Fujino neighborhood

Fujino: Land of Alternative Education and Arts

We get a lot of inquiries about a lot of places from a lot of different types of people: Domestic Japanese are fewer than the more internationally experienced; Some are entrepreneurs, some corporate leads, some forest bathing enthusiasts, and lets not forget the occasional inquiry from abroad based on an interest in exploring whichever idea they have about “traditional” Japanese lifestyles; they also come from all stages of life, be it single, dating, married, or with a family. The range is quite literally across the board, much like the properties we work with, and this is perhaps the biggest reason why the work we do is so interesting!

But because of the wide spectrum of people and properties we work with, we necessarily must provide extremely granular services modified to suit the needs of each, and while I might say this is necessary, I would also say that we take pride in it. Recently, there is one very understandable concern that has been popping up under the married with children subset, and that is, of course, education.

Now, I would be remiss in saying that we’re any kind of experts in educational resources (and would certainly welcome input from those of you who are!), but we have commenced research some months ago with the intent on uncovering the best resources for childhood education. As a non-parent, digging into this is an educational research project in itself, though I wouldn’t say my findings are surprising: it’s a complex landscape out there!

Also unsurprising is that the major schools very frequently occur in the major metro area, which is an obvious point of concern for those considering a move out of the city. The first thing that may occur to you — and certainly to us — is proximity. While commutes aren’t an ideal solution, they are frequently seen as a fact of life, and so rural communities that are within an acceptable train ride (let’s say ~30 mins) are first contenders.

More interesting, though, is uncovering the venerable schools that themselves exist in rural communities, and one that keeps popping up is the Steiner School in Fujino. This is interesting for a few reasons, in addition to the obvious educational angle — Fujino itself is known for being one of the foremost bastions of progressive lifestyles. According to Fujino Life, an experiential retreat that introduces outsiders to, well, life in Fujino, the area is a creative enclave with such qualities as:

  1. Fuijno residents are forward-looking, proactive, collaborative, and environmentally caring.
  2. Fujino is an artisanal hub for pottery, sculpture, woodwork, photography, and weaving.
  3. Fujino has the making and playing of traditional musical instruments from Asia, Europe, and America.
  4. Fujino has the Permaculture Center of Japan.
  5. Fujino is the first and most mature Transition Town in Japan.

So when we had a client with children approached us with interests in these qualities, well, it seemed only natural to suggest Fujino, see if we could find some properties of interest, and to get them out there asap to test the waters themselves!

Fujino? More Like Fuji-go!

Given my location south of Tokyo in Yugawara, there’s the added logistical consideration of getting myself up to Tokyo in time to meet clients for an early morning departure, so the night before I packed my bag and set my alarm for 630AM so that I could safely arrive at Shinjuku Station by 9AM.

Generally speaking it’s a ~90 minute trip by local train, but I like to give myself room for error, which frequently means I arrive early, and this time was happily no different. I had about 20 minutes to kill, which I did by magnificently loitering around our meeting spot, and at about 5 minutes to, both our client (let’s call him John), and Parker arrived. So far so good!

We piled into Parker’s exceedingly conspicuous Maserati, and got under way right on time. This was a Monday morning, so traffic was pretty light, and we made it out to Fujino pretty quickly in under 2 hours, stopping along the way in Hachioji to pick up keys for one property, and at a local Fujino real estate agency for another. The third property was still inhabited and managed by another agency that would come to meet us, and little did we know but we’d be viewing.a fourth, too, but that key was to be gotten later.

Fujino #1 – Magino

With keys in hand, we headed for the first property, located in a particularly rural district called Magino. Fujino is situated around Lake Sagami and it’s branching rivers, and a good portion of it is built up on the steep shores which are joined by a number of bridges. Nestled into the mountainside, its quite the scenic locale, and we drove along happily taking in the sights and discussing local cultures.

Its also a comparatively small area, and so the drive itself didn’t take too long, though given the tucked away nature of this particular property, near the end of our trip we had to make a few u-turns. Eventually, though, we arrived at the house, standing very homestead-ly against the hilly background, with only a few neighboring houses in sight.

Now, Akiya & Inaka deals with a lot of different types of property. Some are still in use as weekend getaways but the owners are looking to sell. Some are still being maintained by the owner but are otherwise out of use. Others are more in line with the public perception of akiya and are in various states of disrepair. This, and the next, property fall into that latter category, and was chosen at the request of the client.

¥5,500,000 may seem like a small amount for a house — and it would be for a turn-key solution — but one must also keep in mind the additional cost of repairs when going into a property like this. As we walked through the place, we kept an eye out for damage, and certainly found it. Some water damage in the mezzanine, rotting wooden staircases out back, loose floorboards, there’s a good deal that needed to be addressed, but the bones, at first glance, seemed good.

Once through, our initial ballpark estimate was that an additional ¥7–10,000,000 would need to be spent on bringing the place up to spec. That’s no small amount, but, when taken into consideration with our client’s parameters and their max budget of ¥20,000,000, easily falls into the range of acceptability. But we were only guesstimating based on what we saw, and not going off of any hard numbers — that requires an inspection, which we have commissioned at the client’s request.

Lunch in the Kanagawa Hills

After about an hour or so we had seen what we intended to, and piled back into the car. Depending on management, scheduling viewings can get somewhat complex, though fortunately that was not the case this time — we only had 1 time-sensitive meeting (at 3PM), and the rest were walk-ins, so we had allotted time for lunch at a local farm-to-table restaurant/art space/glamp-ground/tennis court called, fittingly, Fujino Club.

Conveniently located near the house we had just visited, Fujino Club is bonkers cool, and delicious to boot. From the road it looks more like an industrial processing site than anything else: It’s a complex of structures mostly built with raw materials on a steep incline down which there are multiple glamping sites set up and, happily, a family of goats at the bottom. I loved Fujino Club from the moment I saw it.

You need to go down a driveway and around back to access the restaurant, so it’s not the easiest place to find, but once you see all the vegetables lying about you’ll know you’ve arrived. Inside the longhouse, framed with unfinished wooden beams, you’ll find local foodstuffs, books, and posters galore in addition to the excellent smells coming from the kitchen. Again, it is a very cool place.

They specialize in Korean fare, with a limited menu that changes seasonally. After taking ourselves around for a brief tour of the spectacular space, we placed an order of 3 Samugetan (chicken!), and settled into our seats overlooking the valley.

Fujino club lunch of Samugetan

There was one other couple dining on the other end of the restaurant, and 3 staff in the kitchen. We sat next to a cast iron wood stove, keeping us warm, and off to the side was an empty stage with a piano and PA nearby. The azure sky streaked with wispy clouds shone through the large glass windows in front of our wooden table, and the smells of the kitchen wafted over us. As we spoke while waiting for our food, it was impossible not to notice the sensory details of the space we occupied, so peaceful and serene it was compared to the times we live in.

Our food came maybe 10 minutes after our order was placed on large, lacquered wooden trays. The Samugetan, which came in a stone bowl filled with steaming broth, was nicely accented by a bowl of red sekihan rice (for the New Year?) and homemade tsukemono. A seemingly simple affair, I can assure you it was a delicious, almost austere, meal well worth the trip.

After we finished, we took a quick stroll around the expansive premises, interested in viewing the glamping accommodations, but really just wanting to say hi to the goats. The tents looked nice, the bathing facilities clean and modern, and the goats energetic and goofy. An excellent end to an excellent midday meal.

Once we had our fill of all Fujino Club had to offer, we once again got back into the car and were on our way to property #2.

A Brief Reflection

Perhaps this is a good chance to reflect on travel during Coronatime briefly. Just as I much prefer my concerts on the sub-200 attendees side of things, both from a management and experience POV, I also have, for years, tended for the more niche, off-the-beaten-path, unknown excursion options over, say, Karuizawa. This is, to be honest, where a lot of my hope comes from as I’ve seen these small-scale, sustainable practices work well enough in normal times. Are there grotesque profits to be made? Maybe not, but profit nonetheless, and if you’re going to be cheering on the push for sustainability, it seems a little disingenuous to also be in the Cancerous Growth camp. Just saying.

So with travel, there’s a lot to consider, and a lot of that revolves around human contact. Taking the shinkansen to hit the slopes with a few thousand other groups on the same weekend in one of a few resort hotels during a pandemic seems like a bad idea to me. On the other hand, taking a ventilated private car with 3 passengers to a depopulated area to visit vacant houses and empty restaurants seems less so. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the superspreader events tend towards the larger populations.

Fujino #2: Yoshino

Of the ones we had identified for our client, this one was my personal favorite for its proximity to Fujino city center, large garden, and pretty spacious layout. We do these viewings for a number of reasons, one of which is to compare the listing with reality, and this one was almost exactly what I expected, though the garden was pretty well stocked with garbage. Even though I’ve been through countless buildings in all the states of disarray you can imagine, I’m still somewhat perplexed by the sheer amount of garbage that seems to explode into this reality from… somewhere else… at some point in a typical Japanese house. Stop hoarding, ffs. Marie Kondo, ffs. Sustainability, ffs.

Garbage aside, the garden was indeed spacious, as was the house, and in considerably better condition than the first one we had visited. With 2 stories, newly laid wood floors, wide windows, high ceilings, and some pretty gnarly 70’s decorations, its a pretty good looking house from the inside, but not without its flaws… there appeared to have been multiple, inexplicably large explosions of some sort of sauce or condiment in the kitchen, and there also may have been a squatter living in one of the rooms. Oh well, nothing’s perfect!

Fujino house squatter

Fujino #3: Yose

I had a bad feeling about the next place, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it. I’m more likely to stare at a car crash than, say, a wedding anyway, so I get kind of amped going into a shit show. Which is funny to say, actually, because this was the “nicest” house, of the modern variety, and was still being lived in by a young couple.

Let’s get this out of the way, and apologies for bursting your bubble, but it needs to be said: Modern Japanese Architecture is Rubbish. Shit materials, ridiculous layouts, faux minimalism bleeding into banality, the *vast* majority of houses built by today’s Japanese architectural standards are exceptionally uninspired. And this place was no different:

  • Basically a gray box.
  • A full side of the house was made preemptively windowless in case a property was built next door.
  • The kitchen was all zigzags and cramped walkways.
  • The corner entry to the bedroom via sliding shoji was a masterful touch in stupidity.
  • The house’s footprint was almost as large as the property itself, leaving no room for, well, anything outside.
  • An unconscionable “designated baby place” which doesn’t make sense no matter where you point, but especially when its near stairs, tall bookshelves, and other known baby killers.
  • And much more!
Fujino Yose Box House

That house was an awesome example of what we hate, and also of our MO. Sure, you can pay for a new build by some self-professed famous architect, get a completely custom job, assume some sort of status, and pay for it all, and that’s cool, but unless you really go all out, you still might end up with shit. Just go tour some of the $1,000,000+ properties up there in fancy Karuizawa — I haven’t had laughs that good in some time.

Rather, why not explore cheaper options with at least as good construction if not better. There is a reason why a lot of those older wooden houses are still around — they were built solid af using methods and materials tested out over centuries if not longer. Sure, there might be some garbage in the front lawn or a squatter every once in a while, but do your research and due diligence, and once you stake your claim to that and clean it up, you’ve got one helluva solid house

We spent maybe 15 minutes going through this place, but quickly regrouped and planned our escape, feeling almost dirty as we left the premises. The property really has no promise, no hope, it was conceived in a misguided attempt at creativity, and given brutalist concrete flesh. There is no saving it, especially at the price of ¥35,000,000!

Fujino Bonus: Back to Yoshino

Because we had cut our visit to this 3rd property short, we found ourselves with a bit of extra time on our hands before we were to meet up with some Kasamatsu Farms and Yokomura Eco-lodge operators Kaori & Byron. Not being accustomed to letting the party die down once we get it started, we called up the local real estate agent to see what else they had nearby. We were pleasantly surprised when they said they had one more fresh on the market which would be great for creative types, so we rocketed our way over to their office to exchange keys. Well worth it, because this final mystery place was weird, not in a bad sense like #3, but more in an I wish I was a wealthy 18 year old looking for a party house sort of way.

Massive garden, parking, atelier, lack of garbage, nearby liquor store, from the outside this place looked both totally awesome and 100% not at all aligned what our client’s needs, but little did we know it hid such wonders from our eyes, only revealed to those with access to the inner core, which we had fortunately just acquired.

I could barely help myself from playing on the rocks strewn classily around the garden, complete with gnomes, when I heard ecstatic laughter and whooping coming from the inside: Parker and our client had gone ahead of me into the depths of this abode, and from the sound of it, it was something to behold. I needed to investigate.

Immediately upon entering, I could tell we had something special on our hands. The owner appears to be both handy with a hammer as well as a big fan of Fiji, as they had already taken obvious, considerable effort in replacing the flooring, walls, and ceiling with actual bamboo reeds. And not just in the main entranceway, but everywhere. It wasn’t yet a complete job, but it was already a discomfiting enough sight, not to mention walking on those reeds isn’t exactly comfortable.

In a half-bamboo’d living room, there was a brick fireplace that clashed stupendously with the main tropical theme. Sconces placed with gleeful abandon peppered the walls in no discernable pattern whatsoever. The staircase was built so that you had to duck on your way up, and on your way down were greeted by a painting of a clown.

This house is incredible in all of its manic glory, and is so very unsuitable for a young family looking to try their hand at escaping the city. We all had a good laugh and riffed on it for the next hour or so, but alas, it was not meant for our client, and we drove back to the local agent’s office to drop off that key, too.

Checking Out the Action

Now that we had our viewings out of the way, we made our way back over to Magino to see Kaori and Byron, who you may have read about in months past (or seen on Vice, on Akiya Hunter, and multiple times on Seeking Sustainability Live). We’ve said it before, but in case it’s been forgotten or overlooked, we might be in the business of selling vacant houses in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not our only calling.

If there’s one thing that Japan’s inaka will teach you, its the true value of community, and if you’re thinking about moving out there, its a good idea to get a read on the local environment sooner than later. This is something we pride ourselves on facilitating, and so on this trip we decided to take our client not just to view houses that matched their search parameters, but to introduce them to people who have already done what they’re thinking about. In our minds, there couldn’t be anyone better than Kaori and Byron.

First stop was their farmstead, Kasamatsu Farms, which really has to be seen to be believed. Built almost entirely by hand and in the most DIY fashion I believe I’ve ever encountered, Kasamatsu’s farm plots, farm houses, and integrated infrastructure are really quite miraculous to me. That they’ve managed to pull all that off more or less by themselves is inspirational to say the least.

I’ve been around the farm before, but our client is interested in permaculture, bread ovens, and other items under the umbrella of sustainability, and so Byron took us around. It being winter, there’s not all that much growing, but they do have a green house with kale, lettuce, and other leafy greens that they’ve kept going during the colder months.

They’ve also got something like 100 chickens, which is a large number of chickens, and they lay a large number of delicious, organic eggs. These are available on their website, and I highly recommend making them your go-to source of organic produce.

We also toured the farm house, which is much more complete than I last saw it in August. The 2nd floor still hasn’t been installed, so you’re still walking on top of slats which is a bit harrowing, but the walls are all done, the roofing is getting there, and Byron even started installing copper panelling with the intent of having it naturally rust and get that nice green patina everyone so likes. Such creativity!

The Fujino Lodge

Next up was the Yokomura Eco-lodge, where I had booked a night for our client and myself to show them a real, in-the-flesh inaka experience, and, if I’m being honest, I totally over-delivered on it because that’s how we roll.

We followed Byron over to the Lodge, and when we got there unloaded our gear from Parker’s car — he wasn’t staying the night and would be departing for home, potentially leaving us stranded if things didn’t work out. What an adventure this was becoming!

Kaori was waiting for us just inside the entrance to the Lodge — so great to see her again, and this time with friends in tow. She showed us in, lead us to our rooms for us to drop off our luggage, and then back out to the massive main room where the long central table crafted from a single slab of wood had a few snacks and drinks set out on it.

I had a bit of work to try and catch up on, which was no problem given Yokomura’s speedy wifi, so I left our client and Kaori for a bit to tend to that, and Byron, finishing up work on the farm, arrived 15 or so minutes after us with lush, leafy greens in hand for dinner.

Questions abound for those toying with the idea of leaving the city for the wide, unknown world of inaka, and there is not much a better way to quell your fears than by speaking with someone who has come and done the same thing before you. After I had finished my tasks, I came back in to find lovely conversation being had mixing local eateries, educational facilities, train schedules, family resources, recreation, and more.

On top of that, lovely scents were coming out of the kitchen at the far end of the house. It turns out that one of the premier local chefs had been invited to prepare our dinner that night using ingredients from Kasamatsu, which certainly whet my appetite!

Another of the outstanding accoutrements of Yokomura Eco-Lodge is the outdoor, wood-fired hot tub that Byron built. So just prior to dinner, we took our turns braving the elements in the substantially chilly Fujino night to experience such a unique offering. The damn thing gets extremely hot if you aren’t careful, so be sure to test it before getting in and run some cold water into it, but jeez louise, what a luxury to have, and to have built it entirely yourself to boot!

Once all settled, dinner got started, and what a treat it was. Mabo tofu that was actually spicy, freshly hunted venison carpaccio, dried persimmons with local cheese, and more, the hits just kept on coming, and the conversation amongst strangers and friends alike rarely lulled in the warm light of the reclaimed ryokan run by a lovely couple in a small art village in the rural reaches of Japan’s inaka.

Fujino dinner

Fujino’s Not the Only One

This is just one example of the magical experiences that can be had in rural Japan. It’s a whole country out there waiting for you, and that can be daunting, especially when you have specific requests and needs surrounding transportation and education. If you’re just getting started in Japan, as this client more or less is, it’s even more difficult.

So we’re happy to curate these tangential experiences to the viewing process, and indeed think that it’s probably a pretty damn good idea to do so. From a cold, sales-y POV, sure, it brings in an emotional value to the entire process that might contribute to making on a purchase decision. That’s all well and good, but shirking the machiavellian mask for a moment, this is stuff that actually improves peoples’ lives.

Making a move anywhere at any time is a pretty big undertaking, fraught with risk and anxiety. Doing so during a global pandemic probably compounds things, especially when it’s in a country that does a damn good job of convincing you that metro life is the only life worth living. Taking all that together, and yeah, I bet that prospect induces some pretty big gulps in your average person.

And that’s where we come in, to ease that consternation and present reasonable paths forward to a new life that may just hold some wondrous developments for you, if you choose to pursue.