A couple who turned an abandoned Japanese house into a guesthouse

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He had spent years backpacking around the world, and Japanese traveler Daisuke Kajiyama was finally ready to return home to pursue his long-ago dream of opening a boarding house.

In 2011, Kajiyama arrived back in Japan with his Israeli partner Hila, whom he had met in Nepal, and the pair set about finding the perfect location for their future venture.

However, there were some major obstacles in their way. To begin with, Kajiyama had very little money to speak of after years of traveling around destinations such as Korea, Taiwan, India, Nepal, Guatemala, Cuba and Canada.

He also happened to have his heart set on a traditional Japanese house, commonly known as a kominka, which are usually passed down through the generations.

“I wanted to have a traditional country house,” Kajiyama told CNN Travel, explaining that he was determined to find two houses located next to each other so that he and Hila could live in one while the other was a boarding house. that they would run together. “I had a vision.”

Daisuke and Hila Kajiyama converted an abandoned farm residence in Japan into a guesthouse.

When he failed to find anything that matched his requirements, Kajiyama decided to change his search to include the country’s growing number of abandoned houses.

As young people abandon rural areas in search of work in the city, Japan’s countryside is becoming filled with “ghost” or “akiya”.

According to the Japan Policy Forum, there were 61 million houses and 52 million households in Japan in 2013, and the country’s population is expected to decline from 127 million to about 88 million by 2065this number is likely to increase.

Kajiyama was driving around Tamatori, a small village located in Shizuoka Prefecture between Kyoto and Tokyo, surrounded by green tea plantations and rice fields, when he came across an elderly woman who had been farming and decided to approach her .

“I said, ‘Do you know if there are any empty houses around here?’ And she just showed,” he recalls.

He looked into the area he was signaling to and saw two neglected houses side by side – a former green tea factory and an old farmer’s house – situated by a river.

Both properties had been unoccupied for at least seven years and needed a huge amount of work. Kajiyama asked the woman to contact the owner to see if they would be interested in selling.

“The owner said no one could live there because it was derelict,” he says. “But he didn’t say no.” Everyone always said no. But he didn’t. So I felt there was a small chance.”

The rural landscape of Japan is dotted with ghost houses, known as

Kajiyama returned to visit the houses about five times before going to visit the owner to negotiate an agreement that would see him use the old green tree factory as his home and convert the farmer’s house into a guest house on who always imagined it.

Although he was keen to purchase both houses, he explains that the traditions of house ownership in Japan mean he cannot do so until it is passed down to the current owner’s son.

“They said ‘if you take all the responsibility, you can take it.’ So we made a paper agreement,” he says.

Both he and Hila knew they had a lot of work ahead of them, but the couple, who married in 2013, were excited to be one step closer to having their own guest house in an ideal location.

“It’s a very beautiful location,” says Kajiyama. “It’s close to the city, but it’s really countryside. Also, people still live here and go to work [in the city].

“The house is also in front of the river, so when you go to bed you can hear the sound of the water.”

According to Kajiyama, the process of cleaning the house, which is approximately 90 years old, before starting the renovation work was one of the hardest parts of the process, simply because there were so many things to deal with. However, he was able to reuse some of the items.

In the first year, he spent a lot of time connecting with the locals, gaining knowledge about the house and helping the local farmers with farming for the first year or so.

He spent about $40,000 renovating the house, completing much of the work himself.

Although he didn’t have much experience in renovation work, he had spent some time farming and completing construction while backpacking, and he had also done odd jobs fixing people’s houses.

He completed much of the work on the guesthouse, replacing the floors and adding a toilet, which he says was a wedding present from his parents, at a cost of about $10,000.

“I’m not really a professional,” he says. I like carpentry and I like to create things, but I have no experience in my field.

“From a few years of backpacking, I’ve seen so many interesting buildings, so many interestingly shaped houses, and I’ve collected them in my brain.”

Kajiyama was determined to keep the house as authentic as possible, using traditional materials.

He saved money by collecting traditional wood from construction companies that were in the process of tearing down traditional houses.

“They have to spend the money to throw it away,” he explains. “But to me, some things are like a treasure. So I would go get the material I wanted.

“The house is a very, very old style,” he says. “So it wouldn’t look good if I brought in more modern materials. It’s totally authentic.”

He explains that very little work has been done on the house so far, which is quite unusual for a house built so many years ago.

“It’s totally genuine,” he says. “Traditional houses usually have some renovations done to the walls, because the insulation is not that strong. So you lose style.”

Yui Valley welcomed its first guests in 2014.

He says he received some financial support from the government which meant he was able to bring in a carpenter and also benefited from Japan’s working holiday schedulewhich allows travelers to work in exchange for food and board when he needed extra help.

After doing some research on Japanese guesthouse permits, he discovered that one of the easiest ways to get one would be to register the property as a farm guesthouse.

Since the area is full of bamboo forests, this seemed like a no-brainer, and Kajiyama decided to learn all he could about bamboo cultivation so that he could combine the two businesses.

“That’s how I got into farming,” he says.

In 2014, two years after they started working on the house, the couple was finally able to welcome their first guests.

“It was a nice feeling,” says Kajiyama. “Of course, this was my dream. But people really appreciate that it was abandoned and we brought it back to life.”

He says hosting guests from around the world has helped him stay connected to his former backpacking life.

“I stay in one place, but people come to me and I feel like I’m traveling,” he says. “Today, it’s Australia, tomorrow it’s Great Britain and next week South Africa and India.

“People come from different places and invite me to join them for dinner, so sometimes I join someone’s family life.”

Sadly, Hila died of cancer in 2022. Kajiyama points out that his beloved wife played an important role in helping him realize his dream of owning a guesthouse, and says he couldn’t have done it without her.

“We were really together,” he adds. “She created this place with me. Without her it wouldn’t have been like this.”

While the three-bedroom guesthouse, which measures about 80 square meters, has been open for about eight years, Kajiyama is still working on it and says he has no idea when it will be finished.

“It never ends,” he admits. “I’m halfway there, I feel. It’s already beautiful. But it started abandoned, so it needs more details. And I’m getting better at creating, so I need time to do it.”

The guesthouse has three bedrooms, which can be rented for about $120 per night.

He explains that he cannot complete the work on the house while the guests are there. And while the property is closed for the winter, he spends two months as a bamboo farmer and usually spends a month traveling, which doesn’t leave much time for renovations.

“Sometimes I do nothing,” he admits.

Yui Valley, which offers activities such as bamboo weaving workshops, has helped bring many travelers to Tamatori Village over the years.

“Most of the guests come after Tokyo and it’s such a contrast,” he says. “They are very happy to share the nature and tradition in our house.

“Most people dream of coming to Japan for a long time and have a very short time here.

“So they have such a beautiful energy. I am happy to host in this way and join their vacation. It is very special [for me].”

Kajiyama estimates he’s spent around $40,000 on the renovations so far, and if feedback from guests and locals is anything to go by, it looks like it’s been money well spent.

“People appreciate what we’ve done,” he adds. “So that makes me feel special.”

As for Hiroko, the woman who showed him the house over a decade ago, Kajiyama says she is amazed by the transformation and is amazed at how many international travelers come to Tamatori to stay at Yui Valley.

“He can’t believe how beautiful he is [now],” he says. “She didn’t think it would be like this. So she really appreciates it. She says ‘thank you’ a lot.”

Yui Valley1170 Okabecho Tamatori, Fujieda, Shizuoka 421-1101, Japan

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