The day an old, busted water pipe flooded Laura Blackhall’s new home in Ibaraki Prefecture was, surprisingly, not the worst day she’s had this year. In fact, her rushed education in plumbing wound up giving her a whole new set of skills that she used to acquire a steady stream of hot water.
No, Blackhall, 36, saw worse days closer to the start of 2020 as COVID-19 began spreading around the world, decimating the travel industry that she served.
“It was really bleak,” she recalls. “By the end of August, it really set in that it seemed like there would be no inbound tourism for the foreseeable future.”
It was the kind of situation that can necessitate a complete overhaul in the way you live. Blackhall’s boyfriend, 43-year-old artist Ichi Hatano, suggested they move to the countryside and take on a new project together. After all, they had more free time and the cost of living in Tokyo is high. So, after a lot of research, the couple decided to buy an akiya, or unoccupied house.
The house they settled on is nearly 1,000 square meters and 43 years old. It’s also in good condition, though it definitely needs a makeover.
“When we moved here, the garden was overgrown so we started off by cutting back on a lot of the grass so we could move around,” Blackhall says. “Inside the house, there was an old bathroom with a metal bathtub in the back corner of the kitchen — an odd place for a bathroom to say the least. So we took those walls down and we’re moving the bathroom to an old bedroom, which will give us more space.”
Blackhall says they’re completely redesigning the space to better suit more modern living, but are also “conscious to preserve many of the traditional features such as the large kamidana (household shrine) and beautiful solid wood pillars.”
“We’ve taken off the ceiling tiles in the kitchen and the entrance hall and taken off all of the framework around the ceiling. You can now see up into the roof and it is absolutely glorious, it’s almost like a temple,” Blackhall adds. “Our plan is that we’re going to completely leave the ceiling off the entrance hall area. From there you can see back into the whole house, and we’re going to put spotlights up into the roof to really light that up. If a carpenter has made something so beautiful, it should be shown and not hidden away by the ceiling again.”
The industry, then and now
I met Blackhall last July at a travel conference in Tokyo. At the time, she was the jet-setting CEO of a tour company based out of Hong Kong called Hello! Tours. She also had an operation in Singapore, and expanded into Japan this year.
Blackhall was known by pretty much everyone at the conference, and was generous enough to give a newcomer like myself some pointers on the industry. I was coming in with a background in the kind of digital innovation that the industry was on the verge of embracing, while Blackhall was all about crafting bespoke, personalized tours with as little technology as possible.
The travel industry has taken a well-documented hit in 2020, a year that was supposed to be flush with opportunity thanks to the Olympics. As the coronavirus spread, however, flights stopped and borders closed.
While the pandemic has curtailed a lot of Blackhall’s activities, she continues to operate her business remotely out of her new home in Ibaraki and is trying to hold on so as not to lay off any of her employees during the downturn. My tech background has come in handy, as online “virtual travel experiences” have emerged — a concept that would have been laughed at a year earlier.
Still, many members of the international community who are employed in the travel industry have had to look for new ways to thrive. Blackhall and I started a podcast, for example, and that’s how we came across Akiya & Inaka, an online resource founded by Matt Ketchum and Parker Allen that helps advise non-Japanese with buying property in the countryside.
“There are quite nice, very affordable and well-kept properties scattered all over the place,” Ketchum says. “Not as many as the junkers, sure, but the gems are out there if you know how to find them.
“What Laura and many others have done or are in the process of doing is extremely feasible. You just need to have a consummate understanding of your own situation, and reliable sources of intelligence on rural properties and the communities they occur in.”
As COVID-19 continues to grip much of the world, the travel industry is struggling to find the right balance of moving people from point A to point B.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and Blackhall seems to be echoing the idea that now is the time for those who have had to scale back to hit the reset button and provide environmentally friendly, sustainable and innovative solutions for travel-hungry vagabonds to satisfy their wanderlust. And there’s a lot of potential in rural Japan.
“I see our move to Ibaraki as an opportunity to use the land and buildings for something in the future that could cater to both Ichi’s business and mine to serve the tourism sector in some way, as well as being a home for the foreseeable future,” she says. “We thought about running a small coffee shop to cater to passing by cyclists. It turns out, though, that we’d be required by health regulations to install three sinks in our kitchen — which I can’t see happening in my home.”
While the coffee plan may be out for Blackhall and Hatano, Ketchum points out that just getting to the countryside is half the challenge, once you’re there, possibilities are endless.
“Now that we have that survival instinct kicking in at some level or another, in addition to the ‘dreaminess’ of owning a rural getaway, I do think that we’ll be seeing more and more people seriously considering the transition,” he says.
The virus, if we’re lucky, is a once-in-a-century occurrence, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn some important lessons in being a little smarter with how we deal with the problematic aspects of travel. Some places in Japan were experiencing overtoursim prior to travel coming to a halt this year, as most tourists were being led to the same locations and tours were built for the masses as opposed to dispersing visitors based on personal preferences and thus reducing the negative impact crowding had on communities.
Moving into 2021, Blackhall says she’s looking at the industry with what seems to be a post-COVID mindset.
“Whilst travel remains off the cards for a bit longer, my staff is busy putting together new tour itineraries that incorporate more off-the-beaten-path locations, which we feel is going to be more desirable and sustainable as tourism comes back.
“As for me, I am busy putting in a new kitchen — one without a metal bathtub in it — and enjoying the country air.”
Jessop Petroski and Laura Blackhall’s podcast “Where Did Travel Go?” is available on major podcasting platforms.
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