How it started
Coline's eyes shine with enthusiasm as she gives a tour of her house, describing the various renovation plans and projects she has for it. This might not seem unusual, except that this French freelance photographer, just twenty five years old, has bought her dream home in Japan.
She first came to Japan in 2016 as an exchange student in highschool. It was during that visit that Coline had a life transforming experience while staying at an old Japanese house in Ise (Mie Prefecture).
“It was the first time I slept in a tatami room, under a futon. When I woke up the next day I knew I was going to have a Japanese house like it. Since then, I had the idea stuck in my mind, but I thought it wasn’t possible.”
“In 2021, my savings could buy me a car in France, but that was it. But I didn’t want to live in a car! I wanted to work towards my goal: having a house in Japan. So, I started looking at prices of old houses I could renovate, and I realized they were completely in my price range.”
“In 2021, my savings could buy me a car in France, but that was it. But I didn’t want to live in a car! I wanted to work towards my goal: having a house in Japan.”
When she started searching for her dream home, Coline had a list of criteria. “I wanted it to be big enough for my photography; to be close to Osaka and Kyoto, and accessible to buses and the airport; and to have the same feeling as the house I visited in Ise. I wanted to have the light coming through the shoji doors, the wooden ceilings and beams. I wanted it to have history!”
Facilitating her in this endeavor was KORYOYA, which provides a service connecting oversea buyers to traditional Japanese houses and local real-estate agents.
Steven from KORYOYA helped Coline with negotiations with the real estate agency, facilitating conference calls with the previous owner, and producing a video walkthrough of the house, all which helped her make her final decision. Due to the pandemic, Coline was unable to see the house in person until September of 2022, despite having already bought and paid for the house a few months back. However, she felt comfortable and supported throughout the purchasing process.
“...I wanted to have the light coming through the shoji doors, the wooden ceilings and beams. I wanted it to have history!”
Uda city, Nara
Coline's new home is deep in Nara's cultural heartland, within a short train ride of popular temples, and an easy distance to Osaka and Kyoto. In early autumn, red spider lilies clump on the edge of rice fields, while cherry blossoms bloom along the river in spring. Hikers and day-trippers explore the picturesque street scenery of Uda city. The region once produced popular medicines from local herbs, and the grandeur of the Edo era houses preserved here give visitors an insight into the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture. Coline’s house, on the other side of the valley, resides on an equally charming market street, alongside small shops, a post office, and a shrine, with a convenience store, several cafes, and a hospital all within walking distance.
She waves and greets a neighbor with a cheerful, konnichiwa, commenting on how friendly everyone has been so far. They are impressed that someone of her age is taking over the house and many have offered to help her.
“The people in Uda are very open and it seems to be attracting a lot of young people. I seem to be in the right spot at the right moment!”
Picturesque street scenery of Uda city
The house is a fixer-upper. The front half is at least one hundred years old, and was once a soy sauce shop. Tatami mats cover the floors, calligraphy of mythological creatures decorate the doors, and light seeps in through slats of wood along the wall facing the street. The back was built later and renovated in peak 70s style, with a brown-and-orange colour scheme and low, fake ceilings.
Coline knew going in that this was going to be a multi-year project, but she is excited rather than intimidated by the thought of the renovations and plans ahead of her. The roof of the house is in better condition than expected, and most of the doors and windows still work, highlighting the stability and craftsmanship of traditional Japanese architecture. However, laying pipes to connect with city sewage will be expensive, as will rewiring the electricity and renovating the front of the house to be part guesthouse, part rented apartment, as is converting the back of the house into her personal living space and studio. Sustainability is important: using natural materials, insulating properly, and improving airflow to reduce the need for air conditioning is vital. Coline intends to work with local carpenters who restore temples and also wants to invite a priest from the nearby shrine to perform rites before renovations even begin.
In the long-term, Coline has big plans to bring her family over to join her. The garage will eventually host a bakery for her brother-in-law, her mom intends to host cooking classes in the guesthouse, and her husband is considering importing French alcohol.
“I was walking through the streets at sunset and I thought, did I just achieve one of my life goals? It was an overwhelming sensation of achievement.”
Life goal achieved
For Coline, however, the whole experience is the culmination of a decision made when she was seventeen. As she looks out over the inner garden of her beautiful Japanese home, she recalls a moment, only days before, when she realized the dream had become real.
“I was walking through the streets at sunset, and I thought, “did I just achieve one of my life goals?” It was an overwhelming sensation of achievement. I can’t wait to experience it again when I finish some part of the renovation. Even simple things are super satisfying.”