Toru Iwasa, 49, spent most of his life in Tokyo. He studied industrial and interior design at Musashino University, started a graphic design company and created – among other magazines – “Jiyujin”, a widely circulated lifestyle publication. Business was going well, but a simple question bothered him: What does it take, to be happy? Is it money and success only?
”I suddenly felt, that city life had uprooted me,” remembers Iwasa. “That was 13 years ago. I lost touch with nature. The rush and pressure of city life distorted my view of the world. That’s why I decided to become a rice farmer and move to the countryside in Niigata.”
Iwasa stands between his rice paddies and points to the cloud-covered mountain range in the West. In spring, melting snow washes sand and minerals down to the flatlands in Uonuma, providing nutrients for Japan’s most valued rice. Its taste is unique and Iwasa can distinguish it from dozens of other strains grown outside Niigata. He is also a connoisseur of sake and praises brands like “Hakkaisan” and “Kakurei”. They draw on fresh and pure water that is plentiful around here. In winter, snow piles up four meters and more, and attracts skiers – especially from Tokyo, since travel time is less than two hours. And in summer, mountains, forests, and hot springs turn this part of Japan into a hiker’s paradise.
In the beginning, local farmers were skeptical. Why would a sophisticated entrepreneur like Iwasa leave Tokyo to join their ranks? But they admired him – not only for his knowledge of rice and sake, but also for his promotional skills and marketing ingenuity. Iwasa encouraged them to grow ecologically sound farm products, like their ancestors did, and he told them to be proud of their work. At the same time his mission was to educate city dwellers about the benefits of traditional country cuisine. “I want them to understand the health benefits that come with food delivered fresh from the fields and not from supermarkets. If you are aware of the origin of what you eat, it adds to your general wellbeing,” says Iwasa, who is also a passionate cook, and regularly uploads recommendations and introductions to local producers to his EC platform called “Organic Express”. Or he writes about them in his seasonal publication “Jiyujin” of which he is still the editor-in-chief. In short, Iwasa’s philosophy comes down to “Sembei (rice crackers) instead of potato-chips. Daifuku (mochi and red bean paste) instead of cookies”, as he likes to muse.
Even though Iwasa had successfully established himself as a rice farmer and marketer of local produce, he thought, that an EC site and a magazine would not be enough to promote his idea for a better (happy, that is) lifestyle. “Besides reading about local vegetables, seasonings and products, potential customers should also be able to feel, touch, smell and taste,” Iwasa explains. Soon he heard a rumor that an old hot spring resort was up for sale. He drove up the mountain road to Ozawa. What he found was a dilapidated building, which construction companies recommended to tear down. The 150-year-old minka (country house) originally stood in a neighboring village, but was transported to the current location and re-assembled beam by beam. “No way that I would have left this historic artifact to be destroyed,” says Iwasa. “I wanted to bring it back to its old glory. I wanted to set a good example in a world, where traditional architecture is disappearing rapidly.” The renewal of “Satoyama Jujo”, as Iwasa christened his hot spring resort, started immediately. And it took him and his network of carpenters, architects, artists and construction workers only one year to turn it into a “palace for the senses”. Iwasa had found the perfect extension to his magazine and EC-site: A place where visitors can live and feel the lifestyle, that he writes about, where old craftsmanship joins forces with modern design and amenities and were tranquil nature is abound.
The biggest challenge, however, was how to integrate and hide technology. Air systems, water pipes, heating, and electricity had to be built into the minka without changing the original design. “Now, visitors can enjoy the atmosphere of a bygone era, without freezing in the dark,” says Iwasa with a smile. The result is stunning. Natural Inn features four single and eight double rooms, some of them spreading over two stories. Nearly all of them are equipped with a private rotenburo on the terrace. From there – as well as from the rooms – a fantastic view opens up to the Makihatayama mountains. This, and the warm atmosphere created by a mix of traditional design, modern furniture and artworks make Satoyama Jujo a unique experience.