Sagamihara & The Land of Alternative Education

A Wide Range of Akiya Hunters

Here at Akiya & Inaka work with all types of clients.

For example, we work with more internationally minded clients than domestic Japanese. Some are entrepreneurs, some corporate leads, some forest bathing enthusiasts. Occasionally, someone outside Japan interested in exploring “traditional” Japanese lifestyles. Clients 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. This is perhaps the biggest reason why the work we do is so interesting! Because of this range, we must provide extremely granular services modified to suit the needs of each. This is necessary for the best client experience, and we take pride in it.

Education Matters

There is one very understandable concern that pops up in the married with children subset. That is, of course, education.I would be remiss to insinuate we’re experts in the education field, but we are working with a client intent on uncovering the best resources for their children. As a non-parent, digging into this is an educational research project in itself. However, 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. Leaving that is, then, an and understandable point of concern. The first thing that may occur to you — and certainly to us — is proximity. Commutes aren’t ideal, but are frequently a fact of life, so rural communities within an acceptable train ride (let’s say ~30 mins) are first contenders.

Back to Fujino

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 the Fujino district of Sagamihara. 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, a retreat that introduces outsiders to Fujino life, the area is a creative enclave with such qualities as:

  1. Forward-looking, proactive, collaborative, and environmentally caring residents.
  2. It’s an artisanal hub for pottery, sculpture, woodwork, photography, and weaving.
  3. Traditional musical instruments from Asia, Europe, and America are made here.
  4. The Permaculture Center of Japan.
  5. Status as the first and most mature Transition Town in Japan.

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

Saddle Up!

Given my location south of Tokyo in Yugawara, I need to get myself to Tokyo in time to meet clients for early morning departures. So, the night before, I packed my bag and set my alarm for 630AM to safely arrive at Shinjuku Station by 9AM.

Generally speaking it’s a ~90 minute trip by local train. However, I give myself room for error, which frequently means I arrive early, and this time was no different. I had about 20 minutes to kill, which I did by loitering. 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. We stopped along the way in Hachioji to pick up keys for one property, and at a Sagamihara real estate agency for another. The third property was still inhabited and managed by another agency that meet us later. Little did we know, but we’d also be viewing a fourth, but we’d get that key later.

Approaching the First Property

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. A good portion of it is built up on the steep shores which are joined by a number of bridges. Nestled into the mountainside, it’s quite scenic, and we drove along taking in the sights and discussing local cultures.

It’s also a comparatively small area, and so the drive itself didn’t take too long. Given the tucked away nature of this particular property, though, near the end of our trip we made course corrections. Eventually, we arrived at the property, standing very homestead-ly against the Sagamihara hills, with only a few neighboring houses in sight.

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. Others are still maintained by the owner but are otherwise out of use. Even more are in line with the public perception of akiya and in various states of disrepair. This property falls into the latter category, and was chosen at the request of the client.

First Property – Magino

¥5,500,000 may seem like a small amount for a house , but keep in mind the additional cost of repairs when going into this process. 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, etc. There was a good deal that needed to be addressed, but the bones, at first glance, seemed up to muster.

Once through, our initial ballpark estimate was that an additional ¥7,000,000–¥10,000,000 would need to be spent on renovations. That’s not cheap, but considering our client’s max budget of ¥20,000,000, easily falls within range. But we were only guesstimating based on what we saw, and not going off of any hard numbers . To get a quantified costing requires an inspection, which we have commissioned at the client’s request.

Into the Sagamihara 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. Fortunately, that was not the case this time — we only had 1 time-sensitive meeting (at 3PM), and the rest were walk-ins. Thusly, we allotted time for lunch at a local farm-to-table restaurant called, fittingly, Fujino Club.

Conveniently located near the Magino house, 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 built with raw materials on a steep incline. Down the hill, 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. Once you do, though, you’ll 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, a very cool place to visit in Sagamihara.

Lunch in Sagamihara

They specialize in Korean fare, with a limited menu that changes seasonally. After giving ourselves a brief tour, we placed an order of 3 Samugetan, and settled into our seats overlooking the valley.

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. Off to the side, there was an empty stage with a piano and PA nearby. The azure, cloud-streaked sky of Sagamihara shone through the large glass windows, and the smells of the kitchen wafted over us. As we spoke while waiting, it was impossible not to notice the sensory details of the place, so peaceful and serene it was compared to the times we live in.

The Main Course

Our food came on large, lacquered wooden trays maybe 10 minutes after we placed our order. The samugetan came in a stone bowl filled with steaming broth, and was nicely accented by a bowl of sekihan rice & homemade tsukemono. This 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, I just wanted 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 headed to property #2.

A Brief Reflection

Perhaps this is a good chance to reflect on travel during Coronatime briefly. Just as I prefer concerts below 200 attendees, I also tend towards more niche, off-the-beaten-path excursions over, say, Karuizawa. This is where much of my hope comes from, knowing these small-scale, sustainable practices work well enough in normal times. Are there grotesque profits to be made? Maybe not, but profit nonetheless. If you’re cheering on the push for sustainability, it seems a little disingenuous to also be in the Cancerous Growth camp, too. Just saying.

So with travel, there’s a lot to consider, and a lot of that revolves around human contact. Taking the shinkansen to the slopes with a few thousand others 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 like Sagamihara to visit vacant houses and empty restaurants seems less so. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the super spreader events tend towards the larger populations.

Second Property – Yoshino

Of the properties we identified for our client, this one was my personal favorite. Its proximity to central Fujino, large garden, and pretty spacious layout are very attractive. We do these viewings for a number of reasons, one of which is to compare the listing with reality. This one was almost exactly what we expected, though the garden was pretty well stocked with garbage.

Even though I’ve been through countless buildings in various states of disarray, I’m still somewhat perplexed by the sheer amount of garbage that can be present. Sometimes, it 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.

Second Sagamihara property

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

Third Property – 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. It was modern, and was still being lived in by a young couple, so it should’ve been the cleanest.

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, etc. 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.
  • It featured a corner entry to the bedroom via sliding shoji.
  • The house’s footprint was almost as large as the property itself, leaving no room for anything outside.
  • An unconscionable “designated baby place” which doesn’t make sense no matter what, but especially when its near stairs, tall bookshelves, and other known baby killers.
  • And much more!

Not Great

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 if you like. 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 , after all. They were built solid af using methods and materials tested over centuries, if not longer. Do your research and due diligence, stake your claim, and clean it up, and you’ve got a solid house, in Sagamihara or anywhere else.

Third Sagamihara property

We spent maybe 15 minutes going through this place, but quickly regrouped and planned our escape. 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!

Sagamihara Bonus

Because we had cut our visit to this 3rd property short, we had some extra time before we were to meet Kaori & Byron of Kasamatsu Farms and Yokomura Eco-lodge. We don’t let the party die down once we get it started, so we called the local real estate agent for stragglers. We were pleasantly surprised when they suggested a new listing great for creatives, so we made our way over 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. However, little did we know it hid such wonders only revealed to those with access to the inner core, which we had just acquired!

Party House

I was playing on the rocks strewn around the garden, complete with gnomes, when I heard ecstatic laughter and whooping coming from inside. Parker and our client had gone ahead of me into the depths, 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 is both had taken obvious, considerable efforts to replace 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 comfortable at all.

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.

Check Out the Local Action

With our viewings complete, we made our way back 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 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, it’s the true value of community. If you’re thinking about moving out there, it’s a good idea to explore the local environment sooner than later. We facilitate this, and decided to introduce our client to people already living the dream. In our minds, there isn’t anyone better than Kaori and Byron.

To the Farm

First stop was Kasamatsu Farms, which really has to be seen to be believed. Built almost entirely by hand and in extremely DIY fashion, Kasamatsu’s plots, houses, and integrated infrastructure are almost miraculous. 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, baking, and sustainability related topics, so Byron took us around. Being winter, there wasn’t much growing, but they do have a green house with kale, lettuce, and other leafy greens that they keep going year round.

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, but the walls are done, and the roofing is getting there. Byron even started installing copper panelling to have it naturally rust and get that nice green patina everyone so likes. Such creativity!

The Fujino Lodge

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

We followed Byron over to the Lodge. We then unloaded our gear from Parker’s car . He wasn’t staying the night and was heading 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 . It was great to see her again, and this time with friends in tow. She showed us in and lead us to our rooms for us to drop off our luggage. We returned to the massive main room where a few snacks and drinks were set out.

I had a bit of work to catch up on, which was no problem given Yokomura’s speedy wifi, so I left our client and Kaori. 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. There is no better way to quell your fears than by speaking with someone who has come and already done it. After I had finished my tasks, I returned to find conversation about local eateries, educational facilities, family resources, and more.

Dinner in Sagamihara

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 was preparing dinner that night using Kasamatsu ingredients!

Another of the outstanding accoutrements of Yokomura Eco-Lodge is the outdoor, wood-fired hot tub that Byron built. 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 can get extremely hot, so test it before getting in, but jeez louise, what a luxury!

Once all settled, dinner got started, and what a treat it was. Mabo tofu that was actually spicy, fresh venison carpaccio, dried persimmons with local cheese, and more. The conversation rarely lulled in the warm light of the reclaimed ryokan run by a lovely couple in one of Japan’s small art villages.

Fujino dinner

Sagamihara is Not the Only One

This is just one example of the magical experiences that can be had in rural Japan. There’s a whole country out there waiting for you! 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 experiences on top of viewings. Indeed, I think it’s probably a pretty damn good idea to do so. It brings in an emotional value to the entire process that can positively contribute to a purchase decision.

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, double that in a country that promotes metro life over rural. Taking all that together, I bet that prospect induces some pretty big gulps in your average person.

That’s where we come in. We provide peace of mind and present reasonable paths forward to a new life that may just hold wondrous developments!