Some of you who know me from the old Epic GP/CL Thread may recall that at one point a couple years ago TLG and I were looking around at places to settle in her home town and stumbled upon a wonderful 100 year old “Aki-ya” (abandoned house), in a small hamlet tucked into a valley not 10 minutes drive from TLG’s parent’s home. At that time I wrote:
…One of the huge benefits of locating there is the instant credibility we get by having family ties in town.
Case in point; when we were initially scouting areas for potential abandoned houses that we could adopt and fix up we would often approach someone who was about in the neighborhood and ask them if they knew of any “Akiya” in the area. We invariably got the ‘suspicious eye’ and mostly got very little positive response. However, a few secondhand inquiries through my brother-in-law while he was out on his newspaper delivery round brought us several visits with people who knew of such places, and soon we were looking at two to five houses a day. It seems that people are very suspicious of those who seem to be from out of town, but as soon as you are introduced as a local family member trying to return to the “Jimoto” all of the sudden every obachan and ojichan in town is helping you!
Through one such introduction we met a couple, the Yamamoto’s (not their real name), who ten years ago moved from Tokyo to Oita to live the country life. Mr. Yamamoto was a graduate of Tokyo University and was a thirty-something salary man at an import-export firm and his wife was an “OL” at the firm as well. They decided to quit their careers and move back to his hometown to pursue farming full time, much to the chagrin of Mr. Yamamoto’s father who runs a small local haberdashery (although I get the sense that his mother was pleased).
Anyway, they found a dilapidated 100+ year old farmhouse at the end of a winding narrow mountain road. Separated from the main hamlet without another house in sight and surrounded by rice paddies and treed mountains. It’s basically your perfect “Satoyama” dream location. They struck a deal with the absentee owner: The Yamamotos would repair the house and keep it in good condition, in exchange for a 20 year lease with a rent of ZERO. My wife and I sat in that very farmhouse and talked with the Yamamoto’s for several hours about their experience now going on ten years. We hit it off right away, and they have become sort of our “Sempai” family.
After hearing of my interest in colloquial Japanese architecture, the Yamamotos introduced us to a local architect who refurbished an old “Bukeyashiki” (Samurai Home) built in the 1790’s in the town proper (ours is a “castle-town”). Turns out this very same architect designed and built my in-law’s house when my wife was a young girl, and his wife was our son’s preschool teacher over the summer! Small world! So we had another night of drinking and talking about these wonderful old treasures and about how sad it is that their owners let them rot from shear neglect, or tear them down to build some ugly Sekisui McHouse. We left that night with several more leads on abandoned houses that needed adoption.
The next day, we followed up on a lead we got from a local stone cutter through our brother-in-law. It led to a small out-of-the-way hamlet of about six or seven houses surrounded by forested hills and rice paddies overgrown with the weeds and brush of several years of neglect. The first house on the narrow lane was the “Akiya” the stone cutter had told us about. It was funny that as we approached I saw the house immediately and said, “Hey I think that’s it.” To which my brother-in-law replied as he continued to drive past the house, “That can’t be the house, it’s practically falling apart! (Boro-boro)” This just illustrates how most Japanese look at these old houses, which often have perfectly intact structures and need only a generous application of long deferred maintenance.
Of course we ended up turning around and going back to the “boro-boro” house. It was a 100 year old farmhouse that looked to be abandoned for not more than a year or so. The attached barn was original and also serves as the house’s main gate and was in the worst shape (though still recoverable), but the house itself was solid. The Dodai looked level and not rotted at all. The house faced south to look at the overgrown paddies and treed hills beyond.
We decided that this could be an excellent candidate for adoption and set out to learn more. A little asking around lead us to an elderly lady whose nephew was the home’s owner. The next day we talked with this 90 year old lady, who agreed to talk to her nephew and gave us his contact information (he lived several hours drive away). Turns out she was born and grew up in that house and hadn’t seen it in some years, so she offered to give us a personal tour.
We arrived at the house and with our escort’s permission opened the wooden “tobira” which lead to the douma—the large earthen floored entry. The house was all shut up and we had to open the amado—rain doors to get a good look. The house didn’t even have Glass sliders, just amado straight to shoji. The inside was a mess. It had been rented out and the tenant was not kind to the house. But no real damage was done, just a lot of filth and neglect. The saddest part was watching our elderly escort react to the condition of her childhood home. “I can’t believe it has come to this,” she said with eyes on the verge of tears. She told us all about what the hamlet was like when she lived there; they had a cow in the barn, and worked in the rice paddies that went all the way up the narrow valley. As we left she stopped briefly to pay respects to her family’s grave which was across the lane up a hill near a very small temple overlooking the house and valley. We took her home and on parting she expressed her hope that we take the house and bring it back to its former glory.
Unfortunately the choice is not hers. Her nephew is unwilling to consider a sale at this point (it appears he would rather let the house disintegrate to dust), although he said he would consider renting. We will keep in contact with him and hopefully we can work something out to mutual benefit. We’ll see…
That was two years ago. Recently TLG went back to that house and took some photos for me (above). It is clear that time has not been kind to the Gatehouse but the main house still looks to be sound. I look forward to speaking with the owner once I arrive and hope he will be willing to let me save and restore the home (and take care of those expansive fields as well!).