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What if your wanderlust wasn’t limited to a 10-day vacation? In our series My Life Abroad, we ask expats from around the world what it takes to resettle thousands of miles away from home, plus how their new city has influenced their style. 

Who I am: Hannah Kirshner, food stylist and author of Water, Wood, and Wild Things.

Where I used to live: Brooklyn (my husband still runs a graphics studio in New York, so I go back and forth).

Where I moved: Yamanaka Onsen, Japan.

How long I’ve lived in my new city: Five years (but I first came to Yamanaka for a three-month apprenticeship at a sake bar in 2015).

Why I moved: In 2018, I signed a contract with a publisher to write my book, Water, Wood, and Wild Things, which is about the people literally making the town’s culture: lacquerware bowls, sake, rice and vegetables, traditional folk music, and contemporary art, too. That allowed me to spend the next year fully immersed in research. I became the first woman (or foreigner) to work at the town’s 14th-generation sake brewery; I followed duck and boar hunters; I learned to grow rice and carve wood trays. As I wrote about the community, I also became part of it, and I wanted to stay.

The logistics I needed to line up before I moved: I was able to get an artist visa to do my writing in Japan (anyone can buy a house here, but being a landowner doesn’t give you any more right to live in Japan—you still need to apply for residency). There’s very little English spoken in rural places like this, so I’m really proud of myself when I can manage a trip to City Hall or a phone call with my car mechanic by myself. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the friends and neighbors who patiently help me decipher the linguistic and social nuances of life in a rural village.

Rent vs. own: I rented an apartment for the first few years, but now I own a small compound of three buildings. Around the time Water, Wood, and Wild Things was published, I bought a 100-year-old kominka (farmhouse) for less than what many people spend on a used car. It came with a workshop building and a small plot of agricultural land. There was a little house next door that was vacant, too, and the owner sold it to me for less than $3,000. Now I live in the little house while I work on renovating the big kominka. Last fall, I also bought a little white kei truck, which is indispensable for frequent trips to the hardware store and dump (and a lot of fun to drive)!

What my house search was like: When I first came to Yamanaka, I saw the old house that my friend Mika Horie converted into a studio for paper making and photography, and right away I started dreaming of my own kominka project. Whenever I went jogging or cycling, if I saw a good house that looked empty, I would drop a pin on a map. I fell in love with the one I eventually bought, but it took years to find the owner and work out a purchase agreement. Then, while I was there working on the garden, I met the owner of the little house next door. I realized that buying the house and living in it while I renovate the kominka might make more sense than continuing to rent an apartment. 

How I got furniture to my new house: One of the things I like about my home in Japan is that it’s not cluttered with a ton of stuff (yet). I’m taking my time to bring things in my suitcase [from New York] little by little as I need them. Most of the tableware and cookware in the house was left behind by the family that lived in the kominka. Whenever I go to Tokyo, I buy good cooking tools in Kappabashi, the kitchenware district: I love the carbon steel pans from Kama-asa. For basics, from toilet paper to bedsheets, I order online from Muji. Even my refrigerator is from Muji.

My biggest purchases for the house were new tatami mats and an efficient Jotul wood stove. In the room with the wood stove, I laid a hearth of big black tiles made from the same material as Japanese roofing (I practiced my tiling skills in the bathroom first). The floorboards came from another century-old house my carpenter worked on, and with his help I refinished them with urushi, lacquer made from the sap of urushi trees. I splurged on a new wood stove because it’s less polluting than an old one. It’s my main source of heat, and I also use it for cooking sometimes and drying laundry. 

My advice for anyone who wants to settle down in my town: Instagram accounts like @cheaphousesjapan are great fodder for daydreams, but when you buy one of these homes you are not just getting property: You are joining a community. It’s important to take time to learn how to be a good neighbor in the specific place you live. 

I pay my monthly dues to the chonaikai, the neighborhood association. I participate in circulating the kairanban, a sort of portable bulletin board passed from house to house. I regularly sweep the street in front of my house with a coarse bamboo broom, and when elderly neighbors pass by on their morning walk, I greet them and make small talk. (Sometimes they bring gifts of homemade pickles or flower seeds from their garden, and later I’ll stop by with chocolate from America or homemade jam.)

I’m so lucky that I met a like-minded local carpenter, Kenichiro Kashida, who is really not just a carpenter but an artist and self-taught architect and general contractor. We share an interest in ecological design and blending traditional and modern techniques and materials—and he’s willing to teach me. I’m doing some of the renovation myself and relying on him for the really critical work.

Where I found design inspiration for my current space: The house has this great 1960s vibe—mint green walls, a sink with pastel mosaic tile—and I’ve tried to preserve that. The only new furniture I bought is a set of floor cushions from Sou Sou (the company’s founding designer studied with Marimekko). I like to take inspiration from the tea ceremony practice of bringing in a few seasonal flowers, so I’ll often go out and pick things from the garden or in the mountains and put them in the antique vases left behind by the previous owners.

The best piece of decorating advice I’ve learned from living in my current city: I love that with a futon, I can easily change where I sleep. In the summer, I put it in the coolest room downstairs with bamboo doors that let the breeze through. When I have guests, I move it upstairs to an unfinished room so they don’t have to deal with the steep stairs. On the coldest winter days, I sleep right in front of the wood stove.

Most of the rooms are divided by sliding doors. You can open them all up to expand the space for a party, or you can close down a small room to keep it temperature controlled while working or sleeping. There’s so much flexibility built into the design and furnishing of a traditional Japanese house. 

The thing I brought from home that brings me the most comfort: My dad’s wool blanket from college keeps me warm when snow piles up outside and winter wind rattles the windowpanes. 

The biggest challenge with moving abroad: Even as I am accepted into this community, I am a perpetual guest. This is not the culture I was born into, so I walk a tightrope of respecting local norms while staying true to myself.  

The biggest joy of moving abroad: Living in Yamanaka feels like going home to the kind of mossy forests and small farms I grew up with in the Pacific Northwest, while at the same time embarking on the greatest adventure of my life.