Living the akiya dream in Onomichi

“This is the Onomichi Dream! The Akiya Dream!”

Kentaro Tsuru was a struggling manga artist working part-time jobs and scraping by on less than ¥2 million a year ($16,000), when he got a call from a college friend who was living in the small city of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture. “There’s so many vacant houses here that it’s getting to be a problem,” the friend said. “Lately young people are coming and finding places to rent for ¥10,000 or ¥20,000, and they’ve got awesome views from the hill.”

Tsuru couldn’t believe it. ¥10,000 yen for a whole house with a view? He was paying ¥42,000 for his cramped one-room apartment in suburban Tokyo. “Why don’t you come?” the friend said. Tsuru set the thought aside for a while, but in 2008, decided to take the leap and picked up and moved to Onomichi with his girlfriend.

A few hours east of Hiroshima, Onomichi is a long and narrow city that slithers along a strand of land hemmed in by mountains and an inlet of the Inland Sea. When seen from a above, the city’s hills and the island peaks that bob in the gentle waters can be recognized as part of the same landscape, the placid sea appearing like a sleek coat of blue plaster smoothed into the crevices of its undulations.

For decades, workers streamed down to the port in the mornings and rode the puttering ferry boats for a few minutes over to the hulking shells of the shipyards on neighboring Mukaijima. In the early 20th century, ship captains, school principles, and others of high social pedigree built fancy houses on the hillside, many in the faux-European style that was popular at the time.

“This is the Onomichi Dream! The Akiya dream!”

When Tsuru arrived, he began asking around and looking at some of the hundreds of vacant properties, or akiya, that are mostly clustered in the web of stairways and passages on the slope below Senkoji, a beautiful hillside temple founded 1,200 years ago.

Under current construction standards, new home construction is not allowed in areas inaccessible to cars, so many of the fancy old homes here are abandoned and next to worthless. Eventually Tsuru found an old European-style house and to his great surprise, the owner offered to deed the property to him — for free.

In 2014, Tsuru published the manga book Get a house for free and escape Tokyo! about his life in Onomichi. The clever story is part DIY-guide, part chronicle of a decade of local activism, and part personal reflection on finding happiness in an age of insecurity. As his character in the book shouts in a triumphant thought bubble, Tsuru is living the “akiya dream”: he may still earn less than ¥2 million a year, but without rent to pay and now part of a close-knit local community of renovation activists, he’s discovered greater happiness than the drudgery and stagnation that hung over him in Tokyo. To some of the post-bubble generation that has largely been denied access to the financial wealth and job security promised to their parents, the idea of finding a home in one of Japan’s more than eight million akiya holds the promise of a good life — financial freedom and a chance to forge a creative lifestyle and be part of a community.

Living the good life on less than ¥2 million a year

After visiting Nagasaki, Itoshima, and Kokura, I arrived in Onomichi mid-afternoon in late December to spend two days here and find out why the city has become a magnet for migrants from Tokyo and famous for its citizen-driven renovation activism.

Senkoji Temple and Onomichi

Onomichi’s downtown area feels bustling in comparison to most cities its size. Along the main covered shopping street that stretches for more than a kilometer east from the station, the stores were all open and the air filled with the smell of fresh paint and the clatter of construction. Young people formed a line outside a popular yakisoba restaurant.

Onomichi has been given a new lease on life thanks in large part to bottom-up efforts of residents to renovate and reuse vacant houses and buildings. Beginning about ten years ago, a little before Tsuru came to town, a small group of pioneers who had traveled the world and returned home to Onomichi began fixing up abandoned houses and stores and starting new businesses.

Jun Abe, one of my senpai from the University of Tokyo who currently teaches at a nearby university, offered to meet me and show me around. In her early 30s, she moved to Onomichi around three years ago and rents a formerly vacant house on the slope. “The town has changed so much in the last few years,” she told me over coffee at a new cafe on the shopping street. “There really weren’t so many young people when I arrived. The shopping street wasn’t quite shuttered, but it didn’t have the creative hand-made appeal it does today. I’m surrounded by new migrants, a lot of them with small children.” Several people in Onomichi told me that the flow of migrants from Tokyo picked up after the 2011 earthquake.

A big reason for the change has been the success and growth of a non-profit organization called the Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project (Onomichi Vacant House Renovation Project, known in town as Aki-P). Aki-P is run by a 41-year old Onomichi native and former overseas tour guide named Masako Toyoda (“she’s a serious akiya-ist,” in Jun’s words). From modest origins a decade ago, the project has gradually expanded to operate a vacant house bank, finance and run its own renovation projects and guesthouses, and serve as a place for new migrants to come seek advice and plan new projects, in addition to welcoming a steady stream of architects and activists from around Japan keen to learn the secrets of their success.

Jun went to visit Aki-P three years ago when she found work at the university. “The first person I talked to was a bit skeptical,” she said, “like, are you really ready to fix up an old house straight off the train from Tokyo?” Certainly, Jun’s aura is more bookish university professor than nail-and-hammer DIYer, but she knew that she wanted to live in Onomichi, and after looking at a handful of options, eventually rented out a small two-room house. Today she lives in a larger 7-room house with her husband and spends much of her social life in the renovation community.

Jun took me into the hills behind the station as she explained the origins of renovation subculture. “Masako-san didn’t come here with the idea that she would revitalize the whole city,” she said of the Aki-P leader. Instead, she heard a decade ago that a wooden building that she had liked since her childhood might be destroyed, she decided to buy it and preserve it. The Gaudi House, as it is now known, is a tall and eccentric form of weathered wood and swooping roof tiles, self-built by a carpenter alongside a steep stairway in 1932. The house’s walls contort at unique angles to conform to the shape of the hill. Like the Sagrada Familia, the project never seems to end, but Aki-P hopes to wrap up over ten years of renovations in about two years and turn it into a rental space.

Gaudi House

Just down below, Aki-P maintains an old house that functions as its main office and an old wooden apartment building that is home to a variety of businesses including a ping-pong parlor, and a recycle shop where Aki-P sells items scavenged from old houses, as well as an art studio and a bookstore on the second floor. When I visit, a group of little kids is chasing each other around the different rooms and courtyard. The proprietor of the bookstore, a 27-year old woman who attended university in Kyoto, rents her space for ¥18,000 yen.

Further up the stairs from Gaudi House, the narrow passageways quickly open onto a landscape slowly returning to nature, with a handful of ruined houses that are now used as sites for media and performance art. Aki-P has facilitated the renovation of dozens of properties, but there are believed to be several hundred empty houses on the hill.

Entrance & interior of renovated apartment building
Abandoned homes above town

We walked around the ridge and back down to the center of town. Along the way we passed a half-dozen cats scurrying along the paths and peering at us from the roofs of collapsing houses. In little towns in Japan, cats oftentimes seem to outnumber the dwindling number of humans, and Onomichi has smartly made its feline inhabitants a central part of its identity. The maze of stairs leading up to Senkoji Temple is known as “The Cat’s Passage” and is lined by cat-themed cafes and frequented by dozens of its namesake denizens. An old man halfway up charges tourists ¥200 to enter his garden and search for cats.

I decided to stay for two nights at Anago no Nedoko, a guest house that Aki-P renovated and opened around two years ago in an old shop building towards the eastern end of the shopping arcade. This is where on my second day in Onomichi, I met the manga artist Tsuru in the guesthouse’s cafe. After seven years, he has become one of the elders of the renovation community, and led the design team for the guesthouse project. Everything is handmade, and the wood and glass doors separating the cafe from a 40-meter long hallway down the side of the building and many other components were taken from an abandoned prewar elementary school on a nearby island. The guesthouse has become well-known nationwide and emulated by activists in other regions.

Anago no Nedoko is in a long and narrow store building. The entrance is located down a 40-meter passageway

Most of the staff of the guesthouse are young migrants in their 20s and early 30s. Several live in a sharehouse in a former urology clinic that was essentially donated to Aki-P, which pays the taxes and manages the sharehouse. Two of the eight residents even sleep in the original beds in the converted hospital rooms. Haruna Yamasaki, one of the young Aki-P staff members whom I went out to dinner with on my first night took me to see the house, located about five minutes to the east of the guesthouse in a narrow passageway between buildings.

22-year-old Fujii moved to Onomichi in April after graduating from university in Kyoto to work at the guesthouse. He now lives in a small room next to the stairs of the old clinic, and plans to create a night-time old book store and casual bar in the white-washed former operating room on the first floor, which he will soon start renting for ¥10,000 per month . He is already busy collecting stacks of old books: crumbling novels by Ango Sakaguchi and Osamu Daizu, photo books of the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair and portraits of Tokyo travelers. The cheap rent will enable him to run the business on the side as a hobby. “You don’t start a used book store with the intention of making money, you do it because you like books,” he told me.

Sharehouse in former hospital

Jun also took me to visit one of the pioneers of renovation in Onomichi, who runs a cafe in a charming glass-enclosed wooden structure tucked in a small alley near the station.

We took seats in the glass-walled cafe, a small, charming space just large enough to fit a few sofas around a large table with a few local residents, two quiet elderly men from out of town, and two young women travelers. Hirofumi Murakami shows up a few minutes later wearing a red beanie, and introduces himself in English. Murakami spent two years in Berlin during the dynamic years of the late 90s, when the city convulsed with free-spirited energy. He worked as a DJ — “we were rare, so Japanese DJs were in demand!” — hung out at illegal parties at old factories, and at one time lived as a squatter in an apartment building in East Berlin.

Murakami came back to Japan around 2000. “I realized that where I live has to be interesting! But I didn’t want to go to Osaka or Tokyo —it’s too expensive. So I decided there was no other choice but to change my own town.” Murakami thought he could create the same kind of creative atmosphere that existed in the vacant spaces of Berlin, and rented a house on the hill in Onomichi for ¥15,000 ($120), renovating it into a gathering and exhibition space that attracted artists, musicians, painters, and others. After a couple years of hardscrabble living, he decided he needed to make some money and started the cafe. Last year, he opened a small guesthouse in the neighboring building, which he rents out on Airbnb.

After Murakami went out into the alley to kick a soccer ball with a neighborhood kid, I strike up a conversation with a member of the cafe staff named Miku.

Two years ago, Miku got on a Razor scooter and started kicking his way west out of Osaka, with no plan and nothing besides ¥1600 ($12). He averaged about 20 km a day, sleeping in Catholic churches, people’s houses and the bathrooms of 24-hour supermarkets, and eating whatever people shared with him. After two weeks, he found himself in Onomichi.

In Osaka, he had worked various part-time jobs, helped out at his family’s restaurant, and tried to pursue his hobby of writing, but spent most of his 20s dissatisfied. After one of his friends committed suicide while hunting for a job, he came to feel that there was something fundamentally wrong with society and the social relations it produced. His spontaneous journey was a way of proving to himself and others that at least on the small scale, change was possible: he could go at his own pace and survive through the value of connections he forged with others — the opposite of what he felt the social system in Osaka demanded.

He had not planned to stay in Onomichi, but after he met Murakami he asked if he could stick around and help with the artist-in-residence project and cafe. The town was just what he was in search of. “There’s no place in Japan as rich in human connection as this cafe,” he said with pride. “Grandparents, children, tourists, homeless residents, even the mayor, everyone comes here and interacts.”

Miku clearly enjoyed telling his story, and says he sees his work, lifestyle, and experience as being intertwined. “I’m helping out here, but I feel that my ‘work’ is teaching people about how they can live outside the dominant social system. Young people feel helpless, but I believe that by living their own way, they can influence others and change the trajectory of society.”

In the spring, he plans to move to the Goto Islands, off the coast of Nagasaki, where a friend invited him to join a revitalization project on a depopulating island.

I notice many of the young urban exiles here are reading the books and magazines about Portland culture that fill shelves in Japanese bookstores these days. “Their dream is to re-create Portland in Onomichi,” Jun had told me over our first coffee. From Tokyo, they see Onomichi as a place to realize the foreign ideal of DIY, slow-life hipster culture. But coming from Portland’s slightly less-cool and increasingly expensive cousin Denver, the collaborative, networked, uniquely local post-growth culture taking root in Onomichi and the rest of Japan’s slowly depopulating periphery can sometimes look like a more comfortable intermediate between the DIY homesteaders in post-apocalyptic Detroit and the explosive growth and gentrification of America’s now trendy small lifestyle cities that increasingly resemble the bigger metropolises in their social division. Japan’s gradual and orderly decline may be a more forgiving environment for social experimentation and hopeful living than the extremes of boom or bust on offer in America.

Hidden bookstore

In the garden behind the Anago no Nedoko guesthouse, I found a recent migrant from Osaka who has fixed up an old building for a bookstore. I asked him how he gets customers — you don’t have a sign out front on the street, I said. “Oh yes, I haven’t had time to get to that.” So just by word of mouth? He shrugged his shoulders in a way that implied partial agreement. “Well, that and people who wind up here lost!”

Everyone I met in Onomichi seemed to be happily “losing” themselves in one way or another. From the hidden bookstore proprietors and Miku’s itinerant idealism to the steady stream of hopeful migrants coming here with the dream of fixing up an old house with their own hands, the “Onomichi Dream” seemed to be about deviating from social norms of productivity, and focusing instead on creative self-expression, play, and community.