Back to the land (2)

CIMG1994For a short time we were very interested in a small piece of land in Abiko along the Narita line near Kohoku Station. It was in a tightly packed subdivision called Nakabyo surrounded by older neighborhoods whose winding streets and oddly shaped plots of land indicated it had once been an agricultural community. Nakabyo itself was not as distinctive. It was a typical subdivision of the late 80s, with large houses in varying degrees of disrepair situated on lots that were a little too small for them. The community was laid out on a gentle, long slope that ascended south to north, so that houses positioned on the north sides of the parallel streets had a slight advantage over the ones positioned on the south sides, whose own southern exposures were quite close to their southern neighbors. The land that interested us was at the bottom of the slope and positioned on the south side of a street but its own southern exposure faced a large park. Moreover it was on the corner of an intersection, meaning streets bordered the land to the east and the north, not buildings. Only to the west was there another house.

And it was cheap–¥4.3 million. In fact, the realtor implied that we could probably get it down to an even ¥4 million if we paid cash. Apparently, the owner was desperate to unload it, and we wondered why it was so difficult to do so. Abiko is quite popular owing to the many train lines that run through it and the fact that Ueno is a little more than 30 minutes away by express. This was not in central Abiko, but it was close enough. Moreover, the clear prospect on three sides, including a park to the south, made it one of the few truly attractive lots we’d found in a conventional subdivision. The only reason we could see for its relative unpopularity was its size, slightly less than 100 square meters. Since the occupancy rate was 50 percent and the capacity rate 100, it still meant you could build a two-story house of up to 100 square meters, but because the shape of the land was slightly trapezoidal, the orientation of the house was limited. Read More

Move on up

CIMG2287Of 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. Read More

Field diary: Izu

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.” Read More

Field diary: Onjuku 2

The entrance to Green Town. Note non-indigenous palm trees.

The last time we inspected some homes in Onjuku, a coastal town in southeastern Chiba famous for its surfing, we went fairly deep into the interior and were disappointed with the quality of the product, which was uniformly cheap, in all definitions of the word. This time we inspected three houses in a large housing development unimaginatively called Green Town. It sits on a hill west of the main train station and overlooks the ocean, which means it has a clear advantage over the rest of the town in this post-311 world: no fear of being swamped by a tsunami. The most popular portion of Onjuku is adjacent to the crescent of beach, which, for what it’s worth, is much cleaner and prettier than any part of Shonan I’ve seen. “Downtown” Onjuku is filled with funky little eateries, surf shops that double as outdoor bars, and lots of tall resort condos that have aged quickly–and badly–thanks to the salt-laden sea breezes. It’s a very attractive place, but it’s also very low and a tidal wave even half the size of the ones that flattened Tohoku would reduce it to sodden rubble rather easily. The reason we kept coming back to Onjuku is the climate. In the summer, it’s on average about 5 degrees cooler than Tokyo. We don’t like air conditioning and one of our priorities is a place where we don’t need it.

Green Town is also at least partially a weekend or summer community, though it’s laid out as a typical cramped Japanese housing development, albeit with more attention paid to the “green” component it promises. The developer is Seibu, and there are altogether about 1,500 lots, one thousand of which have houses on them. Half of these are owned by year-round residents, and thus the normal sterile atmosphere of modern Japanese housing developments is checked by a certain ramshackle quality. Some of the buildings are quite fine–and large–while others are modest and makeshift-looking. But while the stylistic tone is pleasingly varied, the overall feel is almost ominous. The day we visited was a weekday and summer vacation hadn’t begun in earnest yet, but the neighborhoods we visited were quite deserted. The only human activity was workers cutting grass or delivering LPG cannisters (despite the upscale appearance of the area, they don’t have gas lines). The real estate agent who guided us said most of the population was older, not because young people were moving out, but because only older people were moving in. (It’s not a town for commuters–Tokyo is an hour and 30 minutes away by super express) Apparently, older people don’t like to leave their homes in the daytime. Read More

Field diary: Tomisato

Tomisato is out in the direction of Narita Airport. In fact, according to the real estate agent we talked to when we went there recently, a good portion of the residents of the city make their living off the airport in one way or another, which may explain the density of motor traffic. The nearest train stations are actually in Narita City, which means everyone drives to wherever they have to go, including their workplaces. It would appear there are almost no Tokyo commuters in this stretch of Chiba Prefecture, which is understandable. At some point, you have to reach a distance where people don’t go to Tokyo to work, but the lack of public transportation is notable. Read More

Field diary: Yukarigaoka

Monorail at rest

Centrally planned communities have been around in Japan since the 60s with the advent of the “new town” movement, based on the similarly named British social housing policy. The idea is that housing and commerce are engineered to work together. Theoreticians of the Jane Jacobs school of organic urban environments may look down on the concept because of its artificiality: everything is supposed to work because it’s been programmed carefully beforehand. The new towns we’ve looked at in Japan are predictably old-fashioned, like snapshots of the 60s and 70s but ones that evoke no feelings of warm nostalgia except for so-called kodan otaku (public housing freaks). They just look old, mainly because most of the people living in them are old, but also because they are simply superannuated. Though the term “public housing” needs to be qualified in the case of new towns, for the most part the architecture and design of the communities were carried out by public or semi-public entities, and today the buildings and neighborhoods still have a utilitarian quality that many people find quaint at best, ugly at worst. It all depends on what’s been done with the residences in the meantime.

Yukarigaoka, a community in the north-central Chiba city of Sakura, isn’t stricly speaking a “new town,” but it was extensively planned. The difference is that the planning was done by a private company, Yamaman, which started out as a fabric wholesaler in Osaka in 1951. They moved their headquarters to Tokyo in 1965 and for the next ten years became a full-scale real estate developer for residential communities. Their first large-scale project was in Yokosuka, a project that was historically notable for being the first Japanese address written in katakana. They started the Yukarigaoka project in 1971, and even after the initial development phase was completed, have stayed on for the expansion, which continues today. The first sale of single-family homes was in 1979, the first condominium in 1982, the same year they opened a monorail that circled the project and connected to the Keisei Honsen train line. In fact, they convinced Keisei to build a new station just for the community called Yukarigaoka. Naturally, the company had to work closely with the Sakura municipal government in order to purchase land for development, but they also built the area as a community with a future. According to one of the company’s real estate agents, Yukarigaoka is the only similarly sized project in Japan completely overseen by a private company. Because it’s built on a hilly plateau with lots of farmland, the usual expanses of cramped housing developments are broken up by huge swaths of green forests and fields. (Though public parks are relatively scarce.) It has its own “downtown” with a major city hotel and department store complex. There’s even a university with one of the most attractive campuses we’ve ever seen. Read More

Field diary: Nishi Shiroi

At ¥17.8 million it wasn’t a house we could afford, but we’d been to the city of Shiroi in Chiba Prefecture a number of times–it’s only a few stations from our own–and found its surburban ambience more appealing than most; and the photographs posted on the realtor’s website made it look attractive, at least from the outside: lots of green and the property adjoined a wide promenade on its eastern side. The fact that there were no photos of the interior of the house should have told us something.

We got lost on the way and called the agent by phone. He picked us up not far from the property and seemed genuinely shocked that we would actually walk the 17 minutes from the station. The shock was compounded when we told him we didn’t own a car. Even more garrulous than the usual salesmen he was open to our questions, even as they became bitter after we discovered just what a dump the place was. Built in the early 90s, the house looked as if it had never been taken care of at all. The laminate floors were dull and scuffed, the wallpaper brown with mildew. The layout wasn’t bad. All the rooms opened up on one another in a way that was well-thought out and provided a lot of light; or, at least, as much light as could be expected given that there was little space between neighboring houses to the south and the north. The kitchen was the best part. It was large and featured a corner counter with an accompanying corner window. Unfortunately, the view from the window was dominated by the neighbor’s ugly makeshift backyard shed, one of the most common blights of suburban living in Japan. The promenade that made an impression in the photos wasn’t quite as wide as we thought, but at least it afforded space to the east. Nevertheless, the kitchen would need to be completely redone. There was also a “workshop” in back of the kitchen that was filled with garbage. Read More