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Touchdown Japan: Housing boom rides inbound tourist wave in western Hokkaido

Kris Gaethofs, a local residential development company employee, surveys the area in Niseko, Hokkaido, on July 24, 2018. (Mainichi)

NISEKO, Hokkaido -- Among the rolling hills here in the western part of Japan's northernmost island, a Belgian man was surveying an area with a drone.

"I'm using this to check out this thicket of trees from above," said 39-year-old Kris Gaethofs when asked what he was doing. He is an employee at the local residential development company West Canada Homes. "I still can't give any details, but we are going to build a home here," he continued. "The client is from East Asia. The building plot alone will be over 500 square meters, I think. The cost? Well, it will probably come to several dozen million to several hundred million yen."

Originally, he came on a trip to Hokkaido and fell in love with its natural wonders and people, and moved to the city of Asahikawa in 2008. At first, Gaethofs worked as an English language instructor, but soon after visiting Niseko, he was drawn to its charms and moved.

There were already condominiums being developed for foreign nationals in the works, but they were still small in scale. But as the years went by, cases of the wealthy buying up land to build enormous luxury homes have increased. Many of the owners are those from Hong Kong or Singapore, and many of them spend several weeks between summer and winter in Niseko, renting out the houses to other travelers when they are not using them.

"We hardly advertise, and receive most of our orders through word of mouth. All of the homes are custom made. At first glance, the exterior looks to be Western in style, but the materials are all made in Japan, and there are also rooms with tatami mats," explained G of his work. "The construction is carried out by Japanese companies, but the design is a joint endeavor between our company and the domestic builders. It's not only a language issue, but simply that we have a better feel for what foreign customers are after in a house. In other words, we act as a bridge between the customers and the Japanese construction companies. Our work is to be interpreters of taste."

An influx of inbound tourists into Hokkaido is seeing a development rush in Niseko. The price of land along the large road to the Hirafu hot spring resort in the town of Kutchan rose 88.2 percent from the previous year, setting the record for the steepest rise in Japan for the fourth consecutive year. In the last five years, this value has expanded seven fold. Directly below the ski slopes of Niseko, condominiums costing more than several hundred million yen are under construction.

Taking a look into the history of the area, on one hand there are major companies such as Seibu Holdings Inc. and Tokyu Corp. that have been developing resorts since the 1970s, while on the other there are also many people dreaming of running their own bed and breakfast that have come to live in the area from around Japan. Just as the Japanese economic bubble burst and the aging of the residents started to take a toll on the popularity of the region, foreign investments came pouring in along with the inbound tourism boom. There was also news here and there about how foreign nationals were buying up Niseko for profits.

"But in reality, everyone is buying land here because they love Niseko. If it was just for the purpose of investment, then people wouldn't come here," explained Paul Haagart, 46, a local resident and inbound tourism consultant. The area is slowly moving toward becoming a resort area with international appeal.

"It's probably still too early to call Niseko an international resort by global standards, but the basic necessities are almost lined up," he continued. "Soon, an era where people say 'let's continue our business in Niseko' will come. That's because Niseko is situated in Japan, a place full of charm."

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)

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