Akiya, or vacant houses in Japan, have become a hot topic on international news websites. Articles about Japan giving away countryside houses for free or for 500 US dollars have fueled the dreams of people desiring to come and live in the Japanese countryside. Reality is much more complex—although rural real estate in Japan can be very cheap, it is also extremely complicated to assess the quality of the property you are buying without solid experience in the field. The local real estate has some implicit rules, and some sellers may not give you all the information on purpose. Paperwork can give headaches even to the most fluent in reading the Japanese language.
Akiya & Inaka was born to help navigate the difficult process of buying a dream house in the Japanese countryside. Its members, Matt Ketchum and Parker Allen, are inaka [countryside] enthusiasts with years of experience. Through Akiya & Inaka, they support their customers at every step—from inspecting the property to negotiating the price.
In this interview, Matt Ketchum tells us about the hidden price that comes with free houses, common traps and mistakes to avoid, his experience of the “slow life,” and much more.
The Emotional Investment behind Akiya & Inaka
What has led you to start this project of Akiya & Inaka?
It is an interesting story if I do say so myself, and it is also a little bit complex. Both I and my business partner, Parker, have considerable history in Iwate Prefecture. I was in Miyako, and Parker was a bit more inland, in Tono City. In high school, Parker studied in Tono through an exchange program, and that really influenced his life after that. Nowadays, he is still related to Tono and conducts activities there.
I lived in Miyako from November 2009 until April 2011, which means that I was there for 3.11 [the Great Tohoku Earthquake]. It left a large impression upon me. From that point on, Parker and I have been very interested in rural revitalization. For at least a decade, we both have been involved in various initiatives, activities, and anything related to Tohoku in general. We spent time thinking about what could work in Iwate and ways to get people to come here. That is how we became emotionally invested in rural Japan in general, Tohoku specifically, and Tono and Miyako most especially.
Parker has about eight years of various assistance activities in real estate transactions, specifically regarding foreigners and inheritance. As for me, since about 2011, I have had significant experience in Japan’s independent music industry, what are referred to academically as “music scenes.” I am focused on organization, distribution, promotion, and so on. Around 2014 to 2015, we actually started developing a database methodology to document the underground music scene of Japan, like heavy metal and hardcore punk. You know, the scary stuff! [laughs]
Akiya, especially good akiya, are exceedingly difficult to find.
That must be a lot to database! My impression is there is a lot happening in the underground music scene.
There is! It is a very complex issue, but the problem is that there are a lot of music aficionados who would like to get their hands on it, but cannot. A major reason for that is data governance. For example, somebody will be distributing a YouTube video of their live performance, but there will be no details, and the title would be the raw file name. Many bands you literally cannot find online. They don’t exist unless you know them personally.
It is largely the same methodology regarding underground real estate in Japan. Akiya, especially good akiya, are exceedingly difficult to find. And even if you do find them, then you must go through the process of due diligence. It is difficult to make sure that you are buying something that you really want to buy. The major problem with akiya is that you cannot tell if the property you have set your eyes on is garbage or not. Of course, you can do your own research, but there is a lot of knowledge to acquire beforehand unless you really like pain and wasting your time and money. You also need to know how to deal with local agents, or it is very unlikely that you will ultimately make a purchase. These are the kinds of problems we are trying to address.
In the last official government report on akiya in 2018, there were 8.46 million of them nationwide, and there is almost certainly a lot more.
I have seen websites in Japanese with listings of akiya, and it is very hard to tell which one is a nice house and which one is going to need a lot of repairs. You just end up thinking, “That is not for me, it is too complicated.”
The truth is that a lot of akiya are not very good. [laughs] In the last official government report on akiya in 2018, there were 8.46 million of them nationwide, and there is almost certainly a lot more. The cataloging of akiya is a very fractured system. Each municipality of Japan manages their own akiya, and nothing is standardized, which prevents developing a nationwide database.
So, right now, we are focused on a minimum viable product. That is basically bespoke detective work on the ground, as well as supplying secondary services.
Akiya for Free: Some Facts
There are free houses. They are real. But again, how much do you like pain? (…) You might not have the water hooked up and who knows what’s going on with electricity?
A few years ago, there was this news that Japan was giving away houses for free. And earlier in 2021, there was news about how you can buy houses for 500 US dollars. I have seen a lot of people whose dream is to live in Japan get excited by such news. To what extent is this information true? Is there anything else that people should know about?
It’s 100% true. These properties exist—the free ones and the 500-dollar ones. The free ones almost certainly are going through municipal incentives, although it depends on the municipality and property.
There are free houses. They are real. But again, how much do you like pain? [laughs] Even if it is structurally sound, which I am almost comfortable to guarantee that it will not be, and it is just cosmetic fixes that you need to make, that is going to be costing you a lot. Probably a minimum of 40,000 US dollars. The same thing largely applies to the 500-dollar properties. There will be several mysteries involved in certain things that you need to fix. You might not have the water hooked up and who knows what’s going on with electricity?
You also need to get a look at the neighbors, especially if you are in a very rural region, which can sometimes be very insular. Maybe there is a reason why it is an akiya and they just don’t want anybody else coming in. It is not that common, but it is something to consider.
So, these things are true, but the average person would not dream of pursuing these because of the various issues with the property itself. Also, they are going to be located way out in the middle of nowhere.
I see! Have you personally visited these kinds of houses, the ones that are free?
Yes, there was a really nice one in Shizuoka. I was surprised because it seemed pretty good. However, we did not conduct any surveys so it might have been totally rotted. I have seen terrible ones too. The problem with the major reporting focusing on the very rural and very cheap akiya is that it colors everybody’s perception about what the definition of an akiya is. While it is a very wide definition, what is visible right now is very narrow, and that negatively affects the market as well.
Are people expecting cheap houses in really bad condition although there are all sorts of houses?
Yes. It depends on the region, but generally speaking, you can find decent vacation houses from about 5 million yen. We have sold one in Nagano for 3.2 million yen. We closed on a Thursday, and they moved in on the following Saturday. There was a little work to do but it was perfectly livable. That was about 32,000 US dollars. But 500 dollars? It is not realistic.
I have a friend who is renting an akiya and uses it as a guest house. What do you think are the advantages to buying an akiya instead of renting one?
The major thing to consider is: how much work are you going to be putting into it? If you are renting it and fixing it up, you are literally spending money on somebody else’s property. So, generally speaking, if you are going to be renovating, you better be buying. That being said, I think that renting is a very good experience prior to purchasing an akiya. Just go live there for six months and see how it functions. It is one thing to find the house and do the paperwork and legal stuff, but what do you do after?
I rent an akiya from a friend running it as a guest house, in order to figure out how to manage this as a business. The guest house model, like your friend does, is very enticing with regards to akiya, and not many people know how to manage it. I live down in the East side of the Izu Peninsula which gets a lot of surfers and IT workers doing extended stays. I am excited by the potential of turning akiya into simple, cheap but comfortable, and homey guest houses.
You talked a little bit about prices already, but let us say that I want a small house with a small field to grow my own things. What is the minimum budget I should be ready to spend?
100,000 US dollars would be good to have, and 200,000 would be better. The plot of land is really what you are paying for, even if there is a building on it. If you are looking for a small but habitable house, the minimum budget is about 5 million yen, and having 10 million will probably open some good doors.
Looking for the Right Akiya: Mistakes and Surprises
Keep your eyes open for anything that sticks out and do not accept the property for what it is. Definitely keep in mind your dream of the perfect akiya.
Now let us go a bit deeper into the services you evoked earlier. You do a lot of things for your clients. You are not only helping them search for a good house, but you also represent them during negotiations and help find hazards in the house. You also help them work through all the difficult paperwork. What are the common mistakes or traps you help your customers avoid?
Water is often an interesting one. For example, you must turn off the water, or all the pipes explode and then you get flooded. Up in Nagano, if you do not shut off your pipes in winter, they might blow up! Those are basic things.
But there are also cases like those we had in Saitama. The properties were recognized by the government as being culturally significant, which means you cannot build above a certain level, and you cannot add new structures. That, however, was not mentioned on the documentation for the property itself. And because we conducted due diligence, we could figure this out and tell the seller, “Well, you’re charging this price, but we just discovered a very important piece of information that you did not tell us about. If you are willing to lower the price this much, then we can still talk.”
Would that affect renovations too?
Easily. There are a lot of houses like that in Kyoto, and also in Tokyo in the shitamachi [old town] areas. A road needs to be 2.7 meters wide or so, but back in the day, the roads were much narrower. So, most of the time, you can still inhabit such houses, but you cannot do much to them. If you do not have that information, which sometimes happens, and then you buy it, it will probably be a cheap purchase, but you will be making that purchase with incomplete understanding.
On the contrary, have you experienced good surprises that were not documented?
Yes! Another client up in Gunma experienced the happy side of things. The property looked perfect and when we went to check it out, we got down to the bottom floor of the main building and we noticed a corridor out back that led to a completely separate structure. There was another house on the property! Our client was of the adventurous type and was rather pleased with this discovery. That is another example of the wild and wacky things that you can discover with akiya.
Speaking of visits, when someone visits an akiya, what should they be careful about? Are there elements specific to akiya that people should not miss?
Yes, you should keep your eyes peeled for anything. In a case we are dealing with right now, we noticed that there is a tiny little marsh in the back. It is right next to a hill, and there is some new development up that hill, and a few trees that were cut down. We immediately wondered if that was like a runoff and if it meant there were some drainage issues. So, tomorrow, we will be doing a survey and an inspection of the property to figure out what is going on there.
Keep your eyes open for anything that sticks out and do not accept the property for what it is. Definitely keep in mind your dream of the perfect akiya. And if something does not match up with that, ask.
You should also know that there is kind of an unspoken rule amongst real estate agents that if you, as an individual, go to a real estate agent and speak with them, and they take you to a property, they are now your contact point. There is no contract. And they do not necessarily have your best interests in mind, they have sales in mind. So, I highly recommend having professionals in the field be your front person even before you go to a property. With a buyer’s representative, you will be able to negotiate and ask questions, which are hard to do as an individual. Most people are not really good at negotiating with real estate agents.
I find your example very interesting because it shows we should not only have a look at what is going on inside a house, but also to make sure to be careful of the surroundings.
Inside, what you must look for is structural integrity, and that is relatively easily inspected. We have architects that we work with as inspectors, who have laser measuring tools and stuff, but common matters are more like, “Is there some sinkage on the doorframe? What does that mean about the structure? Is the whole structure sinking down over time? Or is that just a little bit of settlement?”
The cosmetic all depends on how much of a DIY fan you are. But if you are looking at structural damage via termites or sinkage, for example, those are very difficult to rectify, and also very costly. It is just not worth it. Do not try to spot those by yourself and instead spend on inspections. For example, our inspections cost 50,000 yen, which is nothing compared to knowing that you are buying a good property.
We do a lot of photography and videography, not only for our YouTube channel, but also for our clients so they have references in perpetuity to look at for making considerations. Having a drone is also very valuable. The first reason is to check the property, and the second is to check what the roof looks like. A roof is also a major pain to fix.
Moving to the Japanese Countryside
Especially since the pandemic, I think many people are attracted to the Japanese countryside life. They consider working remotely and enjoying the “slow life.” What are the motivations of your clients about living in the countryside?
There are a few types. One is people just looking for a vacation house, who were already there prior to the pandemic and did not change much after it. Another type is people actually looking to move their address to reside out of the big city—I, myself, have done this. That is relatively common, and usually, such people come from a higher managerial level or an IT background, and they have the ability to work remotely.
Finally, there are enterprising people who have two subtypes. One is the various types of wellness: mountain climbing retreats, yoga retreats, hiking, surfing, diving… They make those into businesses, or more usually, side businesses. And then there are also the people who are buying smaller akiya to renovate into either guest houses or into remote workspaces and things like that. You see a lot of that happening right now along Sagami Bay and into Izu, basically anywhere along the Tokaido Line, from Fujisawa up to Atami.
Nobody is cutting ties with the big city. They are not removing themselves from metro life. We like to think they are adding to metro life.
From your personal point of view, what are the main appeals and the difficulties of living in the Japanese countryside?
On a more psychological aspect, you need to get used to the “slow life” you mentioned earlier. For example, the closest convenience store to me is about a 15-minute walk. Also, I live on top of the mountain, and when I first moved there, I was astutely aware of having to climb that mountain every day. [laughs]
From where I am to my office in Tokyo, it takes an hour and a half. I am fine with long commutes because I work quite well on trains and consider it another office. Train commute can also be downtime where you can relax, listen to music or a podcast. So that is another thing to consider.
Depending on the area, some people will mention bears. Where I live, the monkeys are a big hassle. They are not violent, but they definitely steal stuff, which is just annoying.
That being said, on the weekend I work on a communal hobby farm where there are three goats and more than 20 chickens. My inner eight-year-old is having fun at building stuff and getting dirty. Rural life is almost like you automatically get exercise; you do not even have to do it. I lost about 11 kilos in a year! There is wellness in general, the fresh air, and the sounds of wind in the bamboo forest at night. I can also go hiking or go surfing since I live near the beach. There is a lot of fresh local food. Often, you do not even have to buy it because there is a kind of a trade economy in which people circulate food if they don’t need it.
Socializing depends on the community. Sometimes it can be difficult to break in, but once you are in, you are really in. You must put the effort in rural Japan, but provided that you do try, it is really a great experience. People are very communicative, open-hearted, and very kind. Tokyo, and large cities in general, can be very alienating in that sense.
Do you have any advice on how to get along with the community in the local countryside, especially as foreigners as we sometimes can look a little bit intimidating?
Not really, because everywhere has its own culture. We provide experiences through the Inaka Club so that people get a taste of the Japanese countryside, but the main objective is to help people find a community that clicks with them. Recently, we released a map of the hotels, Airbnbs, and minpaku [traditional guest houses]—the types of places where you can stay at—that we think are nice in rural communities. You can go and figure out how to deal with locals. What matters is what is in your heart.
From Myth to Dream
After visiting the village of Kamiyama in Tokushima Prefecture numerous times in 2019, and meeting many people who made the great leap from city life to inaka life, I regularly found myself daydreaming about finding a nice akiya there and growing potatoes. However, as for most people, I have not made any more steps in that direction and it is just a dream in the back of my head—a myth, even. The myth of my ideal countryside life. A myth that can be kept safe from any disappointment if I keep it imaginary.
Talking with Matt made me realize the difference between personal myth, dream, and project. As I pictured Matt being pragmatic, I did not expect him to advise to “definitely keep in mind your dream of the perfect akiya,” but that made me realize what a dream should be: not a mere fantasy, but an ideal you should tend towards to improve your life. A dream acts like a guiding star through your life projects.
The Akiya & Inaka team is great because they help people going through their rural life projects without forgetting the original dream. They make the process as painless as possible, and as close to your ideal as possible. They help turn your personal rural myth into a dream and make that dream come true.