The renovated exterior of the akiya that McAskill bought.
Eric McAskill bought an abandoned house, or akiya, in the rural Japanese countryside for $23,600.
He estimates he’ll spend less than $15,000 restoring the two-story property on his own.
He says his neighbors have been welcoming to his family, and even stop by frequently to share their harvests.
Eric McAskill’s lifelong dream was to buy and live in an abandoned home in Japan. But it wasn’t until March 2021 — in the thick of the pandemic — that he finally took the plunge.
He had been living in Bali for a few years with his family at that point, and the pandemic gave them cabin fever due to closed borders.
But almost serendipitously, a friend living in the Nagano Prefecture in Japan suddenly reached out about an abandoned property — or akiya — that was coming up for sale.
Based on a GoPro house tour video that his friend filmed, McAskill made his decision.
“I said, ‘Cool, let’s keep the discussion going.’ And then I started the purchasing process,” McAskill, 38, told Insider.
Eric McAskill and his wife, together with their two children.
McAskill’s love affair with Japan started when he was a kid.
In Vancouver, Canada, he grew up surrounded by many Japanese friends who often invited him to their houses, providing him with insights into their culture.
“So I grew up going for family dinners, sitting around the table with all the grandparents, and I came to really love the culture first,” McAskill said.
Over the next decade, he would find himself visiting Japan again and again, each time visiting a different prefecture.
“I’ve been from Abashiri, which is one of the northern points in Hokkaido, all the way down through Japan to the island of Yonaguni, which is right off the coast of Taiwan,” he said.
McAskill standing in front of his akiya.
McAskill had no problems buying property in the country.
One of the best parts of Japan is that there are no restrictions or limitations on foreigners owning property, McAskill said.
McAskill bought his akiya through an akiya bank, which is a database maintained by the local municipalities for abandoned or vacant houses.
“The first person to bid starts to enter into negotiations with the owner,” McAskill said of the bidding process in Japan. “So it’s not like a bidding war where multiple people get to bid — you just have to be in first place.”
A before image of the main room. The previous owner’s belongings were left behind.
Over the entire process, McAskill said he managed to build a good relationship with the seller.
“We went back and forth, and it took about a month or so, just emails every couple of days. Everything was done completely in Japanese,” he said.
“He knew that it was a young family coming in, so he was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make sure I leave enough bedding, pots, pans, plates, and everything, to make sure that you’re not running out to IKEA on your first day,” McAskill added of extra steps the seller took.
A before image of the kitchen.
The location was a big part of why McAskill purchased the akiya.
He was already familiar with Nozawaonsen, the village where he bought his akiya, because it was where his family would vacation during the winter.
“For winter, for skiing, we really loved the area,” McAskill said of the village “It’s a small, quaint town and it’s known for having onsens, or communal baths.”
He also already knew some of the local community members, which helped ease his worries about moving to a foreign country.
McAskill paid 3.5 million Japanese yen, or about $23,600, for his akiya.
Even though he made an offer on the akiya in March 2021, it wasn’t until September 2022 — 18 months later — that he finally set foot in the house. The delay was mostly caused by the border restrictions resulting from the pandemic.
During winter, snow gets piled up on the side of the akiya.
McAskill’s akiya measures just over 2,000 square feet, and it sits on a plot of land that measures about 5,300 square feet. He estimates that the house is at least 150 years old, because one of the previous owners was born in this house in 1872.
On the first floor of the akiya, there are three bedrooms, an office, a kitchen, a pantry, and two utility rooms. Upstairs, there are another two bedrooms.
“From upstairs, I can actually enter into a part of the roof structure of the house that’s from 1872, where it has the traditional beams and everything,” McAskill said.
He plans to put in proper flooring and convert the space in the future.
“I’m thinking I’m going to turn it into a games room, put a ping pong table there, and make it a place where the boys can hang out,” he said.
Although the akiya had been sitting empty for a year, it was in good condition.
Old wooden beams that hold up the roof of the akiya.
The previous owner had died, but family members have been coming around to the house to tend to the place and the garden.
“I’ve been very fortunate that way. I know other places where people haven’t stepped inside in years, and they’re starting to fall apart, sadly,” McAskill said.
Almost everything that belonged to the previous owner was also left to the McAskills.
“When I first came here, I spent three weeks just cleaning the house — deciding what to keep, what not to keep,” he said. “Even after getting rid of boxes and boxes of ceramic dishware, I still have a seating placement where I could feed 30 people at once.”
McAskill did most of the projects himself, and he’s about three-quarters through the akiya restoration process.
McAskill painted the interior walls of the akiya.
So far, he’s updated the heating systems, turned the water on, repainted the interiors, insulated the attic, and renovated the kitchen.
Despite being hooked up to the grid, the electrical system in the house was very old and had to be updated too, he said.
“The electricity was only at 30 amps, so it was a very low amount of electricity coming in,” McAskill said. “One of the first things I did was install a nice heat pump to do heating and cooling, but that thing needed so much electricity that every time in the winter when I try to turn it on, the whole house would just crash.”
McAskill estimates he has spent about $7,400 on renovations and expects to spend another $7,400.
McAskill installing rock wool insulation in the dark.
“I’d say that’s on the high end,” he said. “I could get away with doing it for cheaper because I can do some of the work myself, or I have friends who work in the trades here as well.”
That said, he plans on splurging on a nice sauna for the akiya.
“It’s going to probably be four or five grand, so half of that budget will be the sauna and reclaiming the rest of that roof area. That’s just wood, paint, tiles — that kind of stuff,” he added.
McAskill and his family aren’t living in the akiya full-time yet.
The main room after McAskill cleaned up the space.
McAskill and his wife still have a place back in Bali, where they’re remotely managing a scuba diving resort they own on another nearby Indonesian island, Sumbawa.
They’re not Japanese residents yet, but they’re going to make their move permanent soon.
“The idea is to move here permanently when it gets more to be like my kids’ school age, because they have such a good school system here,” McAskill said. “It’s also free for residents, and they actually give a Japanese tutor for children to help them with the language.”
In Japan, national or public schools have no tuition fees for primary and lower secondary education. The government also provides textbooks free of charge.
McAskill says the local community has also been very welcoming towards his family.
McAskill cleaned up the kitchen and reinstalled new cabinets and ceilings. He kept some of the previous owner’s items.
“We haven’t had to go to the store to buy vegetables in about two weeks because our neighbors are all harvesting their fields, and they all bring us gifts,” McAskill said.
“The community here is fantastically accepting, and they’re so happy to have children back in the community as well, because Japan is facing this crisis of declining birth rates, and the countryside is just emptying,” he added.
But one of the things that he had to get used to was the trash disposal system, which prioritizes recycling.
In Japan, people have to sort their trash into specific categories for recycling, McAskill said.
“They have different colored bags which you purchase to separate your garbage. So you’ll have one bag, which is for burnable stuff like papers or dirty food items. And then you have clean plastics that will be in a separate bag,” he said.
McAskill working on the overgrown garden.
McAskill said the restoration process has been smoother than he expected.
“I’d say I’ve been lucky. I expected way more work than what it has been. The house is in way better shape than I would’ve imagined,” McAskill said.
At the same time, he says he’s only doing the stuff he knows he can fix up, and will probably bring in external help when needed.
There are some small projects around the house that have been more challenging than he expected, but it’s all because he decided to do more.
“Like in my kitchen renovation, this time I actually tried my hand at doing traditional Japanese limestone plaster,” McAskill added. “They call it shikkui plastering, and so it’s the traditional earthen wall method of plastering and wow, that is difficult.”
McAskill has one piece of advice for anyone who wants to move to a foreign country: Decide what matters to you in your daily life.
The renovated exterior of the akiya that McAskill bought.
“Pick a location, work on your own classifications of what’s important to you for your day-to-day living,” McAskill said. “Convenience stores, schools, that kind of stuff. So narrowing down an area and then it’s just visiting where you want to live and getting to know people.”
While there are definitely challenges that come with living in a foreign country with a foreign culture, it’s best to approach them with an open mind, he said.
“Sometimes it’s not easy, but I think that’s part of the adventure at the same time,” he added. “It’s just a different way of doing things, and it’s fun.”
McAskill provided Insider with proof of his house purchase. He was not able to share receipts for the renovations but estimated to the best of his ability.