by guibi


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A weekend in Okayama...

Kazumi and I spent last Wednesday and the weekend driving about in Okayama prefecture.

On Wednesday we just drove around the prefecture getting a feel for the layout of the land. Basically speaking, the prefecture can be divided into three parts. The Southern most area, sandwiched between the Sanyo expressway and the Seto inland sea, is the most developed. It has beautiful vistas overlooking the numerous islands that are scattered not far off shore. Some Japanese like to call it the 'Japanese Aegean'. But I think that's pushing it a bit. The central area is hilly, but the hills are soft in profile and there are large open valleys and flood plains. Ideal rice growing terrain. The land here is more reasonably priced than in the southern areas, but it's difficult to find large areas that haven't been broken up over the generations. Most of the land here is categorized as "No-chi" (agricultural land) or 'Taku-chi' (residential land). There are few areas of 'Gen-chi' ('wild' land) or 'San-rin' (mountain forest).
The northern part, the area above the Chugoku expressway, soon becomes mountainous and as you move north you start to find ski resorts, tortuous mountain roads and quite severe valleys where what agriculture there is is obviously hard going. Of course, land here is cheapest and most plentiful. No-chi and Gen-chi are pretty equally divided with an awful lot of 'San-rin' and only a small part of the land there designated 'residential'.

What we're looking for is basically anything bigger than 3000 tsubo (2.5 acres) with about an acre each of 'San-rin' and 'No-chi' or 'Gen-chi' with just a small amount of land suitable for building a house on. To be honest, we originally wanted an old Japanese farm house in do-up-able condition, but looking at a few of them over the weekend has made us realize that both in terms of time and money, it'd probably be too much for us. Anything cheap enough would just take too much out of our resources and would probably end up defeating us. To cut a long story short, while we realize that the setting up is going to take a good few years, getting the place running smoothly and in relative comfort is what we're aiming for. The sooner that we're able to do that, the better.

So anyway, on Saturday, we met up with a real estate agent with whom we've been corresponding the last few weeks. He has an excellent website that is obviously aimed at the steadily increasing number of people who've had enough of the metropolitan life style and are looking to slow down a bit. Most of his properties are probably aimed at the newly retired 'U-turn' buyers. People who left the countryside in their youth and now want to return. These buyers are looking for an old house with maybe a half an acre of land on which they can do a little gardening. The prices are still exceptionally cheap all things considered, maybe a typical property would have 1,500m² on which would be a nicely refurbished 100 year old farm house. Hospitals and supermarkets would be within a 5 minute drive and toilets would be connected to the city sewerage system. There are lots of these and they go for somewhere around ¥20,000,000. Cheaper than you could buy a new 3 room apartment in Osaka or Kobe.
Of course, we want something cheaper than that!

Sato san, the estate agent, sat us down for a browse through his books and a detailed conversation on what we were wanting to do. Apparently, they have a word for it ('I-turn', people coming out of the city who've not lived in the countryside before), so it can't be all that rare. After a number of cups of tea, we decided to head on out and look at a few of the most likely candidates.
I think it was a bit of a sales ploy, but the first place he took us while huge (over 6 acres) and in our price range, was a completely un-developed mountain side with the only utility being an unpaved road that the electricity company had made when putting a pylon on the top of it. The insects were teaming and it was impossible to walk more than a meter or so off the track. A wee bit more than we'd bargained for, but we had said we wanted to find a mountain after all... "Ok. Point taken. Let's go and take a look at something a wee bit more civilized, eh?" So that's what we did for the rest of the day. Of all the places we saw, one stuck out.

You can see some more pics of it here and here.

This 3,500 tsubo (3.3 acres) of land is located less than ten minutes north of the Chugoku expressway, just outside the town of Mimasaka, about 15km north-east of Tsuyama. Though it falls in the northern 'third' of the prefecture as described earlier, the landscape while getting higher is still 'soft'. Snowfall here is minimal, barely settling for more than a couple of weeks at the height of winter. Being north of the expressway, the prices are way better than those of land just 10 minutes to the south by car. The plot we looked at is on the west facing side of a one kilometer wide. 250m high valley that runs roughly North-South. It's the top third of one of the 'hills' that make for the western ridge of the valley. The view from there is stunning, and the sunlight from the southern aspect is un-obstructed about an hour after sunrise (at this time of year).
If you can imagine, the contours of this side of valley can be divided into three distinct inclines. The lowest third gently slopes from the river and about a third of the way to the ridge increases to a more sharp incline which is about where the bottom three rice fields of the plot that we were looking at begin. Walking up this incline to the top of the agricultural land is best done at a leisurely pace. Just as one reaches the pond that sits above the terraced fields, the incline becomes steeper still and the forest begins. The 'San-rin' forest runs right up to the ridge line, and is planted with 20~30 year old Pine and Cypress. Not ideal wood for anything but construction 20 years from now, but nice and cool and doing its job of holding the hillside firmly in place.

Below the pond (a water catchment type rather than stream or spring fed) are four terraces, each gradually getting bigger as you go lower. The top one presently has trees on it and along with the pond is classified as 'Gen-chi'. The lower three terraces are 'No-chi'. A small concrete surfaced track, just about big enough to get a 2 ton truck up, runs down the Southern side of these terraces beginning at the foot of the uppermost of the 'No-chi' terraces amd running all the way down to the road that runs parallel to the river at the bottom of the valley. Just after the lowest of the four terraces described above, and on the other side of the road are three more terraces, stepping down the slope. They seem to have been in use most recently, maybe until three or four years ago. The higher terraces have been abandoned a bit longer, I'd guess.

Water seems to be plentiful, but the irrigation system is clogged with weeds and needs a thorough clean up. I think U section concrete water ways would be a good way to better manage the resources, it would also help to dry out the land which seemed a tad on the muddy side to me, but that could have been due to the three weeks of incessant rain we've had of late... but I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

We looked over the land with the estate agent, and went on to see a couple of other places. I found myself comparing all of them to this one though, and they all seemed to be lacking something in comparison. Anyway, after trudging around the country side for the best part of the afternoon, Sato san took us to meet a couple of his previous customers who were doing something similar to what we are envisioning, in as much as they live pretty much self sufficiently and away from the towns. One man in particular was very inspiring. A builder by trade, he had built his own house and a small, traditionally styled 'lodge' from where he runs 'self-build' courses for other fools like us. He uses timber from the forests, and gets pretty much all the difficult to make yourself stuff (windows etc.) from demolition sites and recyclers. He said he'd be happy to show us where to get stuff cheaply or for free, and help us with advice on constructing a place of our own if we wanted it.

After all this, and as twilight closed in, we said thanks to Sato san and told him we'd be in touch. He wasn't at all pushy, and said that he understood these things need time and careful consideration.

Having nowhere booked for the night, and a whole day of estate agents lined up for Sunday, we headed for McD to sit and drink coffee for a bit. We checked the maps and as we did so, both decided that no-one would know if we parked up for the night on the plot that had grabbed us so earlier in the day. So that's what we did. It was quiet like I haven't heard for a long while, and the lights in the houses across the valley flicked off one by one. By 10 there were barely any lights at all and had it not been so cloudy, I expect the stars would have astounded us. We wrapped up warmly, and despite VW Polos not being the most comfortable of cars to sleep in we drifted off fitfully with our heads buzzing with ideas. We were woken by a spectacular thunderstorm at about 3am and watched as the whole valley was lit up below.
At sunrise, we woke and took another stroll around the property. Climbing right up to the ridge, and poking around all the terraces trying to figure out just how it might be turned into a home. Ideas came thick and fast, and our imaginations started getting the better of us... for the rest of the day as we toured more properties, it was referred to as 'our place'.

We'll have to wait and see. We have another month before going to the UK, and only then will we have to make a final decision on whether it'll be Japan or the UK for the duration.
by guibi | 2010-03-23 01:54 | About Us:私達について


About Us:私達について
Early days:初めは
Forest Garden:食べる森
Lower Field:下の畑
Other Work:その他の作業
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