Cheap Houses in Japan: How Easy to Buy and Restore?

Tokyo (CNN) – Near the town of Fujino, off the busy Route 20, just 65 kilometers west of Tokyo, is a narrow one-lane tunnel.

Passing through it, the modern embodiment of Japan seems to fade away as travelers emerge into cedar forests and winding mountain roads that lead deeper into an even less forgiving side of rural Japan.

Free from gas stations or convenience stores, a few houses dot the side of the road or perch on top of hills, accessible only by tiny tracks. Usually only hikers heading to or from Mount Jinba or weekend cyclists provide a sign of human life.

It is in this wooded landscape, where life changes with the seasons, that Shuji Kikuchi has decided to achieve what many dream of: buying and restoring a century-old wooden house and creating a weekend house in the Japanese countryside.

“Nakamaru,” as he and his partner called it, took seven years to form. The property is dominated by Kikuchi’s own tea-covered hill and separated from a few neighbors by a picturesque 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 is always something to work on to keep it running,” says Kikuchi.

The entrance to Shuji Kikuchi’s country vacation home.

Dean Irvine

The Tokyo resident has 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 to collapse under particularly heavy snowfall to entice the former elderly owner of Nakamaru 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 – has been added under the floors to deal with the bitterly cold winter months. The “doma” entrance has been restored to become a reception area. A self-contained second floor has been added for long-term guests.

“I had a plan in mind as soon as I saw it and didn’t change too much in terms of the big picture,” Kikuchi explains. “But the little details changed a lot. It was a series of endless little projects.”

The idea of ​​installing a marble floor in the kitchen on your own has gone from a dream to a nightmare. He cracked as soon as he was put down. Luckily, Kikuchi’s partner – a professional chef – took over and turned it into something both stylish and functional, a place they could cook up feasts for frequent weekend visitors.

The Japanese real estate market is open to foreigners

Many others, including foreigners, hope to emulate Kikuchi’s success story.

Non-Japanese nationals can buy property in the country. Resident status is not required and there are many real estate agents that cater to foreign buyers.

Most properties in the “inaka” (countryside) of Japan are unlike Nakamaru, which sits on particularly special land, but vacant homes are plentiful, cheap, and sometimes even free.

The aging of the Japanese population and the lack of job opportunities in the countryside have created a glut of millions of unoccupied homes, known as “akiya. ”

Although they present an opportunity for bargain hunters, they have created a problem for local authorities and the disintegration of rural communities because empty houses lower both the attractiveness and the prices of real estate.

The 2018 Japan Housing and Land Survey found 8.76 million unoccupied homes and that number is expected to increase. Many local authorities have websites showing vacant homes for sale in an attempt to stimulate interest and sales.

But for anyone looking for a piece of the country’s rural heartland, it pays to walk in with a “buyer beware” element, according to Parker Allen of the real estate consultancy firm. Akiya and Inaka, which helps foreign buyers looking to buy a property in the countryside.

“The land is the value, not the house,” he says.

“With a place costing 3 million yen ($ 25,900), you often need an additional 5 million yen to make it habitable. The best deals are for existing structures with minimal renovation. The existing structure is the thing that causes unforeseen problems. ”

Additionally, not all Japanese campaigns are considered equal. The hot spots are within two hours of either Tokyo or Osaka, making them accessible anchor points on weekends.

Complications, especially for overseas buyers, tend to arise when attempting to obtain loans and navigating local regulations regarding individual properties. Some rules require the house to be lived in full time, restrict changes to existing structures, or come with farmland in need of active use.

Own a piece of Japanese history

Tom Fay hopes to complete renovations to his Kyoto farm in 2022.

Tom Fay hopes to complete renovations to his Kyoto farm in 2022.

Tom fay

Tom Fay, a British writer and teacher based in Osaka, has overcome a number of hurdles in the past year on his own project – the renovation of a 180 square meter century-old farmhouse in Kyoto Prefecture .

The price of the house? Approximately 7 million yen (approximately $ 60,000) including fees.

“It looks wild because it’s winding terrain with woods on three sides,” he says. “But it’s not as wild as it looks; it’s also quite close to amenities like supermarkets.”

After two years of searching for the right property, it took another five months of multiple refusals to get a loan.

What drove him through the tangle of regulations was the 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 both a treasure and a time capsule when Fay eventually became its owner. A 1958 calendar was still hanging on the wall.

Fay hopes to be able to move into the house later in 2022.

Chrstopher Flechtner's traditional Kyoto townhouse.

Chrstopher Flechtner’s traditional Kyoto townhouse.

Christophe Flechtner

In neighboring Kyoto, industrial designer Christophe Flechtner took the better part of two years to transform a traditional Machiya townhouse in the city’s Gosho district into a modern and stylish home for his young family.

“The bones of the house were preserved and as long as we didn’t change the square meters we could do whatever 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 is always a surprise with these old houses, but the insight of the builders helped us.”

There are dozens of machiya townhouses in the Kyoto city market. As with all real estate, prices vary widely depending on the condition of the home, its location and size.

Companies such as Hash assist foreigners looking to buy townhouses, offering both renovated and non-renovated properties.

A search of their current listings shows that the price of machiya ranges from 8.8 million yen (about $ 76,000) for an unrenovated small townhouse, up to 550 million yen ($ 4.7 million). for a series of four renovated machiyas that can be operated as lodges.

Revitalize local communities

Although financially within the grasp of many, Japan, however, lacks the culture of owning second homes – around 0.65% of the population owns a second home, according to a Japanese government survey.

General Fukushima and his business partner Hilo Homma want that to change.

Their recent company Sanu offers a version of second home ownership through a 55,000 yen per month (US $ 477) subscription service to modern, local log cabins located near Mt. Fuji and a few hours from Tokyo.

“Young people go abroad if they can and the idea of ​​moving to a local (country) place is impossible. Unlike countries like Sweden, which have a similar space to Japan, having a second home is considered to be only for the very wealthy and secretive, ”says Fukushima.

The Covid pandemic has caused many to reconsider their relationship to offices and city life. Fukushima is also keen to help those who register with Sanu to build relationships with local rural areas, sometimes referred to as “kankei jinko,” to help revitalize local businesses and communities.

“For this to happen, places need to have soft services, like cafes, bakeries and organic stores to entice young city dwellers to visit and spend time,” he says.

The location of Kikuchi’s vacation home, Little Fujino, features elements that already make it an attractive proposition for those entering country life. Besides its easy access to the capital, a “village of the arts” 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 that overlook their property are felled without consultation or must participate in regular local activities, such as road cleaning.

But after the heavy load of a rebuild, the overhanging branches and litter pickup seems like a small price to pay for a beautiful piece of history and tranquility.

About Laurence Johnson

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