Can Japan’s Akiya Movement Rebuild Rural Communities?
Story by KIMBERLY HUGHES
Photography by SOLVEIG BOERGEN | July 9, 2020
While rural Japan may not be the first place one envisions as a production site for medieval and Renaissance-era instruments from Europe and Central Asia, this was precisely the craft of master instrument-builder Kōhaku Matsumoto, founder of the Catherina Early Musical Instruments Workshop. Matsumoto originally established his studio in Tokyo in 1972, then relocated in 1991 to Oita Prefecture and a 150-year-old house that had stood empty for a decade, tucked deep in the forests of the lush Kunisaki Peninsula.
Despite his dedication to an ancient craft, some might say Matsumoto was ahead of his time. Japan’s aging population and declining birthrate, along with the concentration of jobs in the major cities, has depopulated rural areas across the country, and today, the Japanese countryside is littered with abandoned houses—more than 8 million of them—known as akiya, or “empty homes”. Among other efforts to entice residents to their fast-dwindling communities, many local governments have joined a nationwide program to establish “akiya banks” that match these empty structures with potential buyers, often throwing in financial assistance packages for renovation. For artisans and craftspeople in the crowded and wildly expensive urban centers, this can sound like a dream come true—and for some, it has been.
Though well-intentioned, it’s not yet clear whether the akiya bank program can be called a success story, with critics pointing out that repopulating rural communities is more complex than just providing access to affordable housing in a bucolic setting. Nonetheless, since the program was launched in 2014, some rural areas are clearly welcoming former residents back from the big cities (the so-called “U-turn”), and drawing an influx of newcomers.
Many of these new akiya owners renovate the living spaces and/or repurpose them into small businesses, often with a creative bent. The renovations often incorporate traditional building and design techniques, helping to preserve classic elements of Japanese architecture. Numerous creative collaborations have also emerged around akiya, with designers, artisans, architects, woodworkers, and other creatives infusing renovated buildings—and the surrounding communities—with new life.
In addition to continuing his father’s workshop and craft legacy, Mirai Matsumoto, who took over the instrument business following Kōhaku’s death in 2018, and his wife, Hiromi Matsumoto, renovated an adjacent, 80-year-old akiya, turning it into a stylish inn called kate no ie. The name translates roughly as “house of nourishment”, reflecting a sort of spiritual connotation that Mirai calls “the energy of the kitchen.” The couple grow their own rice, soybeans, and vegetables for the inn, and guests are served meals fresh from the fields at long wooden tables that exude ambient warmth.
Although this akiya renovation pre-dated local financial assistance schemes, Mirai was able to complete the work with the help of friends, and a community spirit pervades the atmosphere of the entire enterprise. Yearly festivals held on the grounds—which the Matsumotos lovingly refer to as the “Catherina Forest”—draw up to 1,000 participants to enjoy live music, food, crafts, and dancing. One neighbor remarked that “Last year’s festival was hard, because it was the first time that Kōhaku was not there. But we most definitely felt his spirit with us.”
On the peninsula’s northwestern coast, Chef Tomonari Matsuzaki operates his restaurant, Soba Rikugou, inside a renovated akiya in his hometown of Bungotakada (pop. 23,000). Along with many other former urbanites, Matsuzaki made the U-turn from Tokyo following 2011’s triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear-plant meltdown). After studying with local master chefs upon his return, he found the 150-year-old building through the local akiya bank and started his own restaurant. The government gave him 1.2 million yen (around $10,000 USD) for renovation and new insulation.
After a long stint in Tokyo, Matsuzaki said that he and his wife appreciate the simpler lifestyle and natural environment of Bungotakada, particularly with their second child on the way. “It feels really meaningful to walk around the temples and shrines in the nearby mountains, and experience the spiritual energy here,” Matsuzaki said. The surrounding rice fields date back roughly 1,000 years, and were recently designated as a culturally important landscape. “There are numerous indigenous plants here, and more than 40 types of fireflies, which is a real marker of environmental health,” Matsuzaki said. “When their lights reflect on the rice paddies in early June, it’s magical.”
Through its akiya bank and other resources, Matsuzaki says, the small city also offers some of the most generous financial support in the country, and more than 300 people are now settling there each year.
There is another active akiya program in the nearby city of Beppu—nearly five times the size of Bungotakada, and one of Japan’s premier destinations for onsen, or hot spring bathing. When Shizuka Kanno, who relocated from Osaka in 2019, registered with Beppu’s akiya bank, she had her heart set on a specific neighborhood: Kannawa, where you can cook your own food in the steam that billows into the streets from the hot springs gushing below, and where numerous akiya have been creatively repurposed.
A popular national pastime for relaxation, onsen has roots in medicinal healing—otherwise known as tōji (or “hot water cure”). To help educate Beppu’s English-speaking visitors on the history of this tradition, Kanno created an English informational portal, cleverly titled waki-pedia (waku refers to bubbling hot water).
“Kannawa onsen is the only place throughout Japan that continues to use medicinal, herb-style steam baths, a practice that dates to the [13th century] Kamakura era,” she said. “By bringing back this culture, I am hopeful this can start a whole new movement for healing.”
Kanno was lucky enough to procure the only akiya available in Kannawa at the time, receiving both municipal and prefectural funding for its renovation. She then set about fulfilling her long-held vision: converting the spacious old home into a “share house” (or communal home). She hoped the facility could also become a social hub for the neighborhood’s diverse residents—long-term Beppuites, local university students, and other newcomers like herself.One of Kanno’s akiya design projects involved distributing a small piece of cloth to each neighbor and asking them to take it along whenever they visited the communal baths. After a couple of weeks she collected the cloths again, their colors now blurred and muted by the springs’ hot temperatures. She then handed them over to tailor and textile-dyeing artist Tomohiko Yukihashi, who fashioned the pieces into a single noren (curtain often placed at shop entrances or in homes) that would hang in the share house, reflecting each individual who contributed to the whole.
It’s still not clear whether Japan’s akiya banks and other programs can succeed at repopulating its rural areas over the long-term. As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made working remotely the norm across the globe—and more acceptable than ever within Japan’s notoriously rigid corporate culture—more young people may be able to take advantage of the opportunity to live and work in less populated (and less expensive) parts of the country. The Asahi Shimbun reports that one in four urban “teleworkers” are now considering relocation, and akiya banks could provide many of them with a path to more affordable, and more spacious, housing. Of course there are other factors to consider, and the akiya program alone can’t solve rural depopulation. But in the meantime, craftspeople and artists seem to be thriving in their refashioned akiya, enlivening and strengthening the communities around them.