Photo/IllutrationThis studio, on offer for private lodging services at the Angel Resort Yuzawa apartment building in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, can accommodate up to five guests. (Shin Matsuura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

YUZAWA, Niigata Prefecture--When apartment units began to be rented out as a private lodging service at Angel Resort Yuzawa, residents expressed anxiety about the manners of non-Japanese guests.

Arrangements were made so that, for example, private lodging guests from overseas are shown, when they check in, an explanatory video on a tablet computer on how to use the public bath and dispose of trash.

So far there has been no major problem over manners, officials said.

Private lodging rentals began at Angel Resort Yuzawa when Japan’s new Private Lodging Business Law took effect in June 2018, setting rules on similar practices.

Twenty-one of the 131 apartment lots in the building are currently offered for private lodging. While most are studios measuring 28 square meters each, they also include two-bedroom lofts with a floor space of 65 square meters.

CHANGING TIMES FOR RESORT APARTMENTS

The market surrounding resort apartments changed drastically between the beginning and end of the Heisei Era (1989-2019).

When the era had just started, resort apartment buildings were sprouting up one after another under the asset-inflated economic growth of the time. Apartment units in them sold briskly.

The “bubble,” however, popped, and low growth became the norm throughout the Heisei Era, during which time resort apartments never regained their one-time popularity.

Today, both the properties and their owners are aging.

Unidentifiable ownership, management fees in arrears, malfunctioning property management ... a negative chain of these and other circumstances has befallen lot owners and resident associations alike.

Enter a new group of players, who may end that negative cycle and turn out to be the “saviors” of resort apartment buildings. They are non-Japanese visitors.

REMODELED FOR PRIVATE LODGING

Angel Resort Yuzawa is one of a number of resort apartment buildings that stand close to the Iwappara ski resort in Yuzawa.

The building has two reception counters inside. The one closer to the entrance is reserved for apartment owners, whereas the one in the back is for private lodging guests.

Before converting some of the units for private lodging, those apartments underwent remodeling. For example, kitchen ranges, which posed a risk of fire, were replaced by induction heaters.

As expected, occupancy rates rose during the ski season from December through March. The lot occupancy rates typically hovered at around 50 percent during the past winter, although they differ from lot to lot, officials said.

Japanese accounted for about 60 percent of the guests. The remaining 40 percent or so, or inbound visitors, were typically from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

One of the lots, a studio, was remodeled at a cost of 734,000 yen ($6,590). It can accommodate up to five guests in a double bunk, with rates charged per room.

Depending on supply and demand, the rate per night can be set anywhere within a broad range from 6,000 yen to 37,950 yen. The rates averaged 18,164 yen during the last ski season, with an occupancy rate of 50 percent.

WORRIED ABOUT 'FREE RIDE'

Angel Co., which oversees the management of Angel Resort Yuzawa, is in charge, among other things, of a check-in reception for private lodging guests and for changing sheets and towels.

The guests are entitled to use common facilities of the building, including a public bath and a skiers’ locker room. They can also use, among other things, massage chairs, which are free of charge, and a ping-pong table, which is subject to charges.

Under the current setup, the apartment owners are entitled to receive 30 percent of the accommodation fees.

Some owners may be delighted to be receiving any income from their properties, which were previously only a drain on their finances, from management fees and fixed asset taxes. Others, however, may be unhappy that Angel is taking too high of a percentage.

Some of the apartment owners who are not offering private lodging services may feel that private lodgers are availing themselves of a “free ride” on their building’s common facilities.

To appease the owners who are using their apartments, services available in common areas were upgraded when the private lodging started. For example, water from a natural hot spring was introduced to the public bath.

That could be deemed a measure for improving lot occupancy rates for the benefit of all.

The growing guest numbers have led officials to weigh reopening a closed restaurant on the second floor.

The restaurant had an open, spacious feel, commanding a view of the Iwappara ski resort from a large window. During the asset-inflated economic growth of the late 1980s, reservations had to be made for the restaurant, but customers gradually drifted away, and the establishment was closed six to seven years ago.

HALF HOTEL, HALF RESIDENCES

A crowd of resort apartment buildings popped up in Yuzawa when the asset-inflated economic growth coincided with a public skiing craze, thanks also to the convenient location of the town, which is served by a Shinkansen line and an expressway.

The number of Japanese skiers has remained in decline significantly from that time. Instead, non-Japanese skiers are an increasing presence, and Yuzawa is no exception.

Another property in the town has decided to rely on hotel services, instead of private lodging, to tap into the market of non-Japanese visitors.

Angel Grandia Yuzawa-Nakazato is a luxury resort apartment building, whose units went on sale in 1992. It is now operated half as residences and half as a hotel.

The decision to convert half of the property into hotel units inevitably came after many apartment units in the building went unsold after the bubble burst.

The hotel section has been visited, over the past several years, by a growing number of non-Japanese skiers, many of them from the rest of Asia, officials said.

SEASONAL WORKERS FROM OVERSEAS

Skiers do not account for all the growing number of non-Japanese visitors to Yuzawa. There is also an increasing number of non-Japanese workers who come to stay here for protracted periods and work here only during the winter.Every year, the number of foreign residents registered in Yuzawa swells from December through February and drops again by April. That trend has remained pronounced since four winters ago, and the numbers have risen from year to year.

In February this year, the town had 310 foreign residents, about double the corresponding number three years ago, accounting for some 4 percent of the town’s population of 8,000 or so.

Besides those who work seasonally for hotels and inns, there are also ski instructors who come from Hong Kong and Taiwan to stay in Yuzawa, where they give lessons to skiers from overseas, officials said, which results in foreign citizens drawing in more foreign nationals.

“Hokkaido, with its high-quality ‘powder snow,’ is a favorite with non-Japanese skiers, but Yuzawa has its own advantages in the convenience of access from the Tokyo metropolitan area,” said Hajime Ono, head of management with Angel, the apartment building management agency long involved in the management of resort apartment buildings here. “A visit here can easily be combined with a sightseeing tour of Tokyo. Private lodgings for non-Japanese guests, for all their problems, could serve as an antidote for the oversupply of resort apartments.”