each other a bit and throwing around a few thoughts on where akiya & inaka are headed moving through Coronatime. But talk is cheap, and I don’t like hot air, so eventually Cory and I decided it was time to put our money where our mouths were, and he got to work organizing what turned into the greatest adventure I’ve been on yet.

Cory managed to schedule a 4-day itinerary featuring a walk through of an abandoned elementary school successfully repurposed as a teleworking space, 3 akiya tours, a mountain biking trip , a barbecue, a visit to an excellent pizzeria, 2 interviews with locals, and even set me up in one of his friend’s akiya, which is a *beautiful* 3 story house completed last year and comes with a Suzuki Jimny – Japan’s pint size answer to the Jeep…

What the actual fuck — Who organizes such crazy schedules, and in such a short amount of time as Cory did? I’ve got close to a decade in community organization, and just getting a few meetings together can be outstandingly difficult. It’s a miracle to me that Cory put all of this together, and I’m really curious about how he went about it with such seeming ease. As I’m typing this, I wonder if it could just be the case that inaka life is just that much less dense, schedule wise in addition to population. Regardless, Cory hit multiple grand slams on this like I’ve never seen before, and I can’t thank him enough for putting it all together. But here’s the wildest part — it was even better than it looked!

Another thing about inaka is that those far-flung places outside of a city center tend to house outstandingly connected and friendly communities, and often enough also have a magic air of serendipity. This is a hella powerful combination when you’ve got someone running ground game in your favor, and sure enough there were experiences to be had waiting for me that could not be foreseen.

Below, I will begin an attempt to describe what transpired over my 4 days in Minakami and will be continued in subsequent entries, but fair warning: it can’t possibly live up to the actual experience. If the following piques your interest, I implore you to get in touch with Cory asap.

Long Train Rides Through Rural Japan

Yugawara Sunrise

This is what I wake up to every morning in Yugawara. Nice, right?

As is my wont, I once again eschewed use of Japan’s fabled Shinkansen bullet trains for the local variety, knowing full well that Minakami is a good bit further out than a lot of the places I’ve been exploring lately.

From where I am in rural Yugawara , that’s basically a 5 hour trip, but that’s the point. In exploring the inaka landscape, I’ve discovered I’m quite productive on long, empty, local train rides, though I can’t really explain why. It could have something to do with the gentle rocking of the train cars, or the ASMR -y drone of the countryside as you careen through the night, or the bizarre feeling which accompanies the realization that a train in Coronatime, much like a plane or a bus, doesn’t actually belong in this reality because they’re built for capacity now turned deadly.

There are even more reasons why Long Train Rides Through Japan are my favorite teleworking platform, all of which bear mentioning but that takes too much time, so let’s just accept the above as sufficient explanation and move on.

While the ride to Minakami from Yugawara is quite long, it is also spectacularly simple, only involving 2 transfers, one at Kozu Station from the Tokaido line to the Takasaki line , and another at Takasaki Station for the Joetsu line. It’s that easy!

Train telework

In my element.

The train ride itself wasn’t all that exciting, and isn’t that as it should be? I worked on some client portfolios, banged out a bunch of emails, scheduled a few calls, took a nap, and even indulged in some good ol’ fashioned gaming.

A Little R&R

Now, I’m not much of a gamer and only play so often, and even then I feel like I force myself to do it as a means to break out of Work Mode and just relax. And, to be honest, I think that kind of reflects what Akiya & Inaka is all about: disengaging with the torrential onslaught of Professional Life and re-engaging with your Own Life, what can be full of (brace yourself) fun and relaxation. When or why making time to enjoy yourself became so taboo is unknown to me, but that it did is quite unfortunate and I, at least personally if not also professionally, aim to undo that.

Stardew Valley

If you can’t get yourself out to inaka IRL, I guess this is a good substitute.

Funnily enough, I’ve been playing Stardew Valley, a farming RPG centered around a corporate slave who got tired of city life, hung up their suit, and relocated to a farm in the rural countryside. Huh. Sounds familiar.

Back to the train: once you get into the zone, time flies, and it felt like maybe 2 hours max when I arrived at… Numata Station. Oops, got on the wrong train, which terminated before my destination of… Kamimoku Station, which is near Minakami Station but is definitely not Minakami Station. I’m cool with loose schedules, so whatever, but yeah, a bit more planning on my part would’ve made things go a little smoother. All part of the ride.

Darkness Prevails

Once I arrived at my rural destination, I pinged Cory. He said that I should exit left and head for 7/11, and that he’d pick me up there. I set out to do exactly that, but immediately upon leaving the fluorescent haven of the minuscule station, down its quaint and somewhat crumbled concrete stairs, I was met with the Great Dark of Minakami and was effectively night blind.

It took me a moment for my eyes to adjust, though there wasn’t all that much to adjust to. The city limits of Minakami are massive, which is accentuated by the diffuse population of 22,000. I’ve been told that people in the area really like their space, so there’s very little in the way of dense clusters of structures like you’d see in even a smaller rural city like, say, Sano in Tochigi. There is a preponderance of wide open space, and at night, this is just darkness. I squinted through the dark surrounding me down the road to see in the distance a brightly shining but lonely sign marking my next salvation, just as I had been instructed: the convenience of 7/11, and Cory’s battle-scarred Kei Truck .

Into the night I went, armed with only my wits, my wallet, and an expertly packed backpack full of camera gear, computers, and a few changes of clothes. I’ve found over the years that I like to think I’m a light packer, only to realize I’m not once I’m on the road. Recently, however, I think I’ve been getting better at this, and though this pack was pretty heavy, I did manage to cut it down enough to cram into a single backpack.

There were only a few streetlights peppered between the station and the store, but nowhere near enough to meaningfully light the way for someone on foot, and so I bumbled along the nighttime road the best I could, thanking my lucky stars (which shone exceptionally clearly above me) that not many cars were passing by.

Rural Royalty

Cory greeted me with a mask and an elbow bump — which still feels like a cheap alternative for a very dated practice in the first place — and advised me to put my bag into the truck bed, before suggesting that I run into the convenience store to grab dinner. While Minakami is itself drastically different from the metro experience, there are a few things that remain the same, 7/11’s delicious selection of lovingly crafted junk food one of them. I grabbed a sandwich, an onigiri, some nuts, a few beers, and called it dinner.

With a respectable amount of calories and alcohol in my hands, I headed back out of the store and into the fuselage of Cory’s truck, somewhat eerily lit by 2 blue nightlights on the dash, and off we went into the darkness. Things didn’t get much better with the headlights on, and so the blank canvas of the shadow shrouded town remained ostensibly the same, merely whirring past me at a speed greater than before.

Soon enough, we took a slight right at the only traffic light I had seen so far, and headed uphill. As we twisted and turned climbing the mountain road, Cory and I exchanged pleasantries, speaking of Coronatime business, local characters, the schedule he so kindly assembled for me, details of the house we were headed to, and our mutual acquaintances and interests. Occasionally, he’d point out the truck window and say something like “remember to turn left at this blue house,” but I still couldn’t see jack shit so I just nodded and subtly reconfirmed on my phone that I indeed did have Cory’s number for when I got lost.

On and on the road went, getting ever narrower, ever more cobbled, ever dirtier. Japanese roads have always amazed me for their assumption that they are footpaths, and not pathways that /cars — /the smallest of which still have a substantial width to them — will be operating on, and these ones take the cake, of recent memory anyway. Much like the trips on empty trains, I find these country roads quite pleasant, offering a calming interstice between the trip and destination. Of course, they probably aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, so is everything else so that’s cool.

A Castle in the Mountains

Finally, we emerged from a canopied stretch of road into a brief reprieve of field from the enclosing forest, and with the help of the moonlight I could just barely make out the silhouette of our destination against the wispy backdrop of slender forest fingers. Stark, yes, but nothing close to Hill House.

As we made our approach, pulling around from behind, I could begin to make out the auburn aura of the 3 story structure via 2 porch lights shining through the clear night air like lonely buoys. The warmth that this visage communicated wasn’t lost on me: despite my appreciation of these rural roadways, after a bumpy 15 minutes in late autumn mountain weather at night and in the dark following a 5+ hour journey, I was looking forward to getting settled.

Cory pulled past the driveway, in which the aforementioned Jimny was devotedly waiting, and parked parallel to the front door. He went for the keys and I for my bag, and with barely any time wasted, I was ushered into the vestibule of a truly astounding house, but that description comes later.

Shoes off and slippers on, Cory showed me around the main 2nd floor, which contains dining, living, and office space, and the 1st floor, which has the bedrooms and bathing facilities. He flipped a few switches, pointed out the thermostat, went out and connected the car battery, threw me the keys, and basically said have a good night and left. It’d been a long day, he’s pretty perceptive, and besides, we had a lot of time over the next few days, so I said goodnight, unpacked my stuff, grabbed a sandwich and a beer, and went out on the wooden deck overlooking the road and forest we came up through in the now-refreshingly brisk night air and thought about all the cool stuff that was awaiting me in Minakami…

To be continued…