When Li Xian Jie first stepped into the traditional farmhouse in Ryujin-mura, a village in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, it was “quite dilapidated”—the floors were so shabby that they shook beneath them with every step he took.
After all, the main structure of the abandoned house was 300 years old, Lee said. But when he took a closer look around the house, he could tell that it was “properly built”.
“The pillars are all sakura wood, which is an extremely dense and hard wood,” he told CNBC Make It. “It is also a thatched building, which is now very rare in Japan… so it is a building with great historical value.”
The property, which previously housed four generations, is one of Japan’s millions of vacant homes known to Akiya, Japanese for “empty house”,
But unlike many akias that are for sale, this one was for rent because it is on “good land,” and there are two family tombs in the area, Lee explained. However, he was given permission by its landlord to restore the premises.
“I’ve always been interested in history. I wanted to see how people of that time lived without the chemical fertilizers we use now. How did people build houses with just wood and carpentry?”
things to consider
COVID-19 swiftly dashed Lee’s dreams of living in rural Japan. He started his own tour company in Kyoto six years ago, but moved to the village during the pandemic when there was no work.
He soon falls in love with Ryujin-mura and decides to rent the farmhouse with another akiya, which is now a co-working space for digital nomads.
The 33-year-old runs a farm-to-table cafe at the farmhouse three days a week, using ingredients sourced from the farm, which he also uses for free.
but that’s not all. He also bought another 100-year-old building next door, which he is converting into a guest house.
Farmers are the busiest people here – the only difference is you don’t have to sit in front of a desk.
Lee said that, while akia’s often have cheap price tags, there are a few things to consider before heading to Japan to buy one.
“It’s especially for Japan: If you can’t speak the language, you can’t get along with your neighbors… communication is very difficult,” he said.
“People forget that the time invested in the language is a lot of time they could use elsewhere. It takes at least four years to become fluent in Japanese, seven to eight years to be truly fluent.”
Farm life is often romanticized as quiet or peaceful in comparison to the city, but Lee says, “No farmer life is slow here.”
“Farmers are the busiest people here—the only difference is you don’t have to sit in front of a desk,” said Lee, who has about a 16-hour day on the farm.
There are also some “social expectations”, such as maintaining the grass around your land, which requires more time and energy than one might imagine.
“I can’t stress enough how much grass is mowed because it rains a lot in Japan and the plants grow very well. If you don’t maintain it, it will look very messy and your weed neighbors will affect crops.
He laughed and said, “Life is slow if you pay to stay on the farm as a guest. For my guests, it will be slow life because they won’t have to do any work.”
While it’s a lot of hard work, it’s all worth it for Lee – who finds the most satisfaction in knowing what goes into the food he serves at his cafe.
“The most satisfying part of the experience is that when I am served tea now, it is my own tea that I have made. When I am served rice at this cafe, I know that I have not used any pesticides ”
“I’ve made many local friends here … It’s the human connections I make here that are really invaluable.”
cost of renovation
Living in rural Japan is undoubtedly cheaper than in the city. Lee said he paid less than $750 for the main farmhouse and co-working space, which is about 100,000 square feet.
Lee said, “I did my math and realized that if I renovate a place well enough, I would pay the same amount as I would have to live in Kyoto for five years.”
However, he cautioned that the cost of repairs could be very high depending on the condition of the akia. For example the floors of the main farmhouse had been weakened by dampness and termites.
“I thought I could change the floor [through] DIY but then I fell through the floor,” Lee recalled. “Then I just hired the carpenter who lives about 10 minutes away.”
For the 190,000-square-foot guesthouse, he and two friends spent about $97,000 to buy and renovate, with most of it going toward the renovation.
Another $37,000 was spent to convert the main house into a living space for himself and a functional cafe.
Lee had to attend to the demolition work himself – partly due to a lack of manpower in the village.
“But it also means you can cut your costs a bit, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty,” he shared. “It takes a lot of work in the electrical work, the pipes … getting a proper flushing toilet, before that it was a hole in the ground.”
After spending five figures on all the work on the property, whether he can recoup those costs is a concern as “there is very little work” to be found in rural Japan.
“If you want to do agriculture, you have to specialize in agriculture, otherwise you will fail. There are very few jobs of any kind,” he explained.
“The cost of living is lower in rural Japan, but the income is the same.”
But the 33-year-old said he was “never worried,” because his experience as a tour guide since 2017 has given him a deeper understanding of the activities that draw visitors.
“There’s a tea workshop being held here for some Europeans at the end of this October. And it sold out within an hour.”
Lee said, “There’s been interest in it. We’ve had a few groups here this year to experience it with me.”
While the guesthouse will only officially open in June, it’s already getting some bookings. At full capacity, he expects to make about $7,500 a month from the cafe, co-working space, tours and guesthouse.
“There is a lot of interest in this area especially because we are two hours from the nearest airport… There are also lots of cultural and historical things to see – as well as nature,” Lee said.
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