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Although they may be the thinnest of silver linings, the new ubiquitousness of working from home and worries about living in areas with high population density are prompting people to leave Tokyo in droves for more spacious and nature-centric locales.

While relocating to the suburbs or popular locations such as Nagano — the top destination for domestic moves nationwide for three years running — is certainly a change, it takes even greater courage and vision to decamp to somewhere like rural Kochi Prefecture.

Yet, an increasing number of international residents have decided to call this Shikoku prefecture home, taking advantage of the rich soil, pure water and pleasant climate to focus on producing top-quality food and drinks.

Blue Brew: Kenneth and Masako Mukai started Mukai Craft Brewing after several years of exploring possibilities. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Blue Brew: Kenneth and Masako Mukai started Mukai Craft Brewing after several years of exploring possibilities. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

When speaking in terms of sheer leaps of faith, Kenneth and Masako Mukai may well take the prize. The former teachers moved from California in 2019 to the tiny village of Niyodogawa (population 5,132) to realize their dream of starting a beer brewery. They first founded their company Mukai Craft Brewing, and then opened Blue Brew Taproom on Nov. 1.

“It all started during one of our frequent visits to Japan, in summer 2016. We were having drinks with some Kochi friends, and were discussing all the empty buildings we noticed around the countryside. I mentioned that if I had a space like that I would start a brewery, and one of my friends was enthusiastic about the idea,” Kenneth explains. “Once back in Los Angeles, I forgot about it, until I got a call from that same friend, telling me he had found a building I could use in Niyodogawa!

“At first, this was just a crazy idea — but as we investigated the opportunity we leaned more and more towards going for it. We committed to the project around the end of 2017, and we made the move to Niyodogawa in February 2019,” he continues.

The former chemistry teacher found Niyodogawa’s water composition perfect for brewing his Belgian white ale, stout and green tea IPA.

Adventure awaits: Zoe and Norihiro Kanzawa run Niyodo Adventure, a packraft and canyoning company out of Niyodogawa, Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Adventure awaits: Zoe and Norihiro Kanzawa run Niyodo Adventure, a packraft and canyoning company out of Niyodogawa, Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

“The water here is fantastic, not only does it look clear, but chemically it is very pure. Besides the water quality, our current brews include secondary ingredients (those other than malt, hops, water and yeast), and we use locally grown sanshō (Japanese pepper), ginger, satsumaimo (sweet potato) and green tea in the brewing process.” Residents have been welcoming and supportive of their brewery, often bringing the couple fresh ingredients for experimentation.

Despite the tiny size of the township, the brewers are not the only international newcomers. Zoe and Norihiro Kanzawa fell in love with the luminous blue of the Niyodo River, and now offer canyoning and packrafting tours through their company, Niyodo Adventure.

“Making Japan my home was like taming a great beast: scary and exciting. Although moving to Niyodogawa was out of my comfort zone, it felt more welcoming and peaceful,” Zoe, a Canadian, says. “My sense of belonging has become stronger. I still look different but most people know me now and that makes it easier, although it takes a while to become truly close to people here. Still, I think Niyodogawa is very special, and am lucky to call it my home.”

For some who decide to move to Kochi, it is a homecoming. Violet Pacileo’s husband, Carlo, and their three children moved to the town of Otoyo before COVID-19 struck, and she followed after in summer 2020. Pacileo’s mother’s side is Japanese, and the couple now helps manage the family land.

“I saw the devastating effect of demographic shifts: farmland left fallow due to a lack of successors, businesses dying out, houses being abandoned. These are all issues Japan is facing across rural communities, but seeing the impact firsthand when I visited every year was heart-breaking,” Pacileo says.

Deep roots: Violet Pacileo’s family land has 100 yuzu citrus trees planted by her grandparents, which she now tends to, selling the fruit. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Deep roots: Violet Pacileo’s family land has 100 yuzu citrus trees planted by her grandparents, which she now tends to, selling the fruit. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

The former hedge fund research consultant says she enjoys the slower pace of life, but is not resting on her laurels. “My ancestors were farmers, but the tradition sadly ended with my great-grandparents’ generation, although my grandparents planted 100 yuzu citrus trees. We won’t be full-time farmers, but we want to keep the yuzu farm alive. We harvested just over 2 tons of yuzu this year, which generated a fifth of what I used to earn in a month,” she explains, before launching into future plans.

“We plan on opening a CrossFit box and building a fitness retreat, so yuzu will just be one part of the plan. Many groves in Otoyo are being swallowed up by nature because the aging farmers can’t harvest the citrus anymore. I would like to take on more ownership of land, harvest the yuzu and give a bigger percentage back to the farmers, which at the moment is a meager 10% (when done by the town). We need a better return for these elderly farmers — lower the costs, improve production efficiency and put more money in their pockets.”

The Pacileos were welcomed into the community by American Yancy Lever, a carpenter-turned-organic tea farmer, who followed his now-wife Azusa to Otoyo after a serendipitous encounter in Central America.

“I just wanted to be with my girl, and everything about life in Otoyo seemed too good to be true: cheap housing, a big beautiful river, mountains, just good clean countryside living,” he says of the reasons behind his move.

The American has integrated into the community over the past four years. “I started helping a tea farmer with seasonal work. He took me to see a tea farm that had been abandoned for a few years. I thought I could revitalize the farm, so just got at it and started farming tea, although I had no experience before moving to Otoyo.”

Lever has recently started selling his tea online and at local markets under the brand name Yancha, a combination of his name and the word for tea, and also a pun on the word “naughty” in Japanese. “My tea is totally organic, I don’t use any pesticides or herbicides on my farm. I produce a first flush sencha and I make funmatsucha — powdered first harvest tea.”

Despite the challenges of switching to a rural lifestyle, life in Kochi is one silver lining that’s worth the effort.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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