If you haven’t heard of Niseko, Japan, then it’s time to get up to speed. Touted as the ‘Aspen of Asia’, in recent years Niseko has catapulted itself to becoming a ski town for the region’s 1%. With buyers stemming from Singapore, Hong Kong and China, it’s no wonder that some properties have doubled in the last seven years.
‘Til now, that is. Say hello to Uchi, the brainchild of Niseko veteran, Chris Pickering. Previously the General Manager for one of Niseko’s largest management companies, in 2021 Chris launched Uchi – a one-stop-shop for real estate listings throughout Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Can you give us an elevator pitch of what Uchi does?
Uchi’s purpose is very simple! It was built to make searching for real estate opportunities in Japan as easy as possible. We pull listings from multiple real estate agents and developments from all across the country and put them in one easy-to-use site so users can find their perfect home in Japan!
Are there any other sites similar to Uchi? What makes it different?
Within Japan there are a handful of real estate aggregator sites but their focus is more on long-term rentals to foreigners rather than real estate sales. I built Uchi to be lightning-fast and with a very easy-to-use search functionality. Other sites often take over 10 seconds to load – whereas with Uchi you can search dynamically and results show up in milliseconds. The search technology is cutting edge and users can also log into the site using Facebook or Google to save their favourite properties and searches. So, we took a model that works in other countries around the world and specifically focused on making it work for Japan!
Unlike other sites, I also connect users directly to the real estate agents. All agents have Japanese real estate licenses, so users know they can be trusted. Once you’ve found your ideal home or piece of land, you’ll be connected to the sales agent and able to move forward without Uchi getting in the way!
What drove you to launch Uchi?
My own experience of buying property in Japan—I found it difficult to navigate all the real estate sites, some of which were great and some of which are stuck in the 1980s! I was in a position where I HAD to buy a place to live for personal reasons – which made me think of the challenges potential investors overseas faced, having gone through the same thing. I wanted to make the initial search process a lot easier for them and then connect them directly to the agents who could help them complete the purchase.
Can you walk us through the process of buying property in Niseko?
Buying property in Japan is very simple. We have a couple of guides on our site which are worth a read, like our FAQs and the Purchase Process Guide.
Niseko is probably the most famous resort to invest in as it is one of the top ski resorts in the world and well-known globally for the amazing powder snow. There are plenty of agents who all speak English and Japanese to help with the process.
In regards to financing, the majority of purchases in Niseko don’t qualify for local bank loans although these are starting to become available.
Can foreigners own property directly in Japan?
Yes absolutely! Foreign investors can legally own 100% of any property including land, houses, and apartments. Most purchases are freehold and foreign owners can enjoy personal usage, rental returns and capital gains in exactly the same way as Japanese owners. In resorts such as Niseko, the majority of holiday homes are owned by foreigners.
To date, where are most of the buyers in Niseko from?
The original wave of foreign investment in the early 2000s came from Australia. However, since the early 2010s that has shifted to Asia. Buyers now come from all over the world. The majority of new buyers would be based in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and China. America is growing as a market and of course buyers are often expats living in Asia who are looking for their ski fix!
Niseko has appreciated a lot in recent years, do you think it’s still worth investing in?
Hindsight is always perfect, I think we all wish we had invested in Niseko 20 years ago! Niseko is unique in Asia — the combination of real estate, powder snow, food, onsen and adventure sports in the summer. So I suggest you don’t look back with regret, but look forward with excitement! Niseko’s curve is still upwards. Brands like Park Hyatt, 6 Senses, Ritz Carlton, and Capella have come or are coming in the next few years. Real estate will continue to appreciate in value, although I would say that the primary reason for investment is people who want to spend time with their friends and families in this remarkable resort. Rental returns are often just an afterthought.
What kind of approximate returns have investors been seeing in the last few years for condos, houses, land?
This is a really tricky question as so many things affect returns. Purchase price, the amount an owner uses their own properties, and now, of course, the pandemic which closed borders. I’d say that rental returns could be anywhere from zero up to 5-6%. As I mentioned above, most owners are buying because they want to spend time in Niseko with their family. The biggest returns are usually at the point of sale. As an example, 2 bedroom apartments in Ki Niseko were sold for about 500,000 USD off plan in 2014, but now are being transacted on the secondary market for over 1 million USD!
In terms of properties, where do you see opportunity in Niseko?
Ski-in ski-out properties always maintain their value and are in short supply, but they’re expensive to buy into, of course. I personally think that if you have time, it’s worth looking for land that’s within a short drive of the ski hill. There are plenty out there! Nowadays, there are a few managed estates available where you can build your own home and know it will be looked after. This allows you to be able to customize the build to what you want. Building in Niseko is actually pretty simple with some great English-speaking project managers to help you.
You have invested and built in Niseko yourself, could you share with us what that experience was like? Is it easy for an overseas buyer to do?
Haha, it’s a process. As I live in Japan and speak Japanese, my wife and I engaged a Japanese architect directly and a contractor. This meant we could manage the whole process, but obviously took a lot of our time during the design and build phases. However, there are many project managers and developers in Niseko and beyond who can perform this role for you. [This] makes it simple enough to go from your first idea to actually turning the key in your new home.
With debt at an all-time low, real estate markets from Auckland to New York to London have been sky rocketing. Did you see similar trends in Niseko?
Not yet, but it’s coming. In the last 18 months there have been more purchases of land than apartments. I think that’s because it’s easier to picture the land in your head. As soon as borders open and visitors come flooding back to Niseko, I expect the market will boom immediately. There is definitely a lot of pent-up demand. Prices in Niseko have remained stable despite the lack of tourism in the pandemic. They will doubtless rise again once momentum returns.
As someone who was in property management, what is your outlook on recovery in holiday bookings for Niseko?
Firstly I think that most people are desperate to travel, especially in Asia where it has been so restricted. Australian and Asian visitors still make up the vast majority of international visitors to Niseko. Once those borders open, I think people will come flooding back. There are also new properties, like Park Hyatt and Ritz Carlton, and new facilities like the lifts in Hanazono.
I think we have to be realistic that it will take some time to get back to pre-pandemic levels. But Niseko is really unique in Asia when it comes to the whole ski package of bottomless snow, incredible accommodation and delectable food. So, I’m not worried about the recovery – we must take a long term view for it.
To add to that, there are also more and more places to visit now in Japan: Rusutsu and Furano have new “Niseko-style” accommodation options and resorts like Hakuba are also offering new places to stay.
Uchi’s Niseko Picks
This brand new chalet is in a fantastic location just metres from the lifts in Moiwa. Moiwa neighbours the Niseko United resort and is renowned for the great backcountry access to powder snow. The 4 bedroom chalet has its own outdoor onsen and is perfect for a family or group of friends.
The Vale Rusutsu opened in December 2020, giving investors their first chance to buy ski-in ski-out property in Rusutsu Resort. The hotel is fully serviced, with a variety of units available from studios to penthouses – it’s also right next door to the recently-renovated Rusutsu onsen. With plenty of restaurants nearby, it’s a unique chance to enjoy this year-round resort: ski in winter, golf in summer!
AYA Niseko is one of the most popular hotels in Niseko-Hirafu. Its amenities, prime location, and outstanding service make it a standout property in Niseko right now. Among these include ski-in, ski-out access to the resort, onsen, spa, gym, restaurant and full hotel service. Studio units are popular with guests year-round as its location keeps occupancy high in summer and winter, and this is a rare opportunity to invest in a resale unit.