Home Real Estate
- Byron and Kaori Nagy have fully renovated a 150-year-old unoccupied farmhouse an hour outside Tokyo.
- Byron, who's originally from New Jersey, also created a farm on land nearby.
- They've also spent between $300,000 and $400,000 building a new home in the traditional Japanese style.
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About 12 years ago, Byron and Kaori Nagy decided to leave their office jobs in Tokyo and move their lives to the Japanese countryside.
Byron, who's originally from New Jersey and moved to Japan after college, was attracted by the prospect of living more sustainably, starting a farm, and buying and renovating one of Japan's millions of unoccupied rural homes.
With the country's population in decline, there simply aren't enough people willing to buy and restore Japan's approximately 8.5 million such "akiya," the Japanese word for unoccupied house, as Insider has previously reported. But with the rise of remote work, there's growing interest from both foreigners and Japanese citizens in salvaging these properties, Japan-based real estate consultants Matthew Ketchum and Parker Allen of Akiya & Inaka told Insider.
The Nagys, who've had three children while living in the countryside, have taken the task to the next level, leasing and renovating an old farmhouse, building a new one in the traditional style, and starting a farm in a rural village outside Tokyo.
Over the last decade, Byron and Kaori have transformed a 150-year-old silk worm production farmhouse into their home as well as a guesthouse for short-term visitors, created an organic farm, and are putting the finishing touches on a new home built from scratch in the style of a traditional Japanese farmhouse, known as a "kominka."
"I make this joke that if you're a Westerner in Japan and you've been here for more than ten years, you get this itch where you just want to get an akiya and start renovating an old house in the Japanese countryside," Byron told Insider.
Rural areas in Japan have also become more accessible to foreigners in recent years with the advent of Google Maps and an increasing number of street signs translated into English, according to Ketchum and Allen, both American-born millennials.
"It's easier today to live in this country than it's ever been," Allen said. "The prices are still as low as they were 10, 20 years ago."
Byron, who's American, and Kaori, who's Japanese, met while working in the corporate world in Tokyo.
Byron, 38, grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, and went to college in the Bronx. He spent his junior year of college studying abroad in Japan and moved back to the country after graduation to work for a local government in the countryside as a community organizer through a Japanese government-sponsored exchange program.
"At that stage in life, you're just kind of looking for the unknown and for a challenge and wanting to step out of your comfort zone," Byron said.
Byron then moved to Tokyo, where he met Kaori and spent several years working in human resources and running a small AirBnB business.
The devastating earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 made the couple rethink their urban lives.
They wanted to escape their "consumer lifestyle," Byron said. They worked long hours and spent a lot of money, but didn't have time to do things they were passionate about.
"It really forced me to reckon with not just my source of income, but the food that I eat, and the connection that I have to it and the safety of the food that I eat, and also the energy that I consume," Byron added. "Maybe it's something typical of millennials or the generation, but I just felt like sacrificing now for, like, perceived security in the future was just not worth it."
Byron and Kaori decided they'd leave Tokyo and pursue their desire to live more sustainably in the countryside. "I was really keen to get out of the city and try to develop my own homestead in the Japanese countryside," Byron said.
The Nagys found a 150-year-old unoccupied farmhouse in a town called Fujino in Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour from Tokyo. The house had previously been used for silk worm production.
The property owner wouldn't sell the house to them, but agreed to a long-term lease and gave Byron and Kaori free rein to renovate the place. They lived in a rustic rental home in the woods while they spent a year renovating the farmhouse.
"My thinking was that I can sit around and wait for like some ideal situation to come by or I can jump on this place right here, right now and figure out how to renovate it and then rent it out and try to turn a profit on it," Byron said.
The Nagys gutted the farmhouse and rebuilt it with local and recycled materials, often using traditional Japanese building techniques. They didn't pay rent on the farmhouse during the year they spent renovating it, and now pay a couple hundred dollars per month in rent.
"We basically completely gutted the place, ripped all the windows and walls and everything off, stripped it down to the frame and the roof, and then rebuilt it from the foundation with some recycled materials and local timber," Byron said.
The Nagys used 150 recycled tatami mats as insulation in the walls and employed a traditional technique of using charred wood as siding on the house.
Neither Byron nor Kaori had any experience in construction or farming prior to moving to the countryside.
Byron said he had a few construction and farming "mentors" and learned his skills and technique from local carpenters and from doing extensive reading and online research.
Byron said that in Japan there's often "stigma associated with selling or renting land that's been in your family for generations."
Many Japanese families don't want to sell properties that may have served as their ancestral homes for generations, Byron said, leaving many homes to fall into disrepair.
"There's just so much cultural baggage that people have," Byron said. "The property and land has been in people's families for hundreds and hundreds of years."
Whereas Americans are quick to monetize property and real estate, there's not much financial incentive to do so in Japan's countryside, given low property taxes and home values.
Byron did most of the construction work himself, but had help from volunteers through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program.
WWOOF is a network of organizations operating across the world that helps individuals temporarily live and volunteer on organic farms.
Byron and Kaori transformed the farmhouse into a spacious home and guesthouse they named Yokomura Eco-Lodge, which they rent out on Airbnb.
The Nagys live in the guesthouse, and have to temporarily move out when large groups rent the place. But this summer, they'll move into a new home they've spent years building.
The Nagys also bought a plot of land in a nearly abandoned village nearby for about $10,000. They created Kasamatsu Farms on the land and have spent the last seven years constructing a new home. They're planning to move in this summer.
"When I saw this place, I was like, wow, this was incredible," Byron said. "There's like a 600-year history here. There's all this abandoned farmland. There's the areas where the houses used to be, there's a few old houses left here. But there's hardly anybody living here."
The house is in what was once a tiny village with nine houses. About 15 years ago, five of the nine houses burned down and the village has since remained largely unoccupied.
When COVID hit and the hospitality industry slowed to a near-halt, the Nagys pivoted to farming and sold their produce and eggs online to customers in Tokyo. But it proved challenging to make a profit on that business.
"We were selling things at a premium price, but it was just the scalability of what we were doing was a challenge because of our location in the countryside here," Byron said. "The land is not flat and there's just a lot of efficiencies of scale that we weren't really able to tap into in terms of running an agriculture business."
So now the Nagys mostly use the farm for their agritourism, which has rebounded in recent years, and to feed themselves.
Keeping the hospitality business and farm afloat through the pandemic —during which time the Nagys also had their third child —hasn't been easy, Byron said.
"It's been such a labor of love and COVID kind of knocked the wind out of me, as well," Byron said.
The Nagy kids —who are two, eight and ten years old — go to the Steiner Waldorf school in Fujino. Kaori handles marketing and sales for the farm, which still sells eggs, and the guesthouse.
They've spent between $300,000 and $400,000 on constructing their new home and gotten help with manual labor from volunteers, WWOOFers, and friends.
The house is designed like a traditional Japanese farmhouse, with natural earthen walls, cobb floor, foot-think walls with straw for insulation, and massive timber beams. But it will have solar power and a wood-fired boiler for heating.
The Nagys installed a hydronic radiant floor heating system, which pumps heated water through tubes in the floor. The method is more energy efficient than forced air heating.
"The downside of traditional Japanese houses is that they were never insulated and they would be really hot in the summer and cold in the wintertime," Byron said. "Everybody who's renovated an old Japanese house knows that that's a big struggle of trying to make it comfortable all year round."
The houses are full of handcrafted details, like a cypress wood bathtub.
The Nagy kids have also jumped in to help where they can.
Byron said building the new house was a "labor of love," but exhausting, particularly through the pandemic.
"Now I've scratched that itch and I don't have any romantic ideals left about the countryside and renovating an old house in the country — I'm a lot more pragmatic about it," Byron said. "It's great, it's incredible, but I don't think I'd do it again."
Byron described the project as building "a kominka or an akiya from scratch."
"It has these aesthetic aspects of Japanese traditional architecture, but it's very much focused on performance and modern living," Byron said.
Byron said building a new, but traditional Japanese home is "a way to preserve that heritage, but put it in a format that's more applicable to modern living, and smaller families."
Byron's next project, he hopes, will be recycling materials from old kominka and akiya that the owners don't want to sell or renovate.
"There's plenty of instances where the house is in such disrepair or the owners for one reason or another don't want to sell or rent the property," he said. "So what they do is they hire a demolition crew, they come in with an excavator, and they just smash the thing and cart it away and burn it or it ends up in a landfill."
Byron would take the old timber and other home materials and use them to build tiny houses or furniture.
"It's an idea still, but I think it has legs and so I'm trying to put it in the form of a proposal and talking with other parties that might be interested, so we can see if this is something that we can pursue in the future," he said.
Axel Springer, Insider Inc.'s parent company, is an investor in Airbnb.