Last week we were on the Tokaido Shinkansen early in the morning and ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in years. He asked us if we were still living in Tokyo and we said we weren’t, that we had moved a little over a year ago mainly due to the earthquake. He then asked us what we were doing on the bullet train and we said we were on our way to Atami on the Izu Peninsula to look at some properties we might be interested in buying. He gave us a funny look. “That would seem to be the worst place to live if you’re afraid of earthquakes.” True. Just the day before the Cabinet Office Disaster Council updated its projections for a major earthquake in the Nankai Trough, and Shizuoka Prefecture was deemed the worst in terms of possible casualties, though, technically, most of those casualties would be in the western part of the prefecture, not Izu. In any case, we weren’t completely serious about buying a place on the peninsula. Having been frustrated in our search so far for a home-sweet-home we could afford, we were entertaining the idea of keeping our rental and buying a very cheap old fixer-upper in a place with cooler summers. If our income situation worsened and we had to give up renting, then we would at least have a roof over our heads, and if things continued as they have been (notice we don’t actually think they’ll get better) then we’d have a weekend/summer place. There are plenty of old dumps in the highlands of Tochigi and Nagano, or in the wilds of Chiba, that can be had for under ¥7 million, though they’d require another ¥3-5 million to make them livable. And during our search we noticed there were quite a few such places in Izu, too, mainly besso (second homes), which we had avoided so far. Second homes tend to be built in specially designated besso developments managed by companies that charge yearly fees, some of which are pretty high. Also, besso tend to be impractical for year-round living, but since we weren’t necessarily going to be living in one year-round we thought we’d see what was available. And Izu is, as they say, the “Riviera of Japan.”
We made an arrangement with a realtor in Atami to see two properties in besso areas and one in town. We got off at Izu Taga station on the Ito Line and were immediately entranced by the quaint leafy charm of the place. We walked down the steep hill to Nagahama beach. It was a blazing hot day and we were already drenched in sweat when we reached the realtor’s office, which is right across national road 135 from the beach. The agent who would be our guide had prepared floor plans for the three properties. The one in town we had just found the night before and he had only read our email that morning, so he didn’t have a key. His company was not the main realtor for any of the houses, though it did have them on its listings. He had obtained the keys for the two besso but would have to retrieve the other one from a different realtor if we wanted to see the interior. We said we’d look at the exterior first and then decide, since it was on the way to the first besso property.
The drive was quite instructive. Izu is mountainous, and the roads through this part of Atami were narrow and winding. We were interested in the one town property because it was only ¥5.9 million and had a view of the ocean. It was quite old but far enough above sea level to be out of harms way if ever a huge tsunami hit the area. Getting to it involved a lot of maneuvering in the realtor’s spanking new Prius, and there was no parking space. It was an interesting house, two stories shoehorned onto a 64-square-meter plot of land located on a kind of dogleg corner. From the outside it would obviously need a great deal of work but we were intrigued, more by the location than anything else. The agent called his office to have somebody pick up the key.
We then drove up to the first besso area, called Green Hill, which is an understatement. The ads on the various portal sites say the house is two kilometers from Ajiro station on the Ito Line, but we assume that’s two kilometers if you’re a crow. We drove for about fifteen minutes up grades that tested 15-20 percent in some stretches, and then once we reached the residential area had to meander through narrow roads laid out like randomly strewn spaghetti. The agent provided a constant flow of information that was more entertaining than the usual sales pitch. He told us about the celebrities who lived in the area (“the late songwriter Aku Yu had a large second home over there, but since he died his family has had trouble unloading it, even for ¥40 million”) and confided that his company didn’t deal much with weekend people. We finally arrived at the property, a two-story house with 78 square meters of floor space on a 247-square meter piece of land. It was in the middle of what could have been any other housing development in Japan except for one startling feature: the view. You could see the Pacific prominently in the distance. There was nothing blocking the view, mainly because many of the lots on the block were empty. Given that the house was originally built in 1969 this seemed strange, but more on that later. The house had been bought from the family of the previous owner, a man who had recently died but whose main home was in an expensive neighborhood in Shibuya, by another real estate company that was half-heartedly fixing it up. We didn’t have to take our shoes off because the floors were covered with vinyl protectors. The first floor consisted of a large LDK area with sliding glass doors to the south and the east. There was also a bathroom and a six-mat washitsu with moldy tatami. An incongruous bannister-less stairway led up to the second floor, which consisted of a small room with beautiful old-fashioned wooden sashes and a roka (hallway) that extended along the south side from which you could enjoy a panorama of the ocean in the distance. Behind it was another washitsu, this one with eight mats.
We liked the house and, given the amount of work already underway, thought the ¥8.5 million price tag was reasonable. But the drive up had already convinced us this was not our kind of place. We don’t have a car at present and though we would consider owning one under certain conditions, we also want to be within some manageable distance from stores and other amenities. Any need for supplies would have to be met with a long, treacherous drive down the hill, and as for getting to and from the station, it would have been a big pain in the ass. This, we immediately realized, is what besso living pretty much is all about.
We asked about the management fee, and it turned out to be only ¥20,000 a year, which is very cheap. But then, as we could see, the area was pretty cheap, too. As mentioned above, there weren’t many houses on the block, despite its spectacular view. The plot directly north of the property we inspected looked as if it used to have a house on it, but now there was only a large tool shed. Apparently, even a shed qualifies as a “structure” for property tax purposes (you pay more for land zoned for residences if it remains vacant), and whoever owned it was still hoping he or she could sell it for what he paid for it. That wasn’t going to happen, at least not on Green Hill. The agent offered to explain this situation with a tour of the other side of the hill, called Minami Atami, which was quite different. Many people in the 1980s had bought land on Green Hill strictly for investment purposes. Not only did the land never gain value, but people stopped buying property for second homes. The place just stagnated. Anyone with money went to the other side of the hill. There, the properties were all upscale, attached to the side of the hill as if by bolts. He told us that Izu was developed as a vacation residence region in the 1960s by two developers, Tokyu and Seibu. Tokyu mainly developed this side of Izu, from Atami down to Shimoda, and even built a railroad, Izu Kyuko, to service its customers. Seibu stuck to the other side of the peninsula, starting from around Mishima and working south. By the bubblicious 80s properties in Minami Atami were going for as much as ¥200 million, and even though their value had dropped by more than half since then, the area was still touted as a luxury second-home paradise. As we snaked our way down the hill we marveled at the engineering, large, awkwardly cantilevered structures jutting out into the air or clinging like vines to woody grades, with parking spaces carved out of rock and long, treacherous wooden staircases connecting them to front doors. Obviously, this was not a place for old people, and the agent said that was exactly the problem. He waved and silently snickered at fellow realtors who were still selling properties to rich folk. His company didn’t do that. They dealt with natives who felt squeezed out and had no interest in living among the hills. They scrambled for every inch of level ground, which was rare and precious. That’s why land prices were still relatively high in town.
After picking up the key to the house in town we drove along the coast for another fifteen minutes, talking about the real estate business in general. He was always amazed when he looked at the papers for a new property and found that it was being used to back so many different loans. He couldn’t understand why a loan company would accept a worthless property as collateral when it had already been used for collateral for the other loans the person was trying to pay off with the new one he was trying to get. “What are all these companies going to do? Divide the house up between them?” It took us even longer to find the next property, which, again, was supposedly two kilometers from the train, in this case Usami Station. This one was located on a dead end street with a few houses on it, but the vacant lots were so overgrown they resembled jungles. The house was a bungalow with a small kitchen-dining area, two parallel rooms, and a south-facing deck that looked out over the ocean, though there was less of it to see because of all the overgrowth. The house to the west was only a few meters away. The photos we’d seen on the portal site had completely misrepresented the house, making it look rustic and cozy. Up close it was cheap and makeshift. In fact, there were three modes of electrical outlets in the house, as if it had been built during three separate industrial eras.
We returned to the house on the dogleg corner we had seen earlier and opened it up. The place hadn’t had air in it for a long time and the smell of mold was overwhelming. At first we liked it for the possibility it held. With new floors and walls, the first floor might be comfortable. It had two large windows that looked south and east, and the ocean was visible from the living room, but also anyone who happened to be walking along the street. The bath was tiny and we wondered how much it would cost just to remove it and install a shower. But then we went to the second floor. The layout was fine and the large windows let in a lot of light in the two rooms, but the heat was stifling. We once lived in a house with a metal roof, and you couldn’t stay on the second floor for more than an hour or so in the summertime. This felt like the same thing, and replacing a roof is a very expensive task. The price was ¥5.9 million, which is good for this part of town, but after talking it over with the agent we figured we’d have to sink another 8 or 9 million to make it habitable. It wasn’t worth it. We trudged back up the hill to the train station and realized we had hardly even thought about earthquakes.