Country roads take them to new homes

by Sumiko Oshima

Get away. Away from squeezing yourself into a packed train, making your way in a slow-moving human tide up stairs and through ticket gates. From walking in a crowd like a soldier ant, trotting ahead to avoid cigarette smoke from a man in front, only to breathe in foul diesel fumes at intersections on the way to the office. Away from a high-rent, tiny apartment or a lifelong mortgage for a small three-bedroom concrete box.

Get away from it all and escape to the countryside, inaka.

Decades ago, it was the other way around. Everyone wanted to live in the cities — places with decent jobs, exciting entertainment and eventful encounters. Full of hope, young men and women flooded in from the countryside. Their goals: getting married to a pretty girl or a promising businessman, then buying a house in the suburbs with a small garden where their kids could play.

But now, these dreams of city life are collapsing. Cities are no longer assured sources of jobs, nor does working for an established company guarantee a secure life anymore. Although the national average residential land-price index (set at 100 in 1990, and based on 223 cities) has plunged from its 1991 peak of 109.7 to last year’s 87, with little prospect of it rising anytime soon, all that average city-dwellers can obtain for a lifetime of work is still no more than a conveniently located mansion or a house far from a station on a small plot of land.

So, as the rewards of city living diminish, its terrible disadvantages can no longer be dismissed as mere nuisances.

“You have to pay a lot for rent and housing loans,” says Rie Fuwa, a 36-year-old Russian-Japanese interpreter raised in Kawasaki and now living in Nemuro, a town on the remote east coast of Hokkaido. “After long commutes on weekdays, what you see if you go to a museum on weekends are not artworks, but heads, heads and more heads.

“Here, we can live happily with half the living expenses we’d have in the city. The rent is cheap, and we can grow beets for our borsch in the garden. If we go down to the seaside, we can catch fish and gather seaweed for a meal. Everywhere in town is within a 10-minute drive, and we’ve got scenic ocean views and hot springs. Life is much more enjoyable and rewarding.”

Fuwa and her husband, 36-year-old marine climatologist Andrei Krasnenko, moved to Nemuro from Tokyo three years ago. For Krasnenko, who came from Kamchatka to Japan in 1997 after they were married, Tokyo was just too much, an outrageous place to live.

“People’s lives are always hectic. The summer is extremely hot. You have to brave the rain to get to the office, even when there’s a strong typhoon,” says Krasnenko, who was working as a Russian-language teacher, and later a researcher at the Institute of Cetacean Research.

Tipped off by friends about job possibilities, the couple moved to Nemuro two years ago, to live in this little town overlooking the Northern Territories. Krasnenko now works at a museum doing research on bats, and together with his wife also offers interpreting services to local people. “We don’t earn a lot, but there is little need for money,” Fuwa says. On holidays, the couple go into the forest to harvest wild plants, mushrooms and syrup from silver birches. “Our calendar is filled with these fun outings,” she says.

Of all Japan’s inaka, Hokkaido, the homeland of the Ainu people that was heavily settled by impoverished Japanese in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), is perfect for would-be homesteaders now as it was then.

Now, though, people are crossing the Tsugaru Strait simply to live in unspoilt natural surroundings. Just like the American’s yearning for the old frontier, or the Englishman’s nostalgia for a rural idyll, Japan’s new exodus stems from its own fantasies.

For older generations, the inaka life basically means a return to the lifestyle of their parents, living in an ancient kominka (farmhouse) with big wooden beams, and with vegetable and rice fields to tend outside. Typically, while the husband dressed in samue (traditional workwear) enjoys his hobbies of pottery and soba-making, his wife will be busily making miso, shoyu and umeboshi.

For younger generations, who have never known this idyllic inaka life, whatever particular dreams they have, the vision will certainly include a tranquil life with plenty of family time together.

Chiharu Kuroda had often dreamed of an idyllic life in the countryside, especially on her busy days as a national news-agency journalist based in the eastern Hokkaido town of Kushiro. Then, after she married newspaper journalist Kyoichi Mori, their life together depended on one or the other making the six-hour drive between Kushiro and Sapporo, where he was based. It was then that Kuroda’s dream became the only feasible way for them to live together.

“So my husband signed up for a correspondence course run by the city of Obihiro to learn about farming,” she says. Then, in 1996 just before Kuroda was transferred to Kita-kyushu, almost 1,000 km away, Mori quit his job and started training on farms. Two years ago, Kuroda quit her job, too, and the couple settled in the country town of Obihiro to start their new life together as farmers.

“It wasn’t a determined decision for us, although I did wish for a life of reading on a rainy day and farming on a sunny day. But we were kind of forced to choose which way to go at each step after the first one of signing up for the course,” Kuroda, 33, says.

Since then, life for the couple has totally changed. Wielding sickles instead of pens, and now together virtually all the time, the couple rent two half-hectare fields where they grow 30 kinds of vegetables — all organic. Their daily schedule: Wake at five, do farmwork until dark; and then pack vegetables and write newsletters for their regular customers. Every week, the couple stand in front of a city department store with other young homesteaders to sell their producce. They never watch TV, nor do they subscribe to a newspaper.

Either for a living or as a hobby, farming is now the choice of an increasing number of people — a complete reversal of the trend a few decades ago, when untold thousands moved to towns and cities to become salaried workers. Back then, the long hours of outdoor work and restricting, male-dominated rural traditions — such as the social requirement to join in all community activities, from funerals to festivals — made agriculture an unattractive occupation.

But now that image is changing. People from farming families, who left their hometowns decades ago to work in the cities, now want to do a U-turn back to farming after retirement. And young urbanites, in search of a self-reliant life, are increasingly opting for a so-called I-turn by throwing away their keyboards and starting to grow what they eat.

The new view of inaka is a welcome trend for small villages, too, as depopulation has often led to fewer shops, hospitals and public services, with falling numbers of children leading to the closure of their only school.

As a result, local governments nationwide are offering practical and financial support to encourage city-dwellers to move to their villages. Many villages offer farm trainees a 150 yen,000-200,000 yen monthly grant, running over several years. Some help settlers to find a house and a spouse, or to register as farmers so they can buy land. There are also low-interest loans available for new farmers to help them get started, with some no longer repayable if the borrowers stay in the town for a certain number of years.

The results of such encouragement are gradually becoming apparent. In 1998, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries started to log the number of people entering those sectors from other industries, it recorded 1,300 new farmers, 770 new forestry workers and 580 new fishermen. By last year, those figures had increased to 1,660, 860 and 780 respectively.

However, farming is not the only employment option in the countryside. While some new inaka folk open guesthouses for travelers and skiers, others — taking advantage of Internet technology — work from countryside homes as system engineers, translators or illustrators. Yet others run restaurants or campsites, or work as nature guides.

Koichi Yamamoto is one of this new breed. The former Kyoto Prefectural policeman came to the village of Akan, eastern Hokkaido, five years ago to work for the local nature foundation, which owns 4,000 hectares around Lake Akan. Neither an ecologist nor a naturalist, until then he had dedicated most of his life to judo.

“I entered high school and university on the strength of my judo skills, and my job with the police was mostly practicing judo. Otherwise, I was going nowhere; I wanted something more challenging,” he says.

A traveler at heart, he was attracted to Hokkaido and registered with a Sapporo-based nongovernmental organization that provides information about moving to the northern island. Through that group he found out about several jobs, including one with a nature foundation. Yamamoto applied for a test and an interview, and — along with a young banker — was surprised and delightd to be selected from among 120 applicants.

“I had no idea of what I was supposed to do,” he says now. “I just thought that I could do anything.”

Inspecting the forests, repairing hot-spring facilities and guiding children around the area as a job, while taking pictures of wildlife, canoeing and fly-fishing in his spare time, Yamamoto now lives a life full of challenge and excitement.

“The culture here is totally different from that of Kyoto. The food is more basic; there are no festivals here like the Gion Matsuri; and long rubber boots can double as formal wear,” Yamamoto says. “Here, deer knock on the window and the forest is rich in mushrooms. My wife and I have never felt homesick,” says Yamamoto, who is now building a log-cabin holiday home, complete with open-air onsen.

But of course, country life is not always easy. In a small tightly knit community, almost everything becomes public knowledge. If you’re looking for some privacy or solitude, it could be taken as a sign of unfriendliness. Besides, it takes years to really determine whether country life suits you.

“The first year was just fun. But then you gradually grasp the reality,” Yamamoto says.

Indeed, the former banker who landed his job along with Yamamoto soon became depressed, he says, and after two years he left — apparently for an insurance company job in Tokyo.

“I think he was disillusioned with the 365-day-a-year outdoor life. When you are in a big city, you are with nature only on the weekends, so you never know whether you are a real countryside person or not until you spend all your time there,” Yamamoto says. “And he was probably also frustrated because nobody cared about his past career. To adapt in such a small community, you have to be modest and try to learn from the locals.”

Money can also be a crude reality. Even though most people who move to the country are not looking to get rich, the lack of money can pinch.

Hiroshi Muto has been doing livestock farming for 10 years, but instead of milking cows, a major industry in Hokkaido, the Kyoto native chose to raise sheep.

“When I started, there were no sheep farmers in Japan,” says Muto, standing in the eight-hectare pasture he bought for less than 10 million yen, and where he now has a flock of 150 breeding ewes and 250 lambs being reared for the table. Selling lamb and wool by word of mouth, the business is going well, with an annual profit of E-4 million.

But still his life is rarely free from worldly cares. “Considering the effort I am putting in and the future expenditure I face, the revenue is far from adequate,” Muto says. “In addition, unexpected things often happen, such as the closure of a local slaughterhouse or a wool-washing plant.”

Muto’s current agenda is neither to expand the farm nor seek more customers, but “just to continue what I am doing now.”

“Newcomers sometimes think, ‘I didn’t imagine it would be this way,’ ” he says, pointing out that reality doesn’t always live up to the fantasy. Disillusioned, some return to the city. But others, unable to forsake their “getaway fantasy,” just stay and keep taking their chances.