Okinawa Island Recruiting Families to Live in Restored Traditional Folk Houses

Izena island, located north of Okinawa is charging families resettling there from other parts of Japan 30,000 yen ($270) a month rent for living in restored traditional folk houses, in a bid to encourage more families to move to the tiny, remote island.

Izena island is located about an hour's ferry ride north of the main island of Okinawa. Photo: Mapio.net

Izena island is located about an hour’s ferry ride north of the main island of Okinawa. Photo: Mapio.net

Izena has a population of 1,541 people and 796 households living on island with a circumference of only 16.7 km (10.5 miles). Cobalt blue seas surround white sand beaches, and traditional Okinawan-style folk houses with low-hanging, red-tiled roofs dot the landscape. (Cue sound of crashing waves and squawking sea gulls…)

Who would not want to live here?

When the village of Izena put out a call on social media at the beginning of last year for people to re-settle there, it received over one million visits to its website in the space of a week. However, island dreaming only lead to actual applications from twenty-five families, eight of which met the conditions to be screened. Last October, two families finally made the move.

One of the main requirements is that the head of household be under forty years old and have a child or children who are under fifteen years of age.

SUUMO interviewed (in Japanese) the Itoh family, one of two families who made the big move last year, as to why they chose to apply and what life is like for them on Izena. The following is a summary of the interview:

Downsides of Life on a Remote Island

The Itoh family wanted to move to Izena because they wanted their five children (who are between the ages of four and twelve) to grow up in a place where they could play freely and be happy.

The renovated traditional folk house Izena where the Itoh family lives. Photo: SUUMO

The renovated traditional folk house Izena where the Itoh family lives. Photo: SUUMO

The family previously had to move frequently for the husband’s job, and in the last place they lived, in a northwestern suburb of Tokyo, they frequently received complaints about the noise their children made while playing.

Many inhabitants of Izena have use wells for their drinking water. Photo: SUUMO

Many inhabitants of Izena use wells for their drinking water. Photo: SUUMO

Mrs. Itoh spent many years of her childhood living with her paternal grandparents in a traditional folk house (not located in Okinawa) where she enjoyed a happy childhood. She said that she never felt that she missed anything because she wan’t living in a modern home.

When the Itohs heard about the offer from Izena, it sparked Mrs. Itoh’s childhood memories and a desire for her own kids to have the experience of growing up in a traditional folk house surrounded by nature.

Living in a traditional folk house requires a little flexibility. Mrs. Itoh stores her children's clothes in the alcove that is traditionally used for a Buddhist altar. Photo: SUUMO

Living in a traditional folk house requires a little flexibility. Mrs. Itoh stores her children’s clothes in the alcove that is traditionally used for a Buddhist altar. Photo: SUUMO

In the half-year that they’ve been there, Mrs. Itoh says that her children have been very happy and really enjoy school. The older kids have said that even if they leave Izena to go to high school, they plan to return there to live.

But what are the downsides of living in Izena?

Food Costs Are Double

One of the demerits of living on a remote island is that the cost of food and everyday items is much higher due to the extra cost of transporting them from the mainland. Mrs. Itoh estimates that her food bill is twice what it was when the family lived in Tokyo. Every day things also cost more. For example, a five-pack of Kleenex tissue paper costs about 500 yen ($4.50), about double what it would cost in Tokyo. The family of seven spends about 150,000 yen to 160,000 yen ($1,350 to 1,450) a month on living expenses.

Inconvenience

Mrs. Itoh reminds us that there are also no convenience stores on Izena island. You have to plan ahead so that you don’t run out of essentials. She orders a week’s worth of groceries at a time and picks them up from the ferry landing.

Winter Temperatures

For the Itoh family an unexpected thing about living on Izena island is that Okinawa is not perennially warm. Mrs. Itoh says that she thought that it would feel like summer all year long. In fact, island weather is windy and the low average temperature in January and February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F).

The traditional folk house that the Itohs live in is fully renovated with a modern kitchen and bathroom facilities. However, one of the goals of the folk house repair and renovation project which provided them with their home, was to preserve as many aspects of a traditional home as possible. This means that the house has no modern insulation. The wind blows freely through cracks in the walls. Mrs. Itoh says that their electricity bill is higher than they expected.

Still Mrs. Itoh and her husband do not have any plans to return to Tokyo.

Folk House Renovation Project

The folk house repair and renovation project that the Itohs are beneficiaries of was started in 2013 with the goal of preserving and bringing back to life the many folk houses that were falling into disrepair around the island.

Preserving Living Houses, Not Just Tourist Hotels

The town of Izena created a non-profit organization (NPO) to repair and renovate traditional folk houses that would preserve as much of the original layout, architecture, and building materials as possible.

They realised that these traditional homes could be turned into tourist hotels, but that it would require remodelling them to accommodate the needs of people staying only for a short period. This would require changing the layout of the rooms, for example.

What they wanted to do instead was to renovate the homes so that families could actually live in them while still preserving as many of the traditional features as possible.

The Izena inbound re-location project is thus a part of the island’s folk house renovation project.

The families who live in the renovated homes must agree to safeguard their traditional features. As mentioned above, the houses have modern kitchens and bathroom facilities and use earthquake-resistant bracing.

The renovated folk houses have modern kitchens and bathrooms but otherwise preserve as many traditional features as possible. Photo: SUUMO

The renovated folk houses have modern kitchens and bathrooms but otherwise preserve as many traditional features as possible. Photo: SUUMO

In traditional Okinawan folk houses, pillars are set into the foundation stone, with grooved cross-beams holding up a high hipped-roof. This creates a very high ceiling, which maximizes ventilation. This is a plus in the summer, but as mentioned above, can allow cold breezes to whip through the house in the winter.

A key traditional feature of these folk houses is the grooved-beam building technique, in which no nails are used.

Traditional Floorplan

Another feature that the renovation project sought to preserve was the traditional floorplan of an Okinawan folk house.

Floorpan of a traditional Okinawan folk house. Image: SUUMO

Floorpan of a traditional Okinawan folk house. Image: SUUMO

The south side of a traditional folk house was the front of the house, meant for receiving guests. On the south side of the house two seats of honor, the “first seat” and “second seat” were traditionally placed. This was also where the alcove for greeting guests and the Buddhist altar were located.

A wide veranda encircled the whole house. The eaves of a traditional folk house were also built to hang quite low over the veranda so that when the shades where drawn, rain would not hit directly hit the living area.

The north side of a traditional folk house was the side that the family used. It was where the bedrooms and closets were located. The bathroom and toilet were located in separate buildings, and cooking was done over an open fire on the ground.

Traditional folk houses in Okinawa were surrounded by stone walls to help keep out the wind. A unique feature of folk houses in Izena was that these walls were built with coral rather than stone. Because it is now illegal to collect coral, one of the difficulties that restoration project has faced is rebuilding the walls using existing coral.

Traditional folk houses in Okinawa were surrounded by stone walls to help keep out the wind. A unique feature of folk houses in Izena was that these walls were built with coral rather than stone. Because it is now illegal to collect coral, one of the difficulties that restoration project has faced is rebuilding the walls using existing coral.

A stone wall was then built around the entire compound. This combined with rows of garcinia trees was designed to block the house from strong winds.

It is these many unique features of Okinawan folk houses that the renovation project wants to preserve.

Renovation Costs

The folk house renovation-NGO estimates that it takes about a year and half to renovate a house. Repairing a house costs about 40 million yen ($359,000). Renovating a house to meet modern safety- and living-requirements costs between 50 million and 60 million. The project receives government subsidies, but it is not an inexpensive price tag.

Still, the town of Izena plans to continue renovating folk houses and to carefully recruit families to come resettle on the island.

You may also be interested in: Renovating Traditional Folk Houses for Preservation and Profit

Photo Credit: Mapio.net