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Tamio Ogata, 53, runs a 55-hectare vineyard here on a plateau about 600 meters above sea level.

Former engineer Tamio Ogata happily looks over the fully grown grapes in his vineyard in the town of Tobu, Nagano Prefecture.

Born in Yokohama, Ogata spent about 30 years as an employee of a major steelmaker until the end of 1998. He quit when the company was in the middle of restructuring as a result of the prolonged recession.

Trained as an engineer, Ogata helped build sewer drains in steel plants in South Korea and Japan. He had an annual salary of more than 10 million yen and about 150 people working under him. But he soon found himself having to take on jobs outside his expertise.

Then he saw some of his peers forced out of work. “Even if I had remained in the company, I would have either been sent to a subsidiary on loan or asked to take up a ‘dirty role,’ such as business negotiations,” he said.

So Ogata, his 51-year-old wife and their daughter sold their home in Yokohama and moved to Tobu last year after learning that the town was setting up a training center for those willing to work on a farm and lease the land.

They are part of a growing number of Japanese abandoning Tokyo and other urban areas to live and work in the countryside — a phenomenon called the “I-turn”

The Ogatas now tend a vineyard and live in a town-managed house. Their daughter has returned to Yokohama, and the number of grapes they’ve produced is only one-third the amount at other vineyards the same size.

While admitting they are still beginners and struggling at their new vocation, the Ogatas remain thankful for the fresh start and seem unburdened by regrets.

“I have come to where I am now thanks to the assistance given to me by the people at the town office and Nokyo (an agricultural cooperative),” he said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes and will be in the red this year. But I’ll not make the same mistakes next year.”

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