(CNN) — Kimberly and Paul Fradale were living in Tokyo, working at international schools, when they took the leap many an American expat dreams of: buying a large country house for a song and restoring it to its former glory.
Both had been raised in the countryside: Kimberly, who is Japanese-American on her mother's side, grew up in rural Alaska, and Paul's childhood was spent in rural New York.
Finding the inexpensive dream home
In a country known for sky-high real estate prices, buying a large country home (or "kominka") in Japan is still affordable.
Courtesy Paul Fradale
"You can buy a home with a modest lot for as little as $20,000 USD, depending on location. Some towns even maintain lists of free or nearly free houses, in hopes of bringing in new families, " Paul explains.
There are no restrictions on foreigners buying land or property in the country, and no citizenship or resident visa is required. That said, without a work visa or permanent resident status, obtaining a loan can be difficult. Foreign buyers typically opt to pay cash for this reason.
"With so many houses available for so little, however, cash should not be an issue, " Paul says.
The Fradales, who live and work in Japan year-round, waited until they achieved Permanent Residence status before they purchased their home. They didn't want to have to leave the country every three months to renew a tourist visa, in the event of an unforeseen job loss.
They also spent a lot more money than they could have -- roughly 250 thousand US dollars -- but their 130-year-old home came with about three-quarters of an acre of land, a fully mature garden with a giant Japanese cherry tree, and ancillary buildings such as a "kura," a type of earthen-walled storehouse.
Why old country houses are abandoned
The Fradales say most young Japanese people have little interest in an old house, particularly one far from the city, lacking modern conveniences.
In Japan, they say, houses are considered disposable. But they reject that mindset.
"Old, grand farmhouses like ours were built to endure, to shelter generations of families, and it shows," Paul says.
"Houses in Japan do not gain value over time; just the opposite is true. The value of our property is solely in the amount of land. The main house is valued at a few thousand dollars, despite it being made of materials that literally cannot be bought anymore," Paul explains.
In particular, young families are not interested in living in a"'kominka" (literally "old house") because while they are spacious, they offer little in terms of privacy: all doors are either paper shoji or fusuma (a cloth-covered sliding door).
"If anyone snores, for example, the whole house can hear it. If we had children, a kominka would not be an option," says Kimberly.
They can also be cold.
"Even with the addition of a wood stove, we still have several winter mornings and evenings where we can see our breath in the house," says Kimberly.
The Fradales scoured real estate listings for years, with Paul even checking aerial views in Google maps every time they found a decent prospect. Then he'd look for the key features he wanted most.
Paul and Kimberly Fradale in front of their traditional "kominka."
Courtesy Paul Fradale
Paul's wish list:
-A river within cycling distance but not so close that flooding would be a risk
-A temple nearby so they could hear the bells
-A local produce shop/farmers' market
-Hills or mountains nearby
-A kura (storehouse) on property
-A mature garden
-Enough land so that neighbors would be a fair distance away
-A town big enough to have a hospital, grocery stores, and a home improvement store
-A town not so big that traffic would be an issue
-A relatively flat town so cycling around it would be easy
By comparison, Kimberly's wish list -- running water, electricity and plumbing -- was extremely modest.
Finding their dream kominka
"We stayed away from the coast. As much as I love and miss the ocean, the 2011 quake/tsunami put paid to that notion," Paul says.
So instead they checked city and town hazard maps to see where there was a risk of mudslides, floods, and tornadoes.
After looking at more than 30 homes in person, they finally came across the one they would buy.
The buying process
For Paul, their future home was love at first sight.
"When we set foot on the property I fell in love with it. I could easily imagine what it would look like eventually. Kimberly was much less impressed. Her words to me as we went to meet the agent were, 'Remember, poker face! Don't look interested!'"
"Kim's resignation is painfully clear," says Paul of this photo, taken before the house was cleaned out.
Courtesy Paul Fradale
But as soon as he entered the house, Paul spotted a 'Kaidan Tansu,' a chest of drawers that also function as stairs, a hidden trap door in the ceiling, and sliding doors made of a single solid slab of elm. That's when, he says, he "squealed like a little girl."
"We were told the seller had an offer from a developer to buy the property, raze the house, and build a dozen small houses on it, but he was hoping someone would want to keep the old house," Paul says.
One small shock for the Fradales: in Japan, the buyer, rather than the seller, typically bears all the closing costs. The owner, in turn, delivers an empty house, cleaned of its contents.
"Usually, an owner is required to thoroughly clear the house, but I could see there were many interesting antiques mixed in among the endless amount of stuff, and so we got a price cut to account for that," Paul says.
A treasure trove (and a box of roaches)
Since the house came with all its contents, cleaning it up turned into a treasure hunt.
"For us it meant that the first year of ownership was little more than sorting through a hundred years of history, as told through one family's possessions, " Paul says.
One box had nothing but candy wrappers, all neatly flattened and stacked.
"One box made a suspicious noise so I took it outside to open it. It was full of nothing except hundreds of cockroaches, that spilled out like something out of an Indiana Jones movie," Paul says.
The next box, however, contained rare old photos and postcards from WWII. Another box was filled with old jewelry, including a string of pearls. There was even an old chest of drawers with vintage kimono in them.
Of most interest to the Fradales were the historical photos, documents, and antiques, which they offered to return to the owner on more than one occasion.
"I have shared some of the newspapers and other war time artifacts with my history students. These items have helped make the events more personal and tangible," says Kimberly.
"There are extended family members in the next town we're contacting them to see if they would like some of the photos; we've curated historical photos and documents we will keep," the Fradales explain.
They have also considered donating the artifacts to a historical society or even turning part of their home into a miniature museum featuring a history of Japan in the early 20th century, as told through one family and their home.
"We found an old clock made in Nazi Germany, complete with a swastika stamped on it; we gave that to a clock maker in a neighboring town," Paul says.
There were also old Chinese coins, letters home, and a miniature Japanese flag to be carried by a soldier into battle for good luck, with encouraging messages on it.
They also found WWII-era newspapers featuring stories of General Tojo laughing at the numbers of dead Allied forces.
"Some of the documents are not flattering (for example, the newspapers) to Japan, so we're aware that not everyone would be happy to see them displayed anywhere. We believe history should never be whitewashed but neither should it be rubbed in anyone's face," Paul says.
"Every traditional Japanese house has a 'butsudan' " explains Kimberly. A 'butsudan' is an in-house Buddhist shrine for family members who have died.
The Fradales' shrine came with the names, letters, and photos of those in the previous owner's family, going back several generations.
The Fradales were told they should just get rid of it, but Kimberly couldn't do it: "I still can't evict them. Every major holiday I open up the doors and they hang out with us. Hopefully they approve of the attention we've given to the place."
The Fradales' neighbors in the countryside, most of whom are retirees in their 70s, have welcomed the newcomers.
"They have seen us come up every weekend and during all our holidays, working from dawn to dusk to clean up the house and yard. Like folks everywhere, the Japanese like rooting for an underdog, and seeing the two of us tackle this place ... has made us the 'welcome-if-mad' newcomers to the neighborhood," says Paul.
A peek at some of the traditional craftsmanship that went into the old home.
Courtesy Paul Fradale
Neighbors have donated stones and plants, including a 100-year-old fern and a bonsai tree, to help them spruce up their garden.
In turn, the Fradales give away the bamboo they tear up from the yard each year. Since bamboo is something of a seasonal delicacy in Japan, neighbors welcome the treat.
"This year, for example, we had over 50 come up, and we dig them up and take them around to all the neighbors. Invariably, later in the week various neighbors will drop off beer, coffee, cabbages or other produce, or homemade rice dishes in thanks for the shoots," he says.
"We are so fortunate to have landed in a place where the neighbors are kind and open. In exchange we offer hours of endless entertainment," Kimberly says.
Honoring traditional crafts
Since people worldwide are struggling to find a way to lower their impact on the environment, the Fradales believe restoring countryside homes, along with embracing traditional folk arts and crafts, represents a way Japan -- and indeed the world -- could move forward.
"Japan was once known in the West as a source of cheap goods that worked well. Japan has now seen first South Korea, then China, rise and then equal that claim," says Paul.
"The values that went into building this house are the same that still go into handmade paper umbrellas, hammered copper tea pots, lacquered chopsticks, or quality tatami mats. Each item is made with care and is meant to last more than one generation if maintained; they are made with deep respect for the materials from which they come, and made with deep consideration for those who will use them," Paul says.
Restoring the garden was "back-breaking" -- albeit rewarding -- work for the Fradales.
Courtesy Paul Fradale
Beauty amid the lockdown
The Fradales' country retreat has been a welcome respite during the coronavirus.
"As the Covid crisis has us all self-isolating, this house and the property have been a source of endless comfort in the form of hope...[right now] the frogs are about to start their evening songs and the azalea are giving way to the hydrangea. There is optimism in seeing nature grow," Kimberly says.
Paul agrees, and says buying their country home was the right decision.
"All around the world there are historic homes in need of love. I highly recommend leaving your home country, really getting involved in a new culture, and taking on a challenge like this. Make no mistake, it can be backbreaking labor, but it is very rewarding," he says.