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He had spent years traveling the world, and Japanese traveler Daisuke Kajiyama was finally ready to return home to pursue his long-sought dream. I dream of opening a guest house.
In 2011, Kajiyama returned to Japan with his Israeli partner Hila, whom he met in Nepal, and the two set out to find the perfect location for their future venture.
However, there were a couple of major obstacles in his way. For starters, Kajiyama had very little money to speak of after years of traveling the world in destinations such as Korea, Taiwan, India, Nepal, Guatemala, Cuba and Canada.
He also had his heart set on a traditional Japanese house, typically known as a kominka., which are normally passed down from generation to generation.
“I wanted to have a traditional house in the countryside,” Kajiyama tells CNN Travel, explaining that he was determined to find two houses located next to each other, so that he and Hila could live in one, while the other would be a guesthouse. that they would run together. “I had a vision.”
When he couldn’t find anything that met his requirements, Kajiyama decided to change his search to include the growing number of abandoned houses in the country.
As young people leave rural areas in search of city jobs, the Japanese countryside is filling up with “ghost” houses, or “akiya.”
According to the Japan Policy Forum, in 2013 there were 61 million houses and 52 million households in Japan, and as the country’s population is expected to decline from 127 million to around 88 million by 2065, this figure is likely to increase. .
Kajiyama was driving through Tamatori, a small town located in Shizuoka prefecture, between Kyoto and Tokyo, surrounded by green tea plantations and rice fields, when he came across an old woman farming and decided to approach her.
“I said, ‘Do you know if there are empty houses around here?’ And she just pointed,” she recalls.
He looked towards the area she was pointing to and saw two abandoned houses next to each other (an old green tea factory and an old farmer’s house) located near a river.
Both properties had been uninhabited for at least seven years and needed a great deal of work. Kajiyama asked the woman to contact the owner to find out if he would be interested in selling.
“The owner said that no one could live there, because it was abandoned,” he says. “But he didn’t say ‘no.’ Everyone always said ‘no’. But he did not. “So I felt like there was a small chance.”
Kajiyama revisited the houses about five times, before going to visit the owner himself to negotiate a deal that would allow him to use the former green tree factory as his home and turn the farmer’s house into the guesthouse he had always imagined. .
While he was interested in buying both houses, he explains that traditions around home ownership in Japan mean he can’t do so until he passes it on to the current owner’s son.
“They said ‘if you take full responsibility, you can take it.’ So we reached an agreement on paper,” she says.
Both he and Hila were aware that they had a lot of work ahead of them, but the couple, who married in 2013, were delighted to be one step closer to having their own guest house in an ideal location.
“It’s a very nice place,” says Kajiyama. “It’s close to the city, but it’s actually a field. Plus, people still live here and go to work (in the city).
“The house also faces the river, so when you go to sleep you can hear the sound of the water.”
According to Kajiyama, the process of cleaning the house, which is around 90 years old, before beginning renovation work was one of the most difficult parts of the process, simply because there were so many things to sort through. However, he was able to reuse some of the items.
During the first year, he spent a lot of time connecting with locals, gaining knowledge about the home, and helping local farmers with farming for the first year or so.
Although he didn’t have much experience in renovation work, he had spent some time farming and completing construction while backpacking, and had also taken on odd jobs fixing up people’s houses.
He completed much of the work on the guest house himself, replacing the floors and adding a toilet, which he said was a wedding gift from his parents, at a cost of about $10,000.
“I’m not really a professional,” he says. “I like doing carpentry and I enjoy creating things, but I don’t have any experience in my training.
“During my several years of backpacking, I saw so many interesting buildings, so many interestingly shaped houses, and I’ve been collecting them in my brain.”
Kajiyama was determined to keep the house as authentic as possible using traditional materials.
He saved money by collecting traditional wood from construction companies that were in the process of tearing down traditional houses.
“They need to spend the money to throw it away,” he explains. “But to me, some things are like treasure. So I would go and grab the material I wanted.
“The house has a very, very old style,” he says. “So it wouldn’t look good if I brought in more modern materials. It’s totally authentic.”
He explains that very little work had been done on the house until now, which is quite unusual for a house built so many years ago.
“It’s totally authentic,” he says. “Normally in traditional houses some renovations are made to the walls, because the insulation is not as strong. Then you lose your style.”
He says he received some financial support from the government, which meant he was able to hire a carpenter and also benefited from Japan’s work-holiday program, which allows travelers to work in exchange for food and accommodation, when he needed extra help.
After doing some research on Japanese guesthouse permits, he discovered that one of the easiest ways to acquire one would be to register the property as an agricultural guesthouse.
Since the area is filled with bamboo forests, this seemed like a no-brainer, and Kajiyama decided to learn everything he could about bamboo farming so he could combine the two businesses.
“That’s how I started farming,” he says.
In 2014, two years after starting work on the house, the couple was finally able to welcome their first guests.
“It was a beautiful feeling,” Kajiyama says. “Of course, this was my dream. But people really appreciate that it was abandoned and that I brought it back to life.”
He says hosting guests from all over the world has helped him stay connected to his former life as a backpacker.
“I stay in one place, but people come to me and I feel like I’m traveling,” he says. “Today it is Australia, tomorrow it is the United Kingdom and next week it is South Africa and India.
“People come from different places and invite me to have dinner with them, so sometimes I join someone’s family life.”
Sadly, Hila passed away from cancer in 2022. Kajiyama emphasizes that his beloved wife played a huge role in helping him achieve his dream of owning a guesthouse and says he couldn’t have done it without her.
“We were really together,” he adds. “She created this place with me. Without her it wouldn’t have been like this.”
Although the three-bedroom guesthouse, which measures about 80 square meters, has been open for about eight years, Kajiyama is still working on it and says he has no idea when it will be finished.
“This never ends,” he admits. “I’m halfway there, sorry. It’s already beautiful. But it started abandoned, so it needs more details. And I’m getting better at creating, so I need time to do it.”
He explains that he cannot complete work in the house while there are guests there. And although the property is closed during the winter, she spends two months growing bamboo and typically spends a month traveling, which doesn’t leave much time for renovations.
“Sometimes I don’t do anything,” he admits.
Offering activities such as bamboo weaving workshops, Yui Valley has helped attract many travelers to Tamatori Village over the years.
“Most of the guests come after Tokyo and there is a big contrast,” he says. “They are very happy to share nature and tradition in our house.
“Most people have been dreaming of coming to Japan for a long time and have very little time here.
“They have such beautiful energy. I am happy to host this way and join your vacation. It’s very special (for me).”
Kajiyama estimates he’s spent around $40,000 on the renovation work so far, and based on feedback from guests and locals, it appears to have been money well spent.
“People appreciate what I’ve done,” he adds. “That makes me feel special.”
As for Hiroko, the woman who showed her the house more than a decade ago, Kajiyama says she is amazed by the transformation and amazed at how many international travelers come to Tamatori to stay in Yui Valley.
“She can’t believe how much more beautiful it is (now),” he says. “She didn’t think she was going to be like this. So she really appreciates it. She says ‘thank you very much.’”
Yui Valley1170 Okabecho Tamatori, Fujieda, Shizuoka 421-1101, Japan