Night in Minakami

Luxury á la Carte

Matt Ketchum

Inaka forces you to unwind. My life’s pretty hectic, and (I think) I like it that way, but even so I appreciate this quality of experiencing inaka. Sometimes this is in more fortunate settings than others, but at the end of the day, once the dark comes in a lot of these communities, you’re not going out for anything but an emergency, and so affords you the luxury of plenty of me-time.

Personally, I am beginning to see this as redefining luxury, more so than the cash price put to accommodations or experiences. Splendor or squalor, getting out there into the sticks, integrating with local communities, and exploring the inaka landscape is, if anything, an exhilarating, life-affirming activity. After a day packed with such highly valuable human experiences, it’s great to have some time to sit back and relax on your own. Robe and velvet slippers sold separately.

What’s so luxurious about unwinding in inaka, you ask? Well, depends on your fancy, but here are some of my personal preferences:

  • The game Stardew Valley I mentioned in my last post is a good one. Minecraft has also caught my eye of late. What a game that is!
  • Developing and documenting an ongoing calligraphy-meets-cryptography project.
  • Studying video production and editing.
  • Composing songs as a musician for my band and also for my own enjoyment.

All of the above and more could be you! (if your organization dives into the oncoming remote work in inaka craze…) but let’s jump back into the story, shall we?

A Brand New Day

After unwinding over a few beers and some snacks, it was finally time for bed. The Minakami House where I’m staying is fully furnished, but when Cory and I were discussing plans, he pointed out that there are not any bedsheets and blankets because the house is not currently occupied.

As such, I brought a sleeping bag to make up for the lack of comforters. Funny thing about that sleeping bag is that I’ve had it for close to two years and originally bought it to use on my multi-day bike treks, during which I usually just camp somewhere with a tent. However, because I almost always take those long rides through the countryside in the summer, I’ve never had reason to take the sleeping bag along with me because I simply don’t need it in the heat. So it’s sat there in one closet or another since I bought it, unused, though certainly not unloved.

Luxuriously Brisk

I awoke early on a beautiful brisk morning, the sun shining through the curtains with the silver strands of autumnal dawn. I’m not really a morning person, but the merits of getting up early aren’t entirely lost on me.

First order of business was a shower, and here is where I ran into a minor issue: I could not figure out how to turn on the hot water for anything but the bathtub. Since I didn’t feel like being a nuisance, I improvised: brief spats of freezing shower followed by submersion in a piping hot pool.

Bathe in luxury at this Minakami property

The culprit.

This is actually quite similar to a routine I had at a Seattle spa called Banya 5 in which I would alternate between sauna and ice bath, so I wasn’t all too unfamiliar with the extreme temperature variation. Apparently there are health benefits to this, but none are scientifically proven, so I more or less think of this as a practice in will power. Even so, familiarity doesn’t reduce the shock, but while it is somewhat uncomfortable, it sure as shit opens up your eyes. And with that brisk foray out of the way, I entered the day hyper-aware of my surroundings.

Up the stairs and into the kitchen I went to prepare breakfast, which consisted of opening the camouflaged refrigerator to retrieve a Tuna-mayo onigiri, and boiling some water for instant coffee. This might sound pedestrian, but I assure you the one-two punch of GMO-infused fatty carbohydrates and tasteless rehydrated caffeine is the epitome of luxury.

T’Workin’

Our schedule that day only began after noon, so I took my time in getting my affairs in order. While enjoying breakfast, I hopped onto the wi-fi network to get some telework done.

Of particular interest that day was my need to respond to my good friend Jessop Petroski’s request for some quotes to use in an article he was writing for The Japan Times about akiya, and the feasibility of *actually* buying one to move into.

While Jessop only needed a few good quotes, I’m not the type to just blurt some stuff out without context, so I sat down and thoughtfully answered his questions in paragraph form. The crux of what I ended up writing was that there’s a toxic narrative infecting a lot of perceptions about Japan’s countryside. This narrative basically posits that anything outside of Tokyo and labelled an akiya is garbage, which is anything but true — as the luxury 3-story akiya I was writing in was testament to.

I finished that up in an hour or so, got to a few emails, and checked out activity across Akiya & Inaka’s digital presence. Around noon, I grabbed my coat, laced up my boots, and revved up the Suzuki Jimny, ready for a day exploring Minakami.

Down from the Hills

I started on the long, winding descent down the mountain road into Minakami to meet up with Cory at the most prestigious of meeting places: Seven Eleven. Past ponds, through forests, and over potholes, the road back to civilization required a bit of driving skill, but eventually I emerged from the wilderness unscathed, and to great fanfare as the sky was miraculously full of rainbows. This is a quality of Minakami that isn’t spoken of too much, but there are rainbows every day. Inspiring or disconcerting? You be the judge.

Our first plan for the day was lunch at the city’s well-regarded pizzeria La Bier, and this certainly got me excited. Traveling Japan, you learn to appreciate many regional foods, mostly of a traditional caliber. While I also enjoy savoring these traditional experience offered by Japanese cuisine, its also nice to do the contrarian thing and spontaneously gorge on pizza in inaka.

To that end, we headed northwards from Seven Eleven for about 20 minutes, through rustic townscapes full of spectacular traditional buildings along the mighty Tone River, and into the town of Minakami proper. We parked at a roadside station or michi no eki, and ditched our vehicles for a walk through the town, accompanied by Cory’s dog, who is aptly named Scorpius.

Minakami’s a very north-south town as it is situated in between two mountain ranges, and so as we walked through the various locales within the town limits, forever present was the looming gaze of snowcapped peaks. As we walked, Cory pointed out some popular local establishments to pay attention to: local craft brewery Octone, his friend’s restaurant Ruins, a newly opened cafe, and more, all of which strengthened my impression that Minakami is a tightly knit, communal town. Cory will cop to that.

The Epitome of Luxury

We soon found ourselves at the pizza place, and were quickly seated. Minakami is a pretty quiet spot in the interim after the hikers and campers leave and before the skiers and snowboarders arrive, even in a normal year, but with Corona 2020 there is a whole new level of inactivity, so its not as if we had any crowds to battle.

Culinary luxury at Minakami Pizzeria

Pupper & pizza

Seated outside, we were soon presented with menus, which featured a decent selection of pizza toppings, much of which were locally harvested or made. We opted for the mushroom and pepperoni varieties. The server asked if we’d like to try one of the local beers they had available, but given that we were driving, we politely turned down the offer — maybe next time.

With our pizzas in the oven, we got to talking about Cory’s business, life in Minakami, opportunities in rural regions and, unsurprisingly, akiya. The region is chock full of them, and some are beginning to be used in promising, novel ways. There’s an abandoned elementary school that’s been repurposed as a teleworking space. A pension that’s being retrofitted for the 21st century with WiFi and laser beams. Discussions about transforming ryokan into wellness retreats, and more. It helps quite a bit that Minakami has such a high number of outdoor experiences in the area, and also a notable foreign presence, that these projects don’t seem all that wacky or unreasonable at all for your average person dabbling in inaka.

A Walk Around the Town

After about an hour and two pizzas (Italian style, not NYC), we finished up and headed back to the parking area where there was a riverside trail that highlights the great outdoors of Minakami. We walked along the trail for 30 or so minutes, and Cory spoke of more adventurous fare: trail running, bear attacks, bungee jumping, oh my! Up until this point, I appreciated the business potential of a place like Minakami much more than I was able to the experiential side, but with Cory’s anecdotes it became much more clear that a “sleepy” town in Japan’s rural reaches quickly becomes something much more exciting without much work.

Walking along the Tone River

Scorpius really likes rocks.

We doubled back at a bridge crossing the river maybe 30 meters below, taking the time to scope out a few of the vacant hotels along the shore line as we went. Once back at the parking lot, we each hopped into our respective vehicles and Cory led the way with me following. We headed back towards Kamimoku, in the direction of the Minakami House, to visit OneDrop, a newly completed cafe built by outdoor sports enthusiasts.

We parked at another nearby house, which Cory manages, and walked down the hill to OneDrop as the sun was beginning to set. Over the course of my time in Minakami, I got the feeling that dusk comes earlier there than it does elsewhere, perhaps due to the surrounding mountains blocking the sun out earlier than on a plain. Or maybe I’m just making stuff up, but either way, the fact is: it was starting to get dark.

OneDrop in the Bucket

Outside stood the owners, two gentlemen in their late 40s or early 50s. They warmly greeted us and we almost immediately began speaking about akiya with considerable excitement. We spoke about the “modern” Japanese real estate market and it’s turf rivalries, competing portfolios, and conspicuously convoluted intel structure, all of which makes it extremely difficult for a potential buyer to assess the core qualities of any property they’re interested in, needlessly complicating the process.

Coffee in MinakamiThere is also the traditional real estate agency business model, which works to disincentivize an agent from working on anything but high-end, conventional, conveniently-located properties, such that quality ones which fall outside of that definition get considerably less attention and upkeep as the more attractive ones, dooming them to unsellable akiya damnation.

These two factors together create a vicious cycle in which the damned properties fall further out of favor due to no fault of their own while at the same time concentrating the easily accessible property pool with more and more top-end listings, all due merely to standard practice.

I explained to our new friends how we are trying to flip that script. By not tying ourselves to any one region, opening up the opportunity for bespoke portfolio curation, and by opting for a largely fee-based model, we aim to deliver a service solely focused on accommodating each client’s needs by finding the best properties that meets their criteria without favor or prejudice.

“Oh. That’s incredible!” One of the guys said, “Why the hell hasn’t anyone done that before?” The other chimed in, and then we went inside their new establishment to continue our talk of the akiya market and inaka life over drip coffee and fresh mikan oranges.

A Day Spent in Inaka Luxury

After an hour or so, we decided to call it a day. We wrapped up our pleasant conversation by exchanging meishi, and we were soon on our way. I wasn’t yet headed back to the house, but to the local supermarket for something a bit healthier than what Seven Eleven typically offers for dinner. Plus I just don’t like repeating meals day after day.

The trip to Beisia took maybe 15 minutes, and jeez, it was worth it. This one is apparently the largest in the area, and was really quite well-stocked. I grabbed some beef, spinach, tomatoes, red onion, oil & vinegar, blue cheese (all local) and a few other ingredients, for a simple steak salad, and a bottle of red wine, for great justice. I loaded that into the Jimny, and started making my way back up the mountain, again savoring the brisk evening air and this time with a much better understanding of my surroundings after having spent the day exploring with Cory.

Way back in the day, I fashioned myself as a pretty decent chef, but having spent so many years cooped up in small Tokyo apartments with mere micro-facsimiles of a functional kitchen, I was worried that my ability to navigate a proper kitchen – which the Minakami House certainly has – had waned. Fortunately, the kitchen at this property is a real winner and I spent the last hours of my second day in beautiful Minakami cooking up a storm, enjoying wine, and grooving to the dulcet sounds of Blood Ceremony.

Luxury is a word with which the definition varies from person to person, and up there in the cool dusk of Minakami’s hills and forests, reflecting on a day spent with new friends, experiencing new foods, and speaking about jointly shared passions, I must say, I’m pretty sure that is now becoming my new definition of luxury.