Matt walking in Japan inaka

Lifestyle Narratives

A switch to a more rural lifestyle in Japan’s countryside inaka has long been considered a ridiculous notion, something that would mean certain death, at least professionally because of the Tokyo=Business truism which suggests that anything that dares challenge it is blasphemous, if not also physically because of, well, the bears

The millions of abandoned houses aka akiya in that supposedly dangerous countryside compound the matter further. Akiya have had a Scarlet Letter branded upon them for some time, with the narrative being that they are universally worthless heaps of garbage just waiting to collapse and are categorically a bad investment.

We contend that the popular narrative of life outside of the city is a good deal more complex than is generally accepted. There are many factors that go into determining a “successful” lifestyle, perhaps first and foremost being the individual or group’s own conceptualization of it. But because of this predominant Metro narrative, even if your idea of The Good Life lies outside of it, it’s gravity is so strong that in all likelihood you’ll find yourself drifting back towards the city.

Call It a Hunch

My hunch about 6 months ago was that if this whole binary narrative were nullified and I were able to pick and choose my own way about it through careful research and consideration, a new, integrated approach would be made possible that yielded considerable dividends, be they financial, quality of life, or otherwise. So far? I’m pretty happy with the results, and after about half a year of it, with the cherry blossoms blooming, and the fiscal year rolling over yet again, I find myself reflecting a bit on what piqued my curiosity in the first place, and it really boils down to one thing: novel experience.

The idea is nice, isn’t it? Living liminally in the space between Megacity and more humble climes. Daydreaming is easy enough, though, and the fact of the matter is that actually starting the journey of extricating yourself from the metro area can be a considerable undertaking, what prevents so many from getting out of the gate. Japan is, after all, a country, and countries are large, complex creatures that aren’t easily understood at a detailed level – even if you were serious about leaving the metro area, where would you go, and how would you find it? There’s so much information and so many opportunities out there it’s understandably difficult to even get started.

Rural lifestyle cooking

The Task at Hand

Happily enough, it’s not actually that daunting of a task. There are any number of ways to go about getting acquainted with Japan’s countryside – either responsibly or irresponsibly – though none that I would throw my hat into the ring for have much to say for accepted notions of “professionalism.” Said simply, usually it’s at least a little dirty, sweaty, and dangerous.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, weekend excursions are a great way to start exploring Japan’s many communities and finding a place that resonates with you. The thing to keep top-of-mind, though, is that if you stick only to the established Designated Vacation Areas, you’ll get exactly what you paid for: an experience that doesn’t reflect much of reality. Which is all well and good for a vacation, but if your goal is to begin exploring your options for updating your lifestyle to include more fresh air, greenery, and general relaxation, we’d recommend that you be looking to the periphery.

Anecdotal Evidence

Now, I’ve had my fair share of “peripheral” experiences. Here are some highlights:

  • I have single-handedly built a hidden network of tree houses and forest fortresses in Shiga, Kanagawa, Chiba, and Iwate prefectures. Unfortunately, because I haven’t bothered tending to any of them over the years, I expect they are all totally overgrown and unrecognizable by now.
  • There was that time I hitchhiked to Fuji Rock without a ticket on a whim, wandered blindly through the woods of Fukushima for a day and slept rough on the shores of Lake Inawashiro, stayed up all night in Niigata City, got on the wrong train for the last leg of the journey and ended up in an exceedingly rural village in Yamagata with exceptional sushi, arrived at Echigo-Yuzawa station in torrential rain, bussed it to the Fuji Rock grounds w/ Roxy Music and got them to give us 3-day full-access backstage passes, and slept rough again by the river, in an abandoned tennis court, and a final location that I’ll leave to your imagination.
  • Multi-day track bike treks in extreme weather are a favorite of mine. Urban camping is a wonderful way to extend your trip by days if not more. Just don’t be a nuisance.
  • Did I mention I spend a lot of time riding empty trains to empty houses in empty reaches of Japan?

But I imagine going fully feral as I tend to isn’t what many are looking for. Fortunately, there are less extreme resources to assist you in meaningfully exploring the rural reaches of Japan over a weekend or a holiday. WWOOF, Workaway, The Inaka Project, municipal programs, social innovators like MyMizu or Adam Fulford, esoteric mobile apps, and (surprise) even Akiya & Inaka provides unique inaka packages for those interested. There’s a cornucopia of options out there that will give you decent exposure to non-metro life.

Farming Lifestyle

WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, and members can trade their physical labor for room and board all across Japan. I’ve been a WWOOFer for quite a few years, and have been extremely lucky in having only outstanding experiences. That is not a guarantee, however, and if one were to explore opportunities through WWOOF, I would urge exercising due diligence with your hosts.

Workaway is rather similar to WWOOF, though there’s money involved. At once unfortunate because, well, there’s money involved, it’s also a good incentive for the hosts to be hospitable. I haven’t myself used the service, but I hear considerably fewer complaints from participants than with WWOOF.

Local Lifestyles

The Inaka Project is a cool little initiative that is hyper-focused on opportunities in Saitama prefecture, and offers participants the chance to engage in run-of-the-mill rural activities. Rice harvests, mochitsukuri, various coordinated farming activities, it offers a pretty low barrier to entry for those a bit timid about getting out there. Not my favorite, but to each their own.

Municipal programs are a gamble, but in a perfect world what you’d be looking at is the opportunity to live in a traditional house, get to know the locals, and receive a monthly stipend for promoting the area’s attractions. This is rarely executed well and I wouldn’t recommend the current iteration.

Organized Initiatives

I’m rather pleased with what MyMizu has been up to, in addition to their main activities focused on providing The People with access to clean, free drinking water. They regularly host clean-up events around the Kanto area, which are a wonderful way to explore new locales, meet new people in a safe environment, and contribute to the betterment of society. Major respect.

Adam Fulford and Fulford Enterprise has been working with the village of Nakatsugawa, Yamagata for some time, curating corporate retreats, educational lifestyle activities and more in partnership with the local community. Adam’s is a unique offering of what I’d call guided intensive immersion, and if there’s someone out there with a more hands-on offering than his, I certainly am not aware. Highly recommended.

Randonautica came across my radar via some spooky tech article headline about using apps to harness the power of ley lines or power spots or whatever. I’m not much of a believer, but I did notice something key about this app: it randomly generates goal points on your device’s map. Instead of just saying to myself that I was going to wander off somewhere, the app tells you to. Genius.

Rural lifestyle goats

Our Humble Offering

As for Akiya & Inaka, well, we’ve got goats you can take pictures with, but in return you have to dig some holes in the ground and then go have dinner or beers on the beach with us…

That’s being a bit facetious – since we’ve started, we’ve worked with a few parties of people in getting them set up with lodging and activities in desired areas. Fishing trips, wine tours, farming excursions, if you’ve got an itch you need to scratch, we can probably assist.

It’s a Lifestyle Thing

So let me be the first to say that we don’t expect anyone to jump up and say, “Oh my god! Yes! It’s me! I’m the person who wants to buy a house right now!” That person is relatively rare, though appreciated in their own way.

What we’re interested in – even before we talk about expectations – is opening up the wide world of pretty excellent lifestyle experiences that lie all around this country. If that happens to pique your interest in further exploration, perhaps with a property search in mind, great, but if we don’t contribute to the evolution of the inaka narrative in the first place, that probably won’t be as common a conversation as it could be. 

We’ve had decades of ineffective inaka promotional campaigns that have demonstrably failed at affecting any meaningful change in the dominant metro narrative. It’s about time Japan, and not just Tokyo, got its fair shake at things, and we’ve seen and experienced the pantheon of means to create a much healthier, and much more diverse landscape for the benefit of all. 

So check out those suggestions above, or get in touch if you want something a bit different. I know I can always use help on my latest shack in the woods.