Luxury á la Carte in Minakami
Inaka forces you to unwind. My life’s pretty hectic, and I like it that way, but I do appreciate the relaxation part of inaka. The level of relaxation depends on the setting, but at the end of the day, it’s mostly the same. Once the dark comes in these communities, you’re only going out for an emergency, affording you plenty of luxurious me-time.
Personally, I am beginning to see this as redefining luxury. More so than the price associated with these properties or experiences, it is they themselves that are valuable. Splendor or squalor, integrating with local communities and exploring the inaka landscape is an exhilarating, life-affirming activity. After a day full of valued human experiences, it’s great 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… provided your organization supports remote work. But if not, send them over our way and we’ll put them right.
Anyway, let’s jump back into the story, shall we?
A Brand New Day
After unwinding over some beers and snacks, it was finally time for bed. The Minakami House is fully furnished, but while planning, Cory noted that there are no bedsheets or blankets as the house is currently unoccupied.
As such, I brought a sleeping bag to make up for the lack of comforters. I’ve had that sleeping bag about two years and originally bought it for bike treks, during which I usually camp urban-ly. However, because I almost always take those rides in the summer, I never have need for a sleeping bag because of the heat. So it’s sat in my closet since I bought it, unused, though certainly not unloved.
I awoke the next morning to the sun shining through the curtains like 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. Easier said than done, I ran into a minor issue: I could not turn on the hot water except for the tub. Since I didn’t want to be a nuisance, I improvised. Between brief spats of freezing shower, I submerged myself in a piping hot pool.
This is actually quite similar to a routine I had at a Seattle spa called Banya 5. I would alternate between sauna and ice bath, so I’m not unfamiliar with extreme temperature variation.
Apparently there are health benefits to this practice, but none are scientifically proven. I think of it more as a practice in will power than measurable health improvement. Even so, familiarity doesn’t reduce the shock. 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. This 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.
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 work done.
I needed to respond to Jessop Petroski’s request for quotes for an article he was writing for The Japan Times about akiya. Particularly, he was curious about 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. 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 posits that anything outside of Tokyo and labelled an akiya is garbage, which is anything but true. The luxury 3-story akiya I was writing in was testament to this.
I finished that up in an hour or so, got to a few emails, and checked out digital Akiya & Inaka activity. 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 Cory at Seven Eleven. Past ponds, through forests, and over potholes, the road back to civilization required a bit of driving skill. 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 this type of Japanese cuisine, its also nice to spontaneously gorge on pizza in inaka.
To that end, we headed northwards from Seven Eleven for about 20 minutes. We went through rustic townscapes full of spectacular traditional buildings along the mighty Tone River, and into Minakami proper. We parked at a roadside station or michi no eki, and ditched our vehicles for a walk through the town, with Cory’s dog, Scorpius.
Minakami is a very north-south town as it is situated in between two mountain ranges. As we walked, forever present was the looming gaze of snowcapped peaks. Cory also 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.
Minakami Madness Begins!
We soon found ourselves at the pizza place, and were quickly seated. Minakami is generally a pretty quiet spot in the interim after the hikers and campers leave and before the skiers and snowboarders arrive. However, Coronatime has caused quite the change to “the norm” in Minakami just as everywhere else, and there is a new level of inactivity. This is concerning… but also sort of nice because there weren’t any crowds.
Seated outside, we were soon presented with menus. Browsing through them, the quality was immediately obvious, with locally harvested pizza toppings galore. 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 that Minakami has such a high number of outdoor experiences in the area, and also a notable foreign presence. Otherwise, these projects might seem overly wacky or unreasonable to your average inaka dabbler.
A Walk Around the Town
After about an hour and two pizzas, we finished up and headed back to the parking area. There is a riverside trail highlighting the great outdoors of Minakami, and Cory suggested we take a hike.
We walked along the trail for 30 or so minutes, and Cory spoke of more adventurous fare. From trail running, to bear attacks, to bungee jumping, he really made Minakami pop.
Up until this point, I appreciated the business potential of a place like Minakami much more than I was able to the experiential side. Cory’s anecdotes made it much more clear that a “sleepy” town in rural Japan can easily become much more exciting.
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 soon started speaking about akiya with considerable excitement. It was all on the table! The “modern” Japanese real estate market, turf rivalries, competing portfolios, and conspicuously convoluted intel structure. All of this makes it extremely difficult for potential buyers to assess any property they’re interested in.
There is also the traditional real estate agency business model. This effectively disincentivizes agents from working on anything but high-end, conventional, conveniently-located properties. Boiled down, quality properties which fall outside of the accepted norm get less attention, dooming them to unsellable damnation.
These two factors together create a vicious cycle. The damned properties fall further out of favor while simultaneously pumping the accepted property pool with more top-end listings.
I explained to our new friends how we are trying to flip that script. By not tying ourselves to any one region, we are able to provide bespoke portfolio curation. We also opt for a largely fee-based model, which delivers service solely focused on finding the best properties that meets a client’s criteria.
“Oh. That’s incredible!” One of the guys said, “Why the hell hasn’t anyone done that before?” The other chimed in. We then 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 were soon on our way. I wasn’t yet headed to the house, but to the local supermarket for something healthier than another Seven Eleven dinner. Plus I just don’t like repeating meals day after day.
The trip to Beisia took maybe 15 minutes and was worth it. This one is the largest in the area, and is well-stocked. I grabbed some local beef, spinach, tomatoes, red onion, oil & vinegar, and blue cheese for a steak salad, and a bottle of red wine, loaded that into the Jimny, and headed back up the mountain. I savored the brisk evening air, now with a much better understanding of my surroundings.
Way back in the day, I was a pretty good cook. After so many years in small Tokyo apartments with their micro kitchens, though, I was worried that my skills had waned. Not the case!
The kitchen at this property is a real winner. 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.
The definition of luxury varies from person to person. Up there in the cool dusk of the hills and forests of Minakami, 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.