Rural areas woo city slickers to vacant properties in Japanese countryside

Kyodo

As working-age Japanese depart the countryside in droves, leaving behind graying populations, rural authorities are trying to counter the trend by turning idle real estate into homes for city dwellers seeking a quieter lifestyle.

The Kyoto Prefectural Government is among those providing advice for people who want to move in, as well as subsidies for remodeling vacant properties.

Masaki Aota, who runs a nature school in Nantan, initially faced difficulty finding a home after deciding to move out of the city of Kyoto.

“It took me 2½ years to find an ideal home,” Aota, 39, recalled. “I asked many people around if they knew of a house I could buy, but everybody said ‘No.’ ”

Having quit his city job, he began working in nature-rich Nantan in spring 2014. But he had a hard time finding a house suitable for his family and the installation of a wood stove.

Relocation to the countryside is quietly becoming a steady trend in Japan.

Furusato Kaiki Shien Center, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization supporting rural transitions, said it received 26,426 inquiries in 2016, up nearly fourfold from 2011.

The first challenge is finding a suitable place to live.

According to the internal affairs ministry, there were about 8.2 million idle properties across Japan in 2013, or 13.5 percent of the total. This ratio is said to be growing.

Behind relocation-seekers face a supply-demand gap in the housing market, said Asuka Chiba, a member of a “relocation concierge” group that promotes rural relocation in Kyoto.

People who seek to move from cities to rural areas want to rent in the beginning so they can get used to life in a new environment. But rental properties of this type tend to be few and far between.

Another issue is that owners of idle properties often worry what their neighbors think if they rent to “outsiders,” Chiba, 32, said.

In view of the situation, the Kyoto Prefectural Government enacted an ordinance in April 2016 to promote relocation to designated rural areas.

Under the policy, local governments survey the available properties, provide subsidies for renovating houses and deploy farming advisers, while helping newcomers map out their moving plans. Other municipalities are following suit.

Gifu Prefecture is providing up to ¥1 million in aid for nonresidents who move into unused houses in its rural areas, and Wakayama is providing subsidies for renovating idle houses or removing unwanted furniture from them.

“In order to ready unused houses for rent, cooperation and trust-building are necessary between the municipal government and local residents,” said Kenji Kono, 56, who leads a regional promotion group in the Chii district in the city of Nantan.

“Houses may not be in use. But their owners may still have a family Buddhist altar there. There are various reasons owners cannot rent out their properties immediately,” he said.