Is it easy to buy and restore an aging country house in Japan?
Tokyo (CNN) — Near the town of Fujino, off the busy Route 20, just 65 kilometers west of Tokyo, is a narrow, single-lane tunnel.
Crossing it, the modern incarnation of Japan seems to disappear as travelers emerge into cedar forests and winding mountain roads that lead deeper into an even less forgiving side of rural Japan.
With no gas stations or convenience stores, a few houses dot the roadside or perch atop hills, accessible only by tiny tracks. Usually only hikers to or from Mount Jinba or weekend cyclists provide any sign of human life.
It is in this forest landscape, where life changes with the rhythm of the seasons, that Shuji Kikuchi decided to do what many dream of: buying and restoring a century-old wooden house and creating a weekend home in the Japanese countryside.
“Nakamaru”, as he and his partner named him, took seven years to create. The property is overlooked by Kikuchi’s own tea-covered hillside and separated from few neighbors by a scenic stream and bridge.
Just over an hour from the heart of Tokyo, it’s a rural oasis but also a labor of love.
“It’s like having an old car, there’s always something to work on to keep it running,” Kikuchi says.
The entrance to Shuji Kikuchi’s country house.
The Tokyo resident spent five years searching the area for an affordable older property to buy and restore with the craftsmanship and character that modern Japanese homes lack. (It took the roof collapsing in a particularly heavy snowfall to entice Nakamaru’s elderly former owner to sell in 2014.)
Walls have been erected in place of the traditional “shoji” screens that once separated the rooms. Insulation – not common even in modern Japanese homes – was added under the floors to cope with the extremely cold winter months. The “doma” entrance has been restored to become a welcoming space. A self-contained second floor has been added for long-term guests.
“I had a plan in my head as soon as I saw it and didn’t change too much in it in terms of the big picture,” Kikuchi says. “But the little details changed a lot. It was a series of endless little projects.”
The idea of installing marble flooring in the kitchen on your own has turned from dream to nightmare. It cracked as soon as it was put on. Fortunately, Kikuchi’s partner – a professional chef – took over and transformed it into something both stylish and functional, a place where they could cook up feasts for frequent weekend visitors.
Japan’s housing market is open to foreigners
Many others – including foreigners – hope to emulate Kikuchi’s success story.
Non-Japanese nationals can purchase property in the country. Residency status is not required and many estate agents cater to overseas buyers.
Most properties in Japan’s “inaka” (countryside) are unlike Nakamaru, which sits on a particularly special piece of land, but vacant homes are plentiful, cheap, and sometimes even free.
Although they present an opportunity for bargain hunters, they have created a problem for local authorities and the disintegration of rural communities as empty houses depress both property attractiveness and prices.
The Japanese Housing and Land Survey in 2018 counted 8.76 million unoccupied houses and this number is expected to increase. Many local authorities have websites showing vacant houses for sale to try and stimulate interest and sales.
“The land is the value, not the house,” he says.
“With a place that costs 3 million yen ($25,900), you often need an additional 5 million yen to make it livable. The best deals are for existing structures with minimal renovation. The existing structure is the cause unforeseen problems.”
Also, not all Japanese campaigns are considered equal. The hotspots are less than two hours from Tokyo or Osaka, making them accessible boltholes on weekends.
Complications, especially for overseas buyers, tend to arise when trying to secure loans and navigate local regulations regarding individual properties. Some rules require the home to be lived in full time, restrict alterations to existing structures, or come with agricultural land that requires active use.
Own a piece of Japanese history
Tom Fay hopes to complete renovations to his Kyoto farmhouse in 2022.
Tom Fay, a British writer and teacher based in Osaka, has overcome a number of obstacles over the past year on his own project – the renovation of a century-old 180 square meter farmhouse in Kyoto prefecture. .
The cost of the house? About 7 million yen (about $60,000) including fees.
“It looks wild because it’s a winding lane with woods on three sides,” he says. “But it’s not as wild as it looks; it’s also quite close to amenities like a supermarket and train station too.”
After two years of searching for the right property, it took another five months of multiple rejections to get a loan.
What propelled him into the tangle of regulations was a desire to live closer to nature – more in keeping with his rural Welsh upbringing – and to own a piece of Japanese history.
Inside, the house was part treasure, part time capsule when Fay finally took ownership. A 1958 calendar still hung on the wall.
Fay hopes to be able to move into the house later in 2022.
Chrstopher Flechtner’s traditional Kyoto townhouse.
Unlike many bargain hunters looking for cheap old homes, Flechtner preferred to invest in a desirable, high-quality property, increasing value with a series of thoughtful renovations.
“The bones of the house were kept and as long as we didn’t change square meters we could do what we wanted,” he says.
The result is a modern interior space with natural light, insulation, soundproofing and many of its own design touches.
“The design is all about entertainment. There’s always a surprise with these old houses, but the insight of the builders helped us.”
There are dozens of machiya townhouses in Kyoto city market. As with all real estate, prices vary greatly depending on the condition of the home, its location and its size.
A search of their current listings shows machiya ranging in price from 8.8 million yen (about $76,000) for a small, unrenovated townhouse, up to 550 million yen ($4.7 million) for a series of four renovated machiya that can be operated as lodges.
Revitalize local communities
Although financially within reach of many, Japan does not have the culture of owning second homes – around 0.65% of the population owns a second property, according to a Japanese government survey.
General Fukushima and his business partner Hilo Homma want that to change.
“Young people go abroad if they can and the idea of moving to a local place (in the countryside) is impossible. Unlike countries like Sweden, which have a similar space to Japan, having a second home is considered only for the very wealthy and secretive,” Fukushima says.
The Covid pandemic is causing many people to reconsider their relationship to offices and city life. Fukushima also wants to help those who register with Sanu build a relationship with local rural areas, sometimes called “kankei jinko”, to help revitalize local businesses and communities.
“For this to happen, places need to have intangible services, like cafes, bakeries and organic stores to entice young city dwellers to visit and hang out,” he says.
The location of Kikuchi’s vacation home, tiny Fujino, has elements that already make it an attractive proposition for those entering country life. Besides its easy access to the capital, an “art village” and even a Steiner school set it apart from most rural towns.
Years after Kikuchi established himself in the community, he still faces the weaknesses of local life: trees hanging over their property are felled without consultation or have to participate in regular local activities, such as road cleaning. .
But after the daunting task of a rebuild, the overhanging branches and litter picking seem like a small price to pay for a nice piece of history and tranquility.
This article has been updated to include more details on homeownership buying and renovations.