When Lee Xian Jie first entered the traditional farmhouse in Ryujin-mura, a village in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture, it was “pretty rundown” — the floors were so rickety that every step he took, they were beneath him trembled.
After all, the main structure of the abandoned house was 300 years old, Lee said. But when he took a closer look at the house, he could see that it was “neatly built.”
“The columns are all made of sakura wood, which is an extremely dense and hard wood,” he told CNBC Make It. “Also, it’s a thatched roof building, which is very rare in Japan these days… So it’s a building with great historical value.”
“I have always been interested in history. I wanted to see… How did people build houses using only wood and carpentry?” said Lee Xian Jie, who restored three buildings in Ryujin-mura, a village in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture.
Lee Xi’an Jie
The property, which previously housed four generations, is one of millions of empty houses in Japan known as Akiya, Japanese for “empty house”.
But unlike many Akiyas for sale, this one was for rent because it’s on “good land” and there are two family graves in the area, Lee explained. However, he received permission from the landlord to restore the premises.
“I have always been interested in history. I wanted to see what it was like for people back then to live without the chemical fertilizers we use today. How did people build houses using only wood and carpentry?”
things to consider
Covid-19 accelerated Lee’s dreams of living in rural Japan. He started his own travel company 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 farmhouse along with another Akiya, which is now a co-working space for digital nomads.
The 33-year-old runs a farm-to-table cafe three days a week on the farm, using ingredients he harvests on the farm and 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 that you don’t have to sit in front of a desk.
While Akiyas are often reasonably priced, there are a few things to consider before heading to Japan to buy one, Lee said.
“This is especially true in Japan: if you don’t speak the language, you don’t get along with your neighbors… it’s very difficult to communicate,” he added.
“People forget that the time they invest in the language is a lot of time that can be used elsewhere. It takes at least four years to become fluent in Japanese, seven to eight years to become truly fluent in Japanese.”
Life on the farm is often romanticized as quiet or peaceful compared to the city, but Lee says, “No farmer lives the slow life here.”
“The farmers are the busiest people here – the only difference is that you don’t have to sit in front of a desk,” added Lee, who works almost 16 hours a day on the farm.
There are also “social expectations” such as tending the lawn around your property, which takes more time and energy than you can imagine.
“I cannot stress enough how much grass is mowed because it rains a lot in Japan and the plants are growing very well. If you don’t take care of it, it looks very dirty and the weeds affect the neighbors’ crops.”
“Life is slow when you’re paying to stay as a farm guest. It’s going to be a slow life for my guests because they don’t have to do any of the chores,” he added, laughing.
Though it’s a lot of hard work, it’s worth it for Lee – who finds the greatest fulfillment in knowing what’s in the food he serves at his cafe.
“The most fulfilling part of the experience is that when I’m serving tea now, I’m serving my own tea. When I serve rice in this cafe, I know I haven’t used any pesticides,” he said.
“I’ve made a lot of local friends here … it’s the human connections I have here that are really priceless.”
cost of renovations
Living in rural Japan is undoubtedly cheaper than living in the city. Lee said he paid “well under” $750 for the main farmhouse and common room, which sits on a total lot of about 100,000 square feet.
“I did the math and found that if I did a good job renovating an apartment, I would pay the same amount that I would pay if I lived in Kyoto for five years,” Lee said.
However, he cautioned that depending on the Akiya’s condition, renovation costs could be high. For example, the floors of the main farmhouse have been weakened by moisture and termites.
“I thought I could replace the floor [through] “DIY, but then I fell through the floor,” Lee recalls. “Then I just hired the carpenter who lives about 10 minutes away.”
He and two friends spent about $97,000 to purchase and renovate the guest house, located on a separate 190,000-square-foot lot, with the majority of that going into renovations.
On the same property is a 100-year-old building that Lee Xian Jie converted into a guest house. This is how it looked before the renovation.
Lee Xi’an Jie
Another $37,000 was spent converting the main house into a living space for itself and a functional cafe.
Lee had to take part in the demolition work himself – partly because of the lack of workers 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. “There was a lot of work put into the electrical work and plumbing… Getting a proper flush toilet, before that it was a hole in the ground.”
Since he spent a five-figure amount on all the work on the property, it’s worrying whether he’ll be able to recoup those costs, since “there’s a lot less work in rural Japan.”
“If you want to do farming, you have to be an expert in farming, otherwise you will fail. Also, there are fewer jobs of any kind here,” he explained.
“In rural Japan, the cost of living is lower, but so is the income.”
The guest house after the renovation. Although it won’t open until June, Lee Xian Jie said he has already received some bookings.
However, the 33-year-old said he “never worried” as his experience as a tour guide since 2017 gave him a precise understanding of what activities would attract visitors.
“Later in October, tea workshops will be organized here for some Europeans. And they sold out within an hour.”
“There was interest in it. This year, some groups came here to experience that with me,” Lee said.
Although the guest house won’t officially open until June, he has already received a number of bookings. At full capacity, he expects to make about $7,500 a month from the coffee shop, co-working space, tours, and guest house.
“There’s a lot of interest in this area because we’re two hours from the nearest airport… There’s also a lot of culture and history to see here – and of course nature,” Lee added.
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Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect land size