• Chugoku Shimbun

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After years of living in Tokyo, Mutsumi Okazaki, 54, and his wife Kaori, 48, closed their wine bar in January last year and moved to Mitsugi, a former mountain town located in the city of Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture. The reason for their relocation was because their new house would have a vegetable field close to the kitchen.

Fairly accessible from each other’s hometowns, Mitsugi was the location they set their sights on from the get-go. The couple used the so-called vacant house bank system run by the city — where empty, abandoned properties are on sale for those looking to move to the countryside — to find themselves the 45-year-old house.

They also rented a field of about 70 square meters in the backyard from one of their neighbors. Their plan is to grow herbs there and eventually refurbish the house with a view toward launching a restaurant business.

It’s agricultural amateurs like the Okazakis that Onomichi is seeking to lure in a bid to spur demand for its struggling vacant house bank initiative and, ultimately, combat depopulation.

As part of an effort to make the housing bank system more popular, the city eased rules regarding the acquisition of agricultural land in July. Whereas properties listed on the bank previously needed to be at least 1000 square meters to be owned by someone as farmland, the minimum size requirement has now been reduced to 100 square meters.

“I’m sure there are lots of people like myself out there who want to enjoy the feeling of soil,” Okazaki said.

About 25 kilometers south of mountainous Mitsugi is Onomichi city’s Innoshima island, where a host of empty houses are popping up due to depopulation caused by a decline in the shipbuilding industry. On Innoshima, the vacant home bank project kicked off in August, targeting those interested in migrating to a region synonymous with the ocean and abundant nature.

Behind Onomichi’s push to tackle vacant homes is a rapidly shrinking population that some areas on the outskirts of the city are grappling with.

Mitsugi’s population as of the end of March marked a 13.8 percent plunge from 10 years ago, while Innoshima saw a similar drop of 12.4 percent. The statistics show both of these rural areas have been hemorrhaging its residents at a pace twice faster than central Onomichi, whose population has shrunk by 5.9 percent over the past decade.

The city’s more urban areas have been reinvigorated thanks in part to the vacant home bank program, with a total of 123 houses sold since the 2009 launch. A nonprofit group seeking to use vacant homes to revive Onomichi has taken it upon itself to renovate shopping streets and hotels as well, successfully attracting young people from across the nation as a result.

But the same success has eluded areas away from the city center.

Since the Mitsugi program got under way five years ago, only seven vacant homes have been sold. Shinsuke Kajitaka, head of Mitsugi Saiko (Reviving Mitsugi), a group tapped by the city to run the home bank, said he always urges potential buyers to exercise caution before deciding to move so that they won’t regret their choice later on.

“It’s important (for them) to assess whether they can really live in the countryside and blend into the local community,” Kajitaka, 39, said.

Equally important is the task of increasing the number of properties listed on the bank, which currently totals just nine.

“Many vacant houses and fields are way too big to be ideal properties for people from outside to move into. It’s difficult to find properties just the right size,” Kajitaka said. The deregulated size requirement, he said, is key to changing farmland owners’ perceptions.

The need for empty homes is diversifying, too.

Goro Nitta, executive director of the nonprofit tasked with reviving Onomichi, says more and more people now look for properties with the purpose of settling.

“It used to be that we were catering primarily to young people looking to rent cheap dwellings, but nowadays, we’re seeing more and more families express an interest in the purchase” of empty houses, Nitta, 35, said.

In response to the changing landscape, Onomichi city is looking to launch a website tentatively titled Onomichi Brand Site by the end of this fiscal year to detail several examples of how migration to the countryside could work, such as for singles and families.

“We have both a beach and mountains to offer. We hope to get a message across that you don’t have to live in city centers to enrich your lives,” Tadanao Oku, 31, an official from the city’s policy planning division, said.

The coronavirus pandemic has ignited interest among the public in relocating to the countryside, with the Hiroshima city of Fukuyama, for example, rolling out a migration campaign centering around the concept of “workation” — a combination of work and vacation. The pressure is now on municipalities to come up with plans flexible enough to satisfy the diverse needs of potential migrants from urban areas.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published Sept. 10.

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