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Friday, Nov. 7, 2008

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Economic attraction: The Seagaia Resort in Miyazaki Prefecture (above) consists of a 300-hectare pine forest with two golf courses, a tennis center and the 45-story Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort. There are also swimming pools (below right) and hot-spring baths at the base of the tower. MIYAZAKI PREFECTURE (above), EDAN CORKILL PHOTO (below)

Surviving in some style

Phoenix Seagaia Resort in Miyazaki keeps the doors open


Staff writer

I wanted a resort that had already been put through the wringer and survived. In this climate, you never know who's going to default on the hot-water bill or skimp on the fruit juices at the breakfast buffet.

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Japan has hundreds of resorts that have only barely recovered from economic Armageddon, but few have had a roller-coaster ride quite like the Phoenix Seagaia Resort in Miyazaki Prefecture.

The massive facility, taking up a 10-km-long swath of beautifully forested Kyushu coastline, opened in 1993 at a cost of ¥200 billion. It wasn't long before it turned into what you might call the quintessential Bubble Period Ball Breaker.

Along with one of the largest convention centers in the nation, a 27- and 18-hole golf course and over 1,200 rooms in three onsite hotels, Seagaia also boasted the world's largest indoor swimming pool, Ocean Dome, which is actually two-thirds the size of Tokyo Dome. Not satisfied with that, artificial waves were thrown in for good measure, and they were impressive enough to get the thumbs up from some serious surfers. Which would have been great, if only serious surfers were as cashed up as, say, serious ocean yacht racers. Alas, they're not, and when the bubble burst, Seagaia racked up debts that by 2001 totaled ¥270 billion.

At that point, the whole kit and caboodle — with debt — was snapped up for ¥16.2 billion by what, in the lingo of postbubble panic-mongers, was called a "foreign shark": the American dealer Ripplewood Holdings (Seagaia was later given to their Belgium-based holding company RHJ International).

Not that the foreign shark was much interested in the world's biggest pool. After sacking most of the staff and bringing Sheraton in to run the main hotel, the whole operation was dragged back into the black in 2007. But the anachronistic wave pool, which was, after all, located just 500 meters from an ocean full of real waves was closed this time last year.

It seems things have turned around for Seagaia — something that, in keeping with the times, I confirmed by putting myself in the shoes of a jittery RHJ International shareholder.

From this year's annual report:

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In hot water: The Shosenkyu facility has several hot-spring baths (above) that offer views over a picturesque pine forest, which, as several signs inform walkers, form a natural barrier between the ocean and Miyazaki City. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS
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"Dear Shareholders,

The last 12 months have been a period of extraordinary changes in the global economic landscape. . . . We are, of course, not satisfied with our share price and of the performance of several of our investments . . . "

Gulp. But wait. It turns out that Seagaia, which is technically called Phoenix Resort K.K., "reported improvement of its main key operating indicators compared to last year." Whatever they are. Anyway, it was enough to convince me that it was safe for a weekend jaunt.

The first thing you notice about Seagaia is . . . Actually, I should rephrase that. The first thing you notice about Miyazaki City is Seagaia. From a plane preparing to land in the centrally-located airport, the main tower — all 45 floors of it — stands out like the value of yen during a Global Financial Crisis.

A local bus — ¥800 — takes 20 minutes to deliver you along Miyazaki's famously palm-tree-lined streets to the resort. It's from this point that you start noticing something odd about this place.

Seagaia has a mysterious relationship with maps. It's so big that you can't do without them, but get the wrong one and you could find yourself going back in time. It's kind of like an archaeological dig. There are maps dating from the Bubble Period, the Post-Bubble Period, the Buyout Period and the current Post-Buyout Period, and for some reason they can all be found at different locations around the 300-hectare site.

Follow one map and you'll be searching in vain for Hotel Ocean 45, which no longer exists. Follow another and you'll be expecting a pony club. That's what we did, anyway, until we met a local who said: "Well I'll be. Ain't been no pony club round these here parts for years." Yeah, that would be a few years back, when the club was closed.

Some pathways lead to dead ends and some overpasses no longer pass over anything but air.

Ocean Dome, which is still just sitting there (from the annual report: "options for the Dome . . . are currently being reviewed as part of a larger plan to explore the potential of developing the resort's land"), resembles a ghost town, with posters still advertising events that ended a year ago.

All this means that in some ways Seagaia — like a real archaeological site — is perhaps of most interest to history buffs, or perverse Bubble Period nostalgia freaks.

But Seagaia has more to offer than that.

In a lot of ways, the trials and tribulations of the past decade have excised from the resort the worst of its Bubble-Period blubber, which was obscuring what should have been the facility's strongest attraction all along: nature.

Remove the Ocean Dome and you realize there's 10 km of coastline to explore. Lose the ponies and you realize the pleasure of walks through pine forests so big you could be in the middle of Canada.

We stayed for two nights. For the first, we made the most of our 70-sq.-meter corner room (the cheapest deal we could find on rakuten.co.jp) and enjoyed a room-service meal with views over the Pacific. I don't know how big your inner-city abode is, but this room was bigger than our whole apartment.

The next day we headed for the beach. This involved walking for 45 minutes along well-maintained trails through a giant pine forest. Signs along the way explain that the pines — all stunted due to the coastal breezes — form a natural barrier between the ocean and the city. They make for a pleasant and relaxing stroll. Take a picnic and you've got the makings of a country outing — although on some paths you have to be careful of wayward golf balls, because next to the forest are the two golf courses, which golf fans will be happy to hear have continued to thrive even in the current Post-Buyout Period.

The coastline is long and straight and combed by an endless succession of breakers. Surfing workshops are on offer through November, while canoes and many other water sports can be enjoyed in the summer months.

We spent an hour reading on the beach before heading back to Cottage Himuka — a second accommodation option where you can rent cottages in the forest. We also passed the Seagaia Tennis Club, where international competitions are still held and courts can be rented by the hour.

On the north side of the resort — near where the pony club used to be — is the Miyazaki City Phoenix Zoo. Elephants, lions, giraffes and chimpanzees are just some of the animals that give what would otherwise be a purely tranquil nature experience some bite.

One Post-Buyout Period addition is a new onsen (hot spring) facility called Shosenkyu. Located a longish zigzagging walk from the Sheraton, it offers private baths for families and large men's and women's in- and outdoor tubs. The decor is more Generic Asian Resort than Japanese, with pagodas and low-hanging drapes, but it is relaxing and welcome after a day hiking through Canada. Our Rakuten deal gave us unlimited access; hotel guests usually have to pay extra.

The resort has a selection of restaurants offering Miyazaki's famous seafood and beef, and it has one other must-see: a 45th-floor wedding venue that has evolved (Post-Buyout-Period, I would guess) into a viewing platform. From there you can see out the day gazing over the expanses of a resort that has survived the worst of economic times and looks like it has reinvented itself sufficiently to survive the current ones, too.

For more info check www.seagaia.co.jp


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