When Lee Xian Jie first stepped foot in the traditional farmhouse located in Ryujin-mura, a village in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, it was “quite rundown” — with floors so rickety they shook beneath him with every step he took.
After all, the main structure of the abandoned home was 300 years old, Lee said. But when he took a closer look around the home, he could tell it was “properly built.”
“The pillars are all Sakura wood, which is an extremely dense and hard wood,” he told CNBC Make It. “It’s also a thatch building, which is very rare in Japan now … So it’s a building with great historical value.”
The property, which previously housed four generations, is one of Japan’s millions of vacant houses known as akiya, Japanese for “empty house.”
But unlike many akiya that are for sale, this was for rent because it’s on “good land,” and there are two family graves in the area, Lee explained. He was, however, given permission by its landlord to restore the premises.
“My interest has always been in history. I wanted to see what it was like for people back then to live without chemical fertilizers that we use right now. How did people build homes with just wood and joinery?”
Covid-19 fast-tracked Lee’s dreams of living in rural Japan. He started his own tour 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 at the farmhouse three days a week, using ingredients he harvests from the farm, 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 guesthouse.
While akiya often have cheap price tags, there are a few things to consider before moving to Japan to purchase one, said Lee.
“This is specifically for Japan: If you can’t speak the language, you can’t get along with your neighbors … communication is very difficult,” he added.
“People forget that time invested in the language is a lot of time they can use elsewhere. It takes anyone at least a bare minimum of four years to be fluent in Japanese, seven to eight years to be really fluent.”
Farm life is often romanticized as quiet or peaceful compared to the city, but Lee says “no farmer here has a slow life.”
“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 has almost 16-hour long days at the farm.
There are also “social expectations” such as maintaining the grass around your land, which requires more time and energy than one would imagine.
“I can’t stress how much grass cutting goes on because Japan has a lot of rain and plants grow very well. If you don’t maintain it, it’ll look very messy and your weeds will affect the neighbors’ crops.”
“Life is slow if you pay to stay on the farm as a guest. For my guests, it’ll be a slow life because they’d have to do none of the chores,” he added with a laugh.
While it’s a lot of hard work, it’s all worth it for Lee — who finds the most fulfillment from knowing what goes into the food he serves at his cafe.
“The most fulfilling part of the experience is that when I serve tea now, it’s my own tea that I made. When I serve rice in this cafe, I know that I have used no pesticides,” he said.
“I’ve made many local friends here … it’s the human connections I have here that are truly priceless.”
Living in rural Japan is no doubt cheaper compared to the city. Lee said that he pays “well under” $750 for the main farmhouse and co-working space, which sit on a property measuring a total of about 100,000 sq. ft.
“I did my math and realized that if I renovated a place nicely, I will be paying the same amount I would have if I lived in Kyoto for five years,” said Lee.
However, he warned that renovation costs might be hefty, depending on the condition of the akiya. The floors of the main farmhouse for example, were weakened by the humidity and termites.
“I thought I could replace the floor [through] DIY but then I fell through the floor,” Lee recalled. “Then I just hired the carpenter who lives about 10 minutes away.”
For the guesthouse, which sits on a separate parcel of land measuring 190,000 sq. ft., he spent about $97,000 with two friends to purchase and renovate, with the bulk of that going toward renovations.
Another $37,000 was spent to turn the main house into a living space for himself and a functional cafe.
Lee had to involve himself in the demolishing work — partly because of a shortage of manpower in the village.
“But it also means you can cut your costs a little, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty,” he shared. “A lot of work went to the electrical work, pipes … Getting a proper flushing toilet, before that it was a hole in the ground.”
Having spent five figures on all the work on the property, whether he can recoup those costs is a concern because “there’s a lot less work” to be found in rural Japan.
“If you want to do agriculture, you have to be an expert in agriculture, otherwise you will fail. There are fewer jobs here also of any sort,” he explained.
“Living costs are lower in rural Japan, but so is the income.”
But the 33-year-old said he was “never worried,” as his experience as a tour guide since 2017 gave him a keen understanding about the activities that would attract visitors.
“There are going to be tea workshops organized here for some Europeans later this October. And that was sold out within an hour.”
“There has been interest in this. This year we’ve had a few groups come in to experience that with me here,” Lee said.
While the guesthouse will only open officially in June, he’s already been getting some bookings. At full capacity, he expects to make about $7,500 a month from the cafe, co-working space, tours and guesthouse.
“There’s a lot of interest in this area specifically because we are two hours from the nearest airport … There are also a lot of cultural and historical things to see here — plus the nature of course,” Lee added.
Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the land size