Of the three prefectures adjoining Tokyo, Chiba is by far the cheapest in terms of real estate. It tends to rate on the dowdy end of the desirability index. Kanagawa remains the hippest because of places like Kamakura, Shonan, Yokohama; while Saitama, though often derided in popular culture as a suburban backwater (“Dasaitama”), was developed rather quickly owing to its size and convenient proximity to the capital. In fact, property values in northern Chiba along the Noda and Joban lines are comparable to Saitama’s. It’s when you get farther out on the Keisei and Sotobo/Uchibo lines that the suburbs become sparser and less expensive. Chiba is viewed as the sticks, which is just as well for us because it offers more affordable places within striking distance of where we live now.
Interestingly, one of the most expensive housing developments in Japan is in a relatively remote corner of Chiba. The Azumigaoka New Town is part of Chiba City’s Midori Ward, but the nearest train station is Toke on JR’s Sotobo Line, which means it’s practically in Ichihara. The exclusivity of portions of the new town development, coupled with the unusually large plots of land contained therein, have earned at least two subdivisions in the area–Prestige and One Hundred Hills–the nickname Chibaley Hills, a takeoff on Beverley Hills. We’ve never seen this neighborhood with our own eyes since, as with the real Beverley Hills, the residents discourage tourists and gawkers by restricting access. When it first opened the development got a lot of media attention, which in turn attracted motorcycle gangs, so now they have a patrol that politely keeps out pedestrians who have no business there. Nevertheless, you can find properties in the area on sale at almost any real estate portal site, and they remain pretty expensive, though certainly not as high as they were when they were first built during the bubble era. What’s considered a super luxury in Japan would be more or less upper middle class in the U.S., essentially backyards big enough to provide privacy, two or more bathrooms, and lots of windows and open floor plans. We even saw one property at a realtor’s site with a swimming pool.
Azumigaoka was developed by Tokyu, whose real estate projects in the Tokyo Metropolitan area differ from those of its rival Seibu, which tends to think in terms of monopolistic synergy. Seibu housing projects are all built along Seibu railway lines that invariably teminate at a Seibu department store or supermarket. Tokyu has built plenty of housing developments that have no connetion to their railroads, and for that reason they tend to have a reputation for higher class properties, even if those properties adhere to the cramped tradition of Japanese subdivisions. Azumigaoka is an exception. More characteristic of the company’s methodology is Kiminomori, whose nearest train station is Oami, the next station south from Toke on the Sotobo Line.
Kiminomori was also developed during and after the bubble period, but it hasn’t retained as much of its original upscale image, though it contains some ostentatious properties. It’s built in and around several golf courses, with the most expensive properties overlooking fairways. In between you get large homes with a more Western style sense but still built on postage-stamp plots. We’ve heard that the landscaping design was carried out by a California company, but the effect is mostly clutter since there isn’t enough space between homes to seed a decent patch of turf; which isn’t to say it isn’t attractive, only that there’s sometimes a fine line between tasteful and tacky depending on the shrubbery a property owner plants.
We have friends who live in Kiminomori but so far we had avoided the area for house-hunting purposes; not because it’s out of our price range. On the contrary, in certain sections of the development, which is very large, there were houses going for as little as ¥14 million, which is a third of what they cost new 20 years ago. Granted, most of the properties for sale were more expensive but not by much, and quite a few, we noticed, took a long time to find new owners. The main reason we weren’t interested in the area is that it’s definitely a car community. It takes 10-15 minutes by bus to get to Oami Station, which means a bike ride of 5-10 minutes or a 20-25-minute walk, but it’s all downhill. That means walking or biking back would be a real chore. But there are buses that circulate through the development and go directly to Tokyo. They’re pretty cheap and run more often than you might expect. Also, the elevation means that the ground is fairly stable in an earthquake and there aren’t a lot of terraced properties to shift in the event of a big one.
However, there was one house in Kiminomori South that had been on sale for about a year that intrigued us. Kiminomori South is newer than the rest of the development. This particular house was built in the early 00s, and had been bought by a real estate company at auction, meaning that the person who built it had defaulted on his/her loan. The buyer carried out the usual cosmetic changes and put it on the market for ¥16.8 million. The layout was unusual–a large LDK area on the first floor that included a “slate-floored hall” next to a regular bedroom with a huge walk-in closet, and one large room on the second floor with its own toilet and sink attached. It was also on a corner. We made an appointment with an agent–Tokyu Livable, of course–and while we were there we figured we’d check out at least one other house that was built in the 90s.
We took a taxi from Oami Station that deposited us at a 7-11 inside the south part of Kiminomori. Walking to the property we saw a lot of empty lots, some with signs indicating that construction of a house would begin shortly, but most seemingly unsold. The house we were interested in was on a corner overlooking an island of empty lots that looked as if it would make more sense as a neighborhood park due to its triangular shape. Unfortunately it was to the north of the house, and there didn’t seem to be any windows facing it. The southern exposure faced two houses at close proximity, which means only the second floor would get sunshine all day. The salesman arrived and opened the place up. The new owner, which was not Tokyu Livable, had repapered the walls and replaced the floors. With all the shutters open it was quite bright, though the only unblocked vista was to the east, and the vacant lot there would soon have a new house on it. We liked the LDK since it was so big, and though the floor of the sunken “hall” in front of the sliding glass doors wasn’t slate, the ceramic tiles were a nice touch and would keep the room cool in the summer. But since there was no “backyard” to speak of, we weren’t sure what the purpose of this hall was, and when we asked the salesman why he thought the original owner had installed it he confessed ignorance. In fact, he didn’t know anything about the construction of the house, who the original owner was, or how much the new owner had spent on reform and what exactly the reform entailed. To us these were important considerations, and not just because we wanted to put them in our blog. We still find it strange that there are no industry rules that require salesmen to provide potential customers with at least all the renovation information data on a property.
The big room on the second floor wasn’t as interesting as it looked on the Internet, and as we mentioned there was no north window to provide ventilation since the closet and the bathroom took up all the space on the north side. It was a custom-made house whose interesting design purposes nevertheless escaped us but whose orientation cancelled out its peculiar charms. The salesman didn’t seem to have any opinion on why the seller hadn’t reduced the ¥16.8 million price tag after a year on the market.
The second property was deeper into the development, in an older section where the houses looked more standardized, as if they had all been built by the same company. The distinctive feature they all had in common was a small wood deck attached to the living-dining area. This house was bigger than the previous one and cheaper, probably because it was about 10 years older, and it, too, had been renovated, at least partially. The floors in the second floor bedrooms had not been replaced and the veneer was starting to peel. Here, the southern exposure faced the street, but the other three sides were closely boxed in. Again, there were no windows on the north side of the house, even on the second floor. Though it wasn’t as drab as some houses its age we’d seen, it was distinctly unexceptional considering the Kiminomori image and we wondered what the protocols were for keeping the outward appearance of the neighborhood up to standards. Later, while walking over to the slightly more upscale Kiminomori East section we noticed how the clothes-drying apparatuses ubiquitous in Japan were less noticeable but still in evidence. Many upscale condominiums prohibit residents from drying their laundry on their balconies in order to maintain appearances. Where there were balconies here they looked like real balconies and not just drying platforms in the sun. But people tried to make them function as such and the result was even more ridiculous: elegant verandas with bedding draped awkwardly over the sides. The closer we got to the golf course, the more land each property commanded and laundry became easy to hide.
We also wanted to look at a few empty lots near Honda Station on the Sotobo Line and decided to walk the distance to Toke to catch the train. At the western edge of Kiminomori the landscape apruptly changed to agriculture with no intermediate, lower income suburban sprawl as a buffer zone. It was an instructive contrast, especially since the farmland was so beautiful, stretching out in all directions on rolling hills. Regardless of how much money the residents of Kiminomori sunk into their exclusive properties, they will never have the vistas or sense of open space that these farmers do. Some of the farmhouses were like mansions, with huge windows overlooking their domains. Farmers have it really good in Japan, since they get tax breaks for their land. Who needs Beverley Hills when you have an unobstructed sunrise every morning and an unobstructed sunset every evening.
Have you ever considered a farmhouse in your house hunting? Or are they all just too far from decent transportation links to be acceptable? Or are there other reasons for not looking at them?
Farm land is strictly regulated in Japan. If a property is registered for agricultural purposes it can only be used for agricultural purposes, so if we bought a farmhouse we would have to actually farm. Otherwise we would pay enormous property taxes. If a farmer wants to sell his land to a non-farmer, he has to get permission from the local agricultural cooperative, and in most cases they wouldn’t grant it unless he’s selling a large tract to a developer, who will then divide it up into tiny parcels. That’s how the farm sector keeps its property values very high.