空き家 Vacant house

Seki is a small city in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Its economy is based upon a long tradition of blade making and cormorant fishing along the nearby Nagara River.

I've spent eight months in Seki, working as an ESL teacher together with my fiancée. What immediately caught my attention were the great amount of old, diminished or run down buildings. I often couldn't tell if people were still living in them, or how could they actually live in such consumed dwellings. I'd set off to explore the city whenever I could, purposely wandering with my camera, fascinated to document what was otherwise, at its very worst, falling into ruins.

A portion of an abandoned duplex right in front of my apartment.
A very modest private home, right up my street. Notice the fancy blue roof tiles in stark contrast compared to the rest of the structure. Old kanji written in red, to the right, roughly translates: "Vehicle entry forbidden".

I later realized that it used to be old custom for the Japanese to demolish the homes of their ancestors once these passed away. They'd never live surrounded by the same walls of their dead, and would build a home from scratch before moving into the same lot. Houses have therefore been designed with easy demolition and reconstruction in mind. This makes sense, also considering frequent earthquakes. The average lifespan of a traditional home is between twenty to fifty years at most. Modern apartment buildings have broken this tradition, but still follow easy replacement principles.

A modern house next to a closed up old home. Modern buildings are not rare, but private homes are seldom rebuilt upon the previous structure.
Closed down shops along former business streets. Just like elsewhere on the planet, malls and supermarkets have forced many mom 'n pop shops out of business. Owners would traditionally live in the same place where they'd work. Most of these houses are still inhabited, luckily, as shops are often converted into extended living spaces (click on the pictures for full screen).
Signs of life shown by working gas tanks and air conditioning in the back of what looks like quite a gritty bar.

I later found out the exact name of this phenomenon, known as Akiya [(空き家) literally: "empty house"]. The reason behind this is due to an increasing depopulation of the countryside: younger generations often get jobs in the same city where they graduated from university, so most of them don't ever come back to their hometown. This leads to homes ending up neglected and not replaced once the last owners have passed away, leaving them empty. Worse case scenarios have old people dying alone, with their bodies found mummified after months, unclaimed. Aging population is another huge issue.

An empty house, waiting for demolition. Demolition costs can be expensive, therefore some houses are simply left to the whims of weather and time.
A partially demolished workshop.
Once a house is gone, it's hard to replace. Heirs sometimes invest in new buildings for rent, but in any case, once they've left for school, they hardly ever come back to live in their hometown.

Despite its slow depopulation, Seki is still a nice place, world renown for superb knife and sword craftsmanship, beautiful parks and fields, friendly people and lovely food. I really enjoyed my stay, and I miss this place very much. It's been a genuine experience. It's just a pity to see how the necessities of modern times have affected a more traditional way of living, which had mesmerized the Western world, ever since Japan reopened its borders during the Meiji restoration.

A view of downtown Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. As you can see, the city is still quite busy and lively, and hopefully it will remain so for a while.

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