On the hillside leading up to Senko-ji Temple in Onomichi City, Hiroshima, sits an old wooden house built between 1921 ~ 1923. Despite being registered as a national tangible cultural property in 2013, the historic home had been left empty to rot on the hillside for decades.

Luckily, a local non-profit organisation has stepped in to restore the old property and convert it into a guesthouse. Repairs will start this month, with completion expected by February 2016.

The house had previously been used as a traditional ryokan called ‘Miharashi-Tei’.It was designed with a lot of glass windows to take full advantage of the views of the Onomichi Channel and town below. It sits alongside a path leading to the Senko-ji Temple.

The Taisho-period Japanese style architecture of the home forms an important part of the landscape of the hilly streets leading from the water front to the temple above.

The house was originally built as a holiday villa. Between 1969 and 1989 it was operated as a traditional inn, but has sat empty ever since. In 2009, the owner of the property – a real estate company from nearby Fukuyama City – registered the house with the Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project. The program seeks to match the owners of unused homes with people who want to restore and re-use them.

However, the 200 sqm (2,150 sq ft) house was considered too large for private buyers and finding a new owner proved difficult. In 2010, the non-profit group came up with an idea to convert it to a guest-house.

Plans are for a 15-person guest-house with nightly rates of around 3,000 Yen per person. During the low season, they house may be opened for architectural tours or leased to local residents for various events. The project is estimated to cost around 20 million Yen, with assistance provided by national and city grants and loans.

Miharashi-tei Onomichi 2

There are a growing number of vacant homes across Japan. The majority are in old and run-down buildings. Recent reports suggest there could be as many as 10 million vacant homes by 2020.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported that there were 8.2 million vacant homes in Japan in 2013, and the number was climbing each year. After deducting homes that are vacant for obvious reasons (such as holiday homes that are only occupied for part of the year), the vacancy rate in Japan was 12.8%. The majority of these empty homes are in old and run-down buildings. 60% of the vacant homes are in detached houses, particuarly 40 ~ 50 year old homes. In many cases, the heirs, who have moved to more urban areas for career opportunities, leave their parents’ homes to rot. Demolishing the house would cost money and would also result in higher property taxes, since annual taxes are reduced to a sixth of the normal amount if a house is on the land and certain conditions are met.

In many cases these homes are in rapidly depopulating areas with little to no chance of ever finding a new buyer or a tenant, even if the property was offered for free. But, in some cases they are in areas where there is a chance of finding a new owner to take over the property. Due to its popularity as a tourist destination, Onomichi is one of those areas that is starting to see some successful cases in finding new uses for older homes.

The Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project has over 700 people across Japan who have registered an interest in renting or buying an abandoned home. To date they have found new residents for 80% of the 120 empty homes that they have been entrusted with by former owners, and are short on supply. Some homes rent for 20,000 ~ 30,000 Yen/month, while others are sold for virtually nothing.

Onomichi Hiroshima
Hillside paths in Onomichi

About Onomichi

Onomichi has been the setting for several movies and commercials and receives over 6 million tourists annually. Despite the tourist numbers, there are over 500 empty homes within a 2km radius of Onomichi Station.

As was the case in many of Japan’s port towns, a number of western-style homes were built alongside Onomichi’s harbour area in the early 1900s.

Many of the homes in this hillside area, which has a vacancy rate of around 20%, are accessible only by narrow paths and stairways. This means many of them cannot be legally rebuilt.

Successful renovations in Onomichi:

Shimazui Manor Onomichi
The Shimazui Manor at Minato-no-yado

^ Minato-no-yado (http://minatonoyado.jp/en/)

Two historic residences, including a western-style residence built in 1931, that have been carefully restored and now welcome both Japanese and foreign guests. The entire residence can be rented out on a nightly basis starting from 40,000 Yen.

Former Izumi Villa

^ Former Izumi Villa

Built in 1932. When the owners passed away in the 1980s, there were no heirs for the house and it sat vacant for 25 years. The restoration project, which started in 2007, was the leading renovation project by the Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project NPO. It is now used for events and short-term rentals.

Hotel Cycle Onomichi
Hotel Cycle

^ Hotel Cycle (https://www.onomichi-u2.com/en/hotel_cycle.html)

An old warehouse that has been converted into a boutique hotel catering to cyclists. Guest rooms have in-room bicycle storage and guests can check-in on their bicycles. There is also a bakery, restaurant and bicycle repair shop.

The Chugoku Shimbun, May 25, 2015.
Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project website (http://www.onomichisaisei.com)