When Lee Xian Jie first set foot in the traditional farmhouse in Ryujin-mura, a village in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, it was “pretty run down” – with floors so rickety they shook beneath him 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 it was “properly built”.
“The pillars are all made of sakura wood, which is an extremely dense and hard wood,” he told CNBC Make It. “It’s also a thatched building, which is very rare in Japan now… So it’s a building with great historical value.”
The property, which was previously home to four generations, is one of millions of vacant homes across Japan known as an akiya, Japanese for “empty house”.
But unlike many akiya that are for sale, this one was for rent because it sits on “good ground” and there are two family graves in the area, Lee said. However, he was authorized by his owner to restore the premises.
“My interest has always been history. I wanted to see how people back then lived without the chemical fertilizers we use today. How did people build houses with just wood and carpentry?”
Things to consider
Covid-19 accelerated Lee’s dreams of living in rural Japan. He started his own travel agency in Kyoto six years ago, but moved to the village during the pandemic when there was no work.
He quickly fell in love with Ryujin-mura and decided to rent the farm, along with another akiya, which is now a coworking space for digital nomads.
The 33-year-old runs a farm-to-table cafe on the farm three days a week, using ingredients he harvests on the farm, which he also uses for free.
But that’s not all. He has also purchased another century-old building next door, which he is in the process of converting into a guest house.
Although akiya are often cheaply priced, there are a few things to consider before moving to Japan to buy one, Lee said.
“It’s specifically for Japan: if you don’t speak the language, you can’t get along with your neighbors…communication is very difficult,” he added.
“People forget that time invested in the language is a lot of time they can use elsewhere. It takes at least four years minimum to be fluent in Japanese, seven to eight years to be truly fluent.”
Farm life is often romanticized as quiet or peaceful compared to the city, but Lee says “no farmer here has a slow life.”
“Farmers are the busiest people here – the only difference is you don’t have to sit at a desk,” added Lee, who has almost 16 hour long days on the farm.
There are also “social expectations” like tending the grass around your yard, which takes more time and energy than you might imagine.
“I can’t stress the amount of grass mowing because Japan has a lot of rain and the plants are growing very well. If you don’t maintain it, it will look very messy and your weeds will affect neighbors’ crops.
“Life is slow if you pay to stay on the farm as a guest. For my guests it will be a slow life as they won’t have to do any of the chores,” he added with a laugh.
While it’s a lot of hard work, it’s worth it for Lee – who finds the most satisfaction in knowing what’s going on in the food he serves in his cafe.
“The most rewarding part of the experience is that when I serve tea now, it’s my own tea that I made. When I serve rice in this cafe, I know I didn’t use any pesticides. “, did he declare.
“I’ve made many local friends here… it’s the human connections I have here that are truly invaluable.”
Living in rural Japan is undoubtedly cheaper than living in the city. Lee said he pays “well under” $750 for the main farmhouse and coworking space, which totals around 100,000 square feet.
“I did my math and realized that if I renovated a place well, I would pay the same amount as if I had lived in Kyoto for five years,” Lee said.
However, he warned that renovation costs could be high, depending on the state of the akiya. The floors of the main farmhouse, for example, have been weakened by humidity and termites.
“I thought I could replace the floor (by) DIY, but 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 spent about $97,000 with two friends to buy and remodel it, with most of it going for renovations.
Another $37,000 was spent converting the main house into a living space for him and a functioning cafe.
Lee had to get involved in the demolition work – partly because of a labor shortage in the village.
“But it also means you can cut your costs a bit, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty,” he explained. “A lot of work went into the electrical work, the pipes… Getting the toilets to flush properly, before that was a hole in the ground.”
Having spent five figures on all the work on the property, it’s concerning whether he can recoup those costs as “there’s a lot less work” to be found in rural Japan.
“If you want to do farming, you have to be an expert in agriculture, otherwise you will fail. There are fewer jobs here too of all kinds,” he explained.
“The cost of living is lower in rural Japan, but so is income.”
But the 33-year-old said he was “never worried” as his experience as a tour guide since 2017 gave him a good understanding of the activities that would attract visitors.
“There are going to be tea workshops held here for some Europeans later in October. And it was sold out within an hour.”
“There’s been interest in it. This year we’ve had a few groups come and experience that with me here,” Lee said.
While the guest house won’t officially open until June, it has already received a few bookings. At full capacity, he expects to earn around $7,500 a month from the café, coworking space, tours and guest house.
“There is a lot of interest in this area, especially as we are two hours from the nearest airport… There is also a lot of cultural and historical things to see here – plus nature of course “, added Lee.