An inconspicuous wooden teahouse stands midway on a winding road that connects the center of a remote mountainous town in western Tokyo to a scenic lake that supplies water to the capital.
Inside the old Japanese-style residence, there are several mismatching tables and chairs on a tatami mat floor, where hikers and bikers can take a break along the roughly 9-kilometer route between Okutama Station and Lake Okutama.
Naoko Ida and her husband, Takayuki, who moved to the town several years ago from Kawasaki, opened the store last year after reforming a 100-year-old house they bought as part of the town’s rejuvenation program.
This is the second used home the couple acquired in Okutama through programs aimed at luring young settlers to the town, where half the residents are 65 years old or above.
“We were living at my parents’ home and were looking for a place to live on our own,” said Naoko Ida, 45. “We wanted to live close to nature somewhere in the Kanto region and we really liked Okutama when we drove here.”
Joined by her 33-year-old husband, their two teenage daughters and 5-year-old son, the family first moved into a town-managed apartment three years ago and soon found a five-room house with a garden under a program in which the ownership of the dwelling and land will be transferred to them when they have lived there for 15 years.
Last year, the town also matched the family with the house they turned into the cafe, about a 15-minute drive from their residence.
Families with children or young couples planning to have them are welcome additions to the aging town.
“Ever since Okutama town was created by a merger in 1955, the population has been continually decreasing,” said Kazutaka Niijima, head of the town’s office for youth settlement measures.
The town’s population in 1960 totaled nearly 13,800, but the figure has dwindled to around 5,200 of late.
Okutama — formed from what used to be the town of Hikawa and the villages of Kori and Ogochi — sits on the western end of Tokyo and has an area of 226 square kilometers, which equals about a tenth of the land area of the metropolis. The entire town is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, so nature has been preserved.
Niijima said Okutama was once a bustling town on the back of the forestry industry, but its fortunes declined as wood prices fell due to the liberalization of imports along with reduced demand for lumber. That fall in demand was due to wood being replaced by other materials, such as steel, for construction work, and by other types of fuel.
“People who worked here had to look for other jobs elsewhere,” Niijima said. “As young people left, the older generations were left behind. We have come to a point where the town has only one person in the working-age population for each elderly person.”
Nationwide, there were about 2.2 people for each elderly person, or those over the age 65, in 2017, according to the Cabinet Office.
Niijima’s office, set up in 2016, is running a number of programs, including the housing plans used by the Ida family, aimed at attracting younger residents in the hopes of increasing the proportion of children in the population and eventually having a larger ratio of young people.
The town utilizes donated vacant houses and finds suitable families to live there while offering prospective residents up to ¥2 million for renovations.
Some such programs are geared toward married couples aged 45 or below and families where the parents are 50 years old or below with a child who is of junior high school age or younger.
The town also offers generous child care support, including subsidizing all medical costs for children through high school.
The Idas say they are enjoying their life in Okutama but noted that not everything is rosy. For example, the renovation subsidy for their home has not been enough to cover all the alterations they did, which totaled about ¥5 million.
Within Japan, people have come from as far as Hokkaido, and families that moved to the town through the rejuvenation programs have included some who were originally from the Philippines and China.
Now the town is about to welcome newcomers from New York — Shinichi Kashihara, 50, his 39-year-old Canadian wife, Samara Stob Kashihara, and their 5-year-old son, Issa.
“I had been thinking about changing our environment, as my child was soon school age, and moving to Japan, as my parents there were getting old,” said Kashihara, a fashion business consultant who has lived in New York for 20 years. “That’s when I heard about Okutama’s project from an acquaintance and became interested in it.”
He first contacted the town by email in February this year and applied to live in a vacant four-room house that happened to become available several months later. A few visits on, the Kashihara family was given the chance to live in the 50-year-old dwelling.
“My job is basically mobile so I plan to continue it even after we move to Okutama,” he said. “With the Tokyo Olympics coming up (in 2020), I’m hoping to be able to engage in international projects from my base there.”
Okutama’s Niijima said he hopes to make housing available more regularly, but he said this can be difficult because the programs depend on donated homes.
“Vacant houses will become industrial waste if they are not utilized, and we believe using them for our resettlement measures is effective in turning them into resources and preventing them from becoming abandoned,” he said. “We hope people who want to live in harmony with nature will move here.”
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