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Alternative Paths in Wakayama: Foreigners Making Homes in Rural Japan

Are you fed up with a company job or living in Tokyo? These folks found their way in the deep south of the Kii Peninsula.

By 4 min read

The south of the Kii Peninsula, three hours or more by train from Osaka or Nagoya, is considered remote by Japanese standards.

This region, famous for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails, is a paradise for holiday-makers but not an easy place to live. Young Japanese people leave in droves for the city searching for attractive jobs, a convenient lifestyle and entertainment. As a result, the elderly, abandoned houses, neglected farmland, and dying communities are left behind.

But some foreigners living in Japan want to make this region home. So they took their chances with a fresh start and took rural revitalization into their own capable hands, quite literally.

Giovanni Dal: goats and wine

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Dal and his baby and mini goats are good friends.

Originally from Illasi in Italy, Giovanni Dal studied economics and business at the University of Verona. He met his Japanese wife in England, and they lived for some years in Italy, where his two children were born. They relocated to Japan 10 years ago to send their two teenage children to a Japanese school.

First, they lived in Kyoto, but the family then moved to the outskirts of Tanabe City, his wife’s home. Dal found work as a chef at Italia Ryori Project in Kyoto and later as a head chef at Garden Restaurant Giovanni in Shirahama. He was content. Or so it seemed.

One day, seven years ago, Dal rode his motorbike through the hills around Tanabe and passed through the secluded Ueno Village high up in the mountains. There, he saw a panoramic view of ume (plum) and mikan (satsuma orange) orchards facing the Pacific Ocean and was instantly smitten.

“Foreigners look for opportunities,” says Dal. “We grow by taking our chances. I noticed the vacant houses and abandoned farmland. I had no farming experience, but an idea popped into my mind.”

Not so crazy after all

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Renovations around Dal’s guest house are ongoing, bit by bit. Here a newly built terrace is waiting for guests incoming summer.

Dal bought a 90-year old, dilapidated farmhouse with three hectares of land—the largest lot in the village. Family members and neighbors thought he and his plan to grow grapes were crazy—impossible. Still, he planted grape vines anyway, predicting that it would take up to five years to see the first harvest.

“I thought I took some risks, and I might lose money, but I continued anyway. I had the chance to create something unique.”

And the grapes did indeed grow. Dal refurbished the farmhouse by himself, got a heard of mini goats and opened the Kumano Kodo Winery Guest House in September 2019.

Agro-tourism

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Watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean in the distance is one of Dal’s guests’ favorite activities.

Today, despite the coronavirus, Dal still receives bookings every month. He attributes his profits to three income streams: the guest house, the cafe and agro-tourism.

Dal uses fresh vegetables grown on his land, eggs from his hens, milk and cheese from his goats and other local ingredients sourced from Kumano.

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Dal proudly presents his organic home-made yagi cheese.

Customers come to his guest house to relax, says Dal. They enjoy the remote location and spend time around the property. Their favorite activity is sitting at the table on a hill behind the house. There, they can enjoy wine while watching the sunset over the ocean in the distance.

Todd Van Horne’s plum idea

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No rest for the brave. The renovation of this old farm house is yet another challenge.

While Dal’s business is up and running, others prepare to the leap. Todd Van Horne has just started his life as an ume farmer, an occupation he knows little about. Still, he is confident and is optimistic of the future.

“Nothing is for sure, but it is an adventure,” says Van Horne. “If all goes well, I might be earning ¥3 million per year in addition to other income streams.” He doesn’t specify exactly what other income streams and he is not sure if the ume growing initiative will be his main source—but he remains optimistic.

Van Horne, a US citizen, came to the Kumano area as an ALT English teacher under the JET program in 2004 but always strived for something more. He worked as an interpreter, ran a bento cafe and was an international sales representative for a local ume manufacturer for several years before earning an Executive MBA.

When a friend told him about a large plot of disused agricultural land, Van Horne saw an opportunity to plant ume. So, in his 40s and supporting his elementary school-aged daughter, he invested and applied his business talent locally.

Giving back to the community

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This wonky bridge, built by himself, is the only way of access to Van Horne’s land.

Eventually, Van Horne hopes to open a campsite for Kumano visitors and outreach for Hikikomori, people who seek social isolation or withdraw from society.

He lent part of his land to a local NPO that helps Hikikomori integrate into society. “We start a vegetable patch, plant fruit trees and create an area for outdoor recreation and workshops. This community project is close to my heart,” says Van Horne.

So far, he’s cut the tall grass on the old rice paddies and built a deer fence around his property. But the amount of work is substantial. Van Horne had to make a log bridge just to access his new land.

Both Dal and Van Horne have found their ikigai (a sense of purpose) in the rural communities of Wakayama. They build their dream one day at a time, thereby contributing to much-needed rural revitalization in the long term.

Do you dream of living in Japan’s rural farmland? Are you preparing for it yourself? Let us know in the comments below!

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