Japanese lodging businesses struggling to recover from the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic have been offering exclusive use of vacation homes and other facilities to those looking for a safe home-away-from-home experience amid COVID-19.
Many properties are remodeled homes or company dormitories that had been left vacant or become dilapidated, and with bookings accepted from only one party for the entire facility per day, they make unique retreats for people seeking seclusion.
The facilities are quietly gaining popularity, mainly among families making steady requests for reservations, with users able to enjoy their privacy and avoid physical contact with strangers in these pandemic-hit times.
Tabino Recipe Co., a travel agency based in Sendai, operates about 20 mountain villas -- all stand-alone houses, many of which were built decades ago -- in Zao, Miyagi Prefecture, an area of northeastern Japan considered one of the country's leading summer retreats.
The company boasts of facilities furnished with "onsen" hot spring baths in villas that are thoroughly cleaned for their guests, adding to the sense of special treatment.
Development of onsen vacation resorts in the town of Zao flourished during the mid-1970s to 1980s. But because of the economic downturn and aging of the property owners that followed, many of the buildings fell into disuse.
From 2014, Tabino Recipe began a house rental business, leasing and buying up villas, after considering the recent trend in the market to utilize vacant homes.
Guests prepare their own meals, and stays, including for single users, cost around 15,000 yen ($130) to 50,000 yen for a building. There is a limit on the number of people each facility can accommodate.
Initially, the houses were popular destinations for foreign tourists fond of skiing and other outdoor activities, but nearly all reservations dried up amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, starting in the summer of 2020, based largely on word-of-mouth, the company began getting a fresh stream of domestic reservations, mainly from guests bringing their families for overnight stays or longer getaways.
Some of the campaign ads for the rental homes in Miyagi are limited to and specifically target prefectural residents in vacation plans, touting them as places to avoid the three Cs -- closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings -- a phrase widely used in Japan to prevent COVID-19 infections.
A 41-year-old female company employee from the city of Yamagata who stayed at the Zao resort with five family members said she had refrained from traveling because of the pandemic for over a year but felt refreshed after finally getting away from home. "We had a luxurious time together," she said.
Tabino Recipe currently operates about 60 of the buildings, including cottages and apartments, in four prefectures -- Miyagi, Kanagawa, Kyoto, and Okinawa. Property owners benefit from the extra income as well as the reduced burden of having to manage their homes.
"People's needs are increasing as they want to make sure they feel secure when they travel," said Masahiko Hosoya, a senior official of the company. "We've also had a favorable reception from homeowners who appreciate the efficient use of houses they are unable to fully maintain themselves."
A three-story building that had been used as a company dormitory was remodeled by a separate rental housing operator and opened in March last year in Toba, Mie Prefecture, a coastal city in central Japan renowned as a mecca for oyster farming and seafood.
The facility, called "Anchor -- Fisherman's Hideout," has seven bedrooms, each with a balcony oceanside view, and accepts only one reservation per day for the entire facility with a capacity of 29 guests.
It temporarily shut immediately after opening due to the pandemic but has seen a recent surge in guests, particularly reservations from families and groups of friends or coworkers, after gaining a reputation for being a haven from contact with unfamiliar people. Guests booked the facility for the entire summer.
For up to five guests, there is a flat fee of 60,500 yen and 5,500 yen per person for any additional guests to use the facility, including an 85-square-meter living room, featuring a large wood-burning stove, and another area for barbecues.
"Even under the pandemic, there are many people who wish to create memories together with their friends," said Shimpei Yukino, 35, the owner of the facility.