Based in Japan: Would You Renovate an Akiya in Tokyo?

The morning sun casts a warm glow over the quiet streets of Tokyo’s Nakano Ward where old wooden homes and narrow roads characterize the neighborhood. A small pathway off the main boulevard leads to where Stockholm-born YouTuber, renovator and model Anton Wormann stands proudly before his newest purchase: a 52-year-old abandoned house (known as akiya in Japanese).

Photo by Mike Smith

Wormann arrived in Japan in 2018 as a model but found himself tackling one of Japan’s most pressing housing phenomena: the thousands of abandoned homes that litter the country. According to Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, there are about 8.5 million akiya throughout the archipelago.

What began as a passion project for Wormann has unexpectedly captured people’s attention both within Japan and around the globe. Since purchasing his first house in 2022, Wormann has amassed over two million combined followers across various social media platforms, chronicling his adventures in renovating abandoned homes. Additionally, he has written a book titled “Free Houses in Japan” available on Amazon, serving as a guide to renovation in Japan.

Photo by Mike Smith

Merging Preservation with Renovation

For some, the words preservation and renovation are antonyms, but for Wormann, they go hand in hand.

As we cross the threshold into the house, a sense of renewal and revival fills the air. The inner workings of the walls lie open and exposed, revealing a contrast of dark, aged wood against the fresh reinforcements Wormann recently installed. He passionately describes the several types of wood that are the heart and soul of Japanese homes: hinoki, sugi, akamatsu and more.

Combining traditional Japanese elements with Scandinavian, Wormann refers to his design philosophy as “Japandi”, characterized by natural light, warm wood and light colors. He explains how this combination is also the result of his deeper commitment to preservation. “I preserve things that Japanese carpenters would never preserve. If there’s an old pillar, they’ll remove it and put up a new one just because it’s old. But I say unless it’s termite-ridden, damaged or rotten, let’s keep it!”

He continues, “In my last house, I kept the tatami rooms on the second floor and the original ceilings. I even kept some of the original lamps. Most of the work I do is on the first floor, all the plumbing, electricity and structural work. Having a sturdy first floor is essential.”

Building Connections with the Community

However, houses are not the only things that Wormann builds. Fostering connections to the community is equally important as he explains that buying a house is also buying into the neighborhood. His houses have connected him to the local culture and history.

Discovering that the majority of akiya in Japan are purchased with the possessions of their former occupants, my inner scavenger quickly notes the bags of forgotten items on the dusty floor. A time capsule of a once vibrant past, Wormann reveals faded newspaper clippings, a weathered box of original Suntory tumblers and traditional ceramic dishes.

“I’ve found so much. Old collectible cards, really nice cutlery and bowls, a vinyl collection, chests, kimonos… I have a collection of 20,000 pictures from the 40s up until the 80s from previous owners” he tells me.

“I gave a few boxes to the leader of the jichikai (neighborhood association). The photos were from a local omatsuri 50 years ago. She was very happy. She even saw friends that she knew in the photos. I think these kinds of things are really important for building community.”

Photo by Mike Smith

Japan’s Preference for New

Wormann and I delved into some of the factors contributing to Japan’s akiya problem – the most obvious being the demographic changes due to the aging population and declining birthrate. As far as the lack of local interest in akiya, the reasons tend to be multifaceted and deeply rooted in culture. While many Western nations tend to find charm in older homes, Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis has fostered a strong preference for “new”. “In 1983 most of the new earthquake laws were passed causing a lot of people to be afraid of moving into an older house,” Wormann explains.

Additionally, the introduction of new building codes established a pattern of constructing, demolishing, and rebuilding every 20-30 years. Even houses in good condition depreciate in value over this short period simply due to a shared belief that they are not safe enough. Wormann elaborates on how this influences people’s perceptions of their homes: “They build houses but don’t maintain them. One of the houses on my street has a small water leak and is a bit damaged. Even though it looks fine and it’s only about six years old, you can tell it is not a well-built house. No one cares though because it will be torn down in 20 years.”

The result is a huge gap in the perception of old and new between Japan and Western countries. “An old house in Japan could be five years old, but in New York, even the Upper East Side has houses that are 150 years old.”

Photo by Mike Smith

“Leave it to The Pros”

Yet Wormann highlights a paradox where this perception becomes irrelevant for certain buildings like temples and shrines. “Japan has this worship of beauty and this dynamic culture. Look at these old beautiful temples that have been standing for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s such a paradox, they’re maintaining these beautiful temples because they know if they take care of it, it will live longer. Some temples are 300 to 500 years old”, says Wormann.

He adds that Japan also has a strong culture of craftsmanship. Traditional carpentry practices such as kumiki are prevalent in temples. “Wood is cut at the joints so that it’s sort of like puzzle pieces that fit together without the need for nails”, he explains, having studied the art.

While admirable, Japan’s culture of excellence sometimes impedes experimentation. “[In Japan] if you’re not a pro at what you’re doing, you kind of stay out of it. Whereas in Europe and the U.S., we have a ‘jack of all trades’ mentality. We try. You work in finance, but on the weekends, you do the plumbing in your garden,” he notes.

Photo by Mike Smith

Reflecting on his upbringing in a 120-year-old house in Stockholm, he emphasizes the value of experimentation. “My parents bought the house with all their money. And if you don’t have money, you have to do the work on your own. I have old pictures of me with a saw and hammer, building small forts with my sisters. We also have woodworking in school and we have IKEA, so I think creating things is in our culture. We grew up with the idea that it doesn’t have to be perfect as long as you enjoy what you’re doing,” he shares.

Japan’s Complex Housing Market

One of my favorite aspects of Wormann’s renovations is his strategic use of windows and mirrors to maximize natural light. While Japanese housing is often associated with being very open and light, Wormann and I shared our disdain for the minimal windows seen in many modern Tokyo apartments.

Wormann elaborates, “If you follow the money, who makes money on houses in Japan? The real estate agents and construction companies. Some renovation companies are popping up but are still not common because there’s no real template in renovating like there is in rebuilding. Adding a window is hard. It requires skill to add a window and usually, the template is made with as little as possible to make a profit. Construction companies can build many houses in a short time and if they’re tearing down and rebuilding, they can calculate everything. It’s way more predictable. I think that’s part of Japanese society, predictability and avoiding risk.” This prioritization of profitability over aesthetics often results in the loss of a building’s character.

Rotenburo (outdoor bath) at Wormann’s house in Sangenjaya, Credit: David Lundin

Renovating Akiya as a Career Move

Wormann, who has successfully completed three houses, has no intention of selling them. He has invested approximately ¥10-20 million (around $60,000–$100,000 USD) in these properties but recoups his investment through rental income. One of his properties is available on Airbnb for short-term stays, while he leases out the other two under long-term rental agreements. A single night at his Sangenjaya Airbnb costs about ¥69,000, and the property is nearly fully booked up to three months in advance.

image of Anton's renovated house in Sangenjaya
Wormann’s house in Sangenjaya. Credit: David Lundin

Wormann often receives messages from people both inside and outside of Japan–some want to emulate his success, while others mainly seek to turn a quick profit. However, Wormann stresses that genuine enthusiasm and commitment are crucial. “You have to be passionate about it and you have to spend time in the area. If you’re interested in akiya, you bring value and you’re not only in it for money, that’s when you win. That’s when everybody wins. There are so many people not living in Japan who just want to monetize this problem. I mean you can monetize it if you do it the right way, but it’s such a new thing. I think if you want to get into this, you have to be in Japan.”

For Wormann, this journey has entailed countless hours of research encompassing Japanese laws, building codes, real estate, interior design, traditional carpentry and more. He has cultivated relationships with his neighbors, mastered the Japanese language and inspired an entire community of renovators. It has become evident in my time with Wormann – this is his canvas.

Check out Anton Wormann:
IG @anton.injapan

Metropolis’ “Based in Japan” series interviews influential international residents who are making an impact in the community.

Read more: Based in Japan: Lowell Sheppard and Based in Japan: RinRin Doll