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As more city dwellers show an interest in relocating to Japan’s rural regions, particularly in the face of COVID-19, local governments and nonprofit organizations are working even harder to entice them to commit. Websites abound, detailing almost every consideration, from finding employment and housing to navigating community activities and neighborhood responsibilities.

For some people, mulling over the information is the only way to make such a life-changing decision. For others, life in the countryside cannot be summed up with pros and cons, nor can its appeal be subdued by the challenges it might pose; it’s an overwhelming draw.

Nobuyuki Nakano, Tomoyuki Iwai and Rika Hisai are among the latter group. They left Japan’s biggest cities to make new lives in remote places: Horokanai in northern Hokkaido; Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea; and Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Their relocation was driven by a desire to be in those settings, even if that meant forging new careers to make a living. Now, as key players in the tourist industry in their respective areas, they are proving instrumental in putting their new homes on the map, for both visitors and residents.

Northern exposure

Nakano’s first encounter with Horokanai was on an ice fishing trip. He and a friend traveled from their native Osaka to fish for Japanese huchen at Lake Shumarinai. A keen fisherman, Nakano was eager to catch the prized fish, one of the largest, most ancient species of salmon, found only in eastern Russia and Hokkaido.

Huddling round an ice hole, waiting for the elusive catch, he was struck by the unique landscape. Set amid Shumarinai Prefectural Natural Park and spanning almost 2.4 hectares, Lake Shumarinai is Japan’s largest artificial lake and one of its most pristine wildernesses. The settlement bordering the lake, Horokanai, has the coldest recorded temperature in Japan (minus 41.2 degrees Celsius) and lowest population density of any town in the country.

“I’ve been on lots of trips, but this place was overflowing with things that made me think of living here,” recalls Nakano of his visit. “Alone on the lake, focused on fishing, I saw a fox in the snow. Then I caught my first Japanese huchen. It was like telling a girl I loved her and having her say it back.”

Nobuyuki Nakano (right) has become a respected member of the community for his work with the Japanese huchen in northern Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF NOBUYUKI NAKANO
Nobuyuki Nakano (right) has become a respected member of the community for his work with the Japanese huchen in northern Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF NOBUYUKI NAKANO

Nakano was so moved that he decided to preserve the experience for future generations, relocating from Kansai to Horokanai in 1997.

“Despite being an important fish globally, the Japanese huchen was not protected in Lake Shumarinai at that time,” he says. “I thought, if I like it here, I should come and protect the Japanese huchen and bring life back to the town.”

While working part time as a farmer, Nakano launched a fishery cooperative, whose first task was a fish survey, followed by a group to research breeding patterns. He also began talking to local people and visiting anglers to learn about their fishing practices.

Despite a consensus that the Japanese huchen was showing decline, there was a naivety that it would survive. People mistrusted the data showing the severity of risk and didn’t want to change.

“I started by helping people understand the importance of the Japanese huchen,” Nakano says, adding that he then introduced a protection plan, including fishing rules and fees.

At first, however, he encountered opposition, which wasn’t easy when he was trying to assimilate. Furthermore, when he stood firm on the new regulations, local people told him to be less bossy.

“My way of thinking about the Japanese huchen was totally different from that of local people’s,” he says. “If I was overbearing, it’s because I became annoyed when I was told many times that nothing ever changes or can change here.”

The sun sets behind Lake Shumarinai in northern Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF NOBUYUKI NAKANO
The sun sets behind Lake Shumarinai in northern Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF NOBUYUKI NAKANO

Despite the challenges he faced, Nakano remained certain that revitalizing the community was the key to safeguarding the Japanese huchen’s future.

“I knew that when the Japanese huchen becomes the focus of Horokanai, we can bring the town back to life,” he says.

Nakano realized his goal in 2007 with the opening of Shumarinai Lake World Center, a nonprofit organization offering fishing licenses, gear rental and experiences, as well as other outdoor activities such as boating and snowshoeing. Nearby, he also runs a campsite, cabins and a lake house that offers half-board stays.

Global appetite for such a center has been increasing alongside growing awareness of the Japanese huchen, which has been classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature since 2006, when an assessment showed the population had dropped to less than 5 percent of historic levels.

Today, the center attracts domestic and international tourists year-round, some coming from as far as Europe solely to see the Japanese huchen, others simply wanting a relaxing break.

Lake Shumarinai in northern Hokkaido has become an important tourist destination for those seeking to catch the highly prized Japanese huchen. | COURTESY OF NOBUYUKI NAKANO
Lake Shumarinai in northern Hokkaido has become an important tourist destination for those seeking to catch the highly prized Japanese huchen. | COURTESY OF NOBUYUKI NAKANO

Spending by visitors has created much-needed jobs, both at the center and in the town. Nakano has recruited staff locally and from Osaka, to bring fresh perspectives and energy.

“I want to build something that will still be around in five, 10, even 50 years,” he says. “When I first came to this lake more than 20 years ago, I thought the Japanese huchen was a phantom fish. You couldn’t really catch one. Now it’s important in the lake ecosystem and its average size has increased. Last year, the biggest recorded was 107 centimeters. I want to keep going, to see 140-centimeter Japanese huchen swimming in the lake, in line with local legend,” he says.

Now chairman of the Shumarinai Fresh Water Fisheries Association and head of the ward for catch-and-release, Nakano has become a respected member of the local community and his efforts have been embraced.

Island dreams

Higashiosaka-born Iwai was also inspired to relocate to the countryside following a chance trip in 2016. It was the year of the Setouchi Triennale, a contemporary art festival held every three years on the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, which his boss thought was perfect timing for a staff trip. Iwai was tasked with arranging a two-day trip to Inujima, a small island off the coast of Okayama Prefecture and home to art rehabilitation project Benesse Art Site Naoshima, run by Benesse Holdings Inc. and the Fukutake Foundation.

Iwai visited the island, taking part in art-themed activities designed to spark creativity and foster team building while appreciating the beautiful seascapes.

Having always lived in urban areas “where a park was the only chance of some greenery,” he left the island thinking how lucky its residents were, but nothing more.

Tomoyuki Iwai says being without easy access to food or other necessities on the island of Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea has taught him creativity and independence. | COURTESY OF TOMOYUKI IWAI
Tomoyuki Iwai says being without easy access to food or other necessities on the island of Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea has taught him creativity and independence. | COURTESY OF TOMOYUKI IWAI

Two years later, Inujima popped into his head and he reconnected with the foundation’s section head who helped him set up the company trip. By invitation, he returned and was so impressed that he continued to visit every month for the next five months, despite the three-hour journey each way.

“I realized that Inujima life had become more energetic since 2016. Residents had launched a local newspaper and the eateries had a livelier atmosphere,” he says. “I got to know the young people who lived there and thought I’d like to live there as well.”

Naturally, finding a way to make a living on an island populated by fewer than 50 people was a concern, but Iwai was determined to make the move.

“My mother was 50 when she died, which made me really conscious that we only have one life,” he says. “We have to do the things we want, when we want, because we don’t know how long we have.”

Tomoyuki Iwai's typical day involves activities such as gardening and fixing his home. | COURTESY OF TOMOYUKI IWAI
Tomoyuki Iwai’s typical day involves activities such as gardening and fixing his home. | COURTESY OF TOMOYUKI IWAI

Luckily, the foundation was able to offer him a job at the island’s art facilities and, after six months in a dormitory on the mainland, he found a house on the island. It wasn’t long before he felt at home, largely because he already knew the residents’ names and faces.

“It was great to join the community slowly and smoothly,” he says. “If I had arrived suddenly, people would have wondered who I was and it might have been tough.”

His stepped relocation also meant he was ready for the reality of island life — there are only a few cafes aimed at tourists and one vending machine. The 10-minute ferry ride to the mainland to get groceries and other necessities on days off was soon second nature, as was taking turns to host the handful of other residents in their 30s for social evenings.

Iwai says he has never seen the island as inconvenient — even online shopping arrives at his door — but admits it can be hard if you get a craving for a favorite food. His latest hobby is making desserts using an ice-cream maker and fruit gifted by neighbors. On days off he does gardening and DIY on his 120-year-old home.

He says being without easy access to food or other necessities has taught him creativity and independence, sparking “new ideas” that he enjoys trying out.

The picturesque coastline of Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea | © SEIJIKAZUI SHUMARI
The picturesque coastline of Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea | © SEIJIKAZUI SHUMARI

The novel coronavirus has reinforced his belief that he is in a great place, away from the stress and congestion of city life, now only worsened by a greater risk of infection.

In seeking a quieter environment, Iwai has found joy in daily life. He hopes that his relocation inspires others to consider their values and what is important in life. If they seek only happiness, he says, country living could be the answer.

Southern squalls

Appreciating the simple things in life is certainly top priority for Hisai, who swapped suburban Kanagawa for a house by the ocean almost three years ago.

Although her 60-person hamlet is only 25 minutes by car from Naze, Amami’s main town, it’s a world away, with historic homes, narrow lanes lined by traditional stone walls, tilled fields and leafy paths that lead to the beach. There are no shops or services except for Minpaku Mura, a guesthouse, glamping site and cafe that Hisai has set up with her husband, Teri.

“I thought living here would be inconvenient, but it’s so enjoyable,” she says. “You can’t hear cars, but you can hear the waves, and getting fresh ingredients from my fields and cooking with them feels so luxurious compared to life in the city.”

Rika Hisai and her husband currently provide shamisen lessons, something synonymous with Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture. | KATHRYN WORTLEY
Rika Hisai and her husband currently provide shamisen lessons, something synonymous with Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture. | KATHRYN WORTLEY

Farming has proved a great way to integrate into the island community for Hisai, who bought and divided the land among new friends and aging neighbors. She hopes that with their knowhow and her hard work, she can make the fields sufficiently fertile to add farming to her offerings to guests.

She and Teri currently provide brown sugar-making and shamisen lessons, two things synonymous with Amami. While Teri has been able to draw on his local roots — the accommodation is in his grandparents’ former house — Hisai has had to watch, learn and dedicate herself to practice in order to co-host the sessions.

Yet she’s happy to do it. Providing great hospitality, she says, is one of her passions that runs through the DNA of the business.

Born in Niigata, Hisai worked in sales before developing a 30-year career in accounting in a company near Tokyo, where she met Teri. When she and Teri retired, they decided to return to Amami and create something new in his hometown.

First, they restored the dilapidated property, largely by themselves, before launching the accommodations, experiences and cafe.

“I always wanted to do a job where I could interact with people,” Hisai says. “Now I can. I use my own life experiences to understand and relate to customers, to create a relaxing space for them.”

Rika Hisai left Kanagawa Prefecture to set up a guesthouse, glamping site and cafe on Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture. | CALDERWOOD IMAGES / DERMOT KILLORAN
Rika Hisai left Kanagawa Prefecture to set up a guesthouse, glamping site and cafe on Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture. | CALDERWOOD IMAGES / DERMOT KILLORAN

Hisai has even become friends with some visitors, sending them seasonal fruit or exchanging messages. Her amiable nature is generating an uptick in business, but challenges remain in attracting customers where there is limited footfall.

“Many people have passed our hamlet but not entered it, and people on Amami, particularly older people, don’t have the custom of eating out,” she explains.

However, Hisai believes she can boost trade by offering dishes unique to Amami and showcasing the hamlet to both international tourists and Amami residents.

As visitors mostly come to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the area, Hisai is treading the fine line between preserving the hamlet’s atmosphere and way of life for the next generation and injecting much-needed economic activity.

“If local people can see what a wonderful place it is — the closest countryside from Naze — they might want to spend time here or even live here,” she says. “Our population is declining, and it would be nice if we can continue to hear the voices of children in the future.”

Teri Hisai has been able to draw on his local roots on Amami Oshima. | CALDERWOOD IMAGES / DERMOT KILLORAN
Teri Hisai has been able to draw on his local roots on Amami Oshima. | CALDERWOOD IMAGES / DERMOT KILLORAN

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