Heading north out of the eponymous prefectural capital of Miyazaki, the traveler soon finds the flotsam of modern life giving way to a more manicured world, one of trim box hedges, pansied plant troughs, and sedately whispering pines. Then from out of nowhere, there it looms, the loneliest skyscraper on earth.
Skyscrapers are by nature gregarious animals, to be found in dense hordes in city centers, in tight packs around the watering holes of international airports, and in majestic ranks along the beaches of a Benidorm or an Acapulco. They are even known to breed in small numbers in that most inhospitable of habitats, the antique European capital. But this skyscraper had been expelled from the herd and condemned to eternal exile in a prison of pines.
For a decade after it was topped out in 1994, the 154m, 45 storey Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort—as it is now known—was the tallest building between Osaka and Taipei. It remains the tallest building in Japan west of Hiroshima and its nearest 100m plus companion is 150km to the north, in Oita. What a lonesome existence it must be, the life of a solitary skyscraper.
At the Sheraton reception, it took several hundred keystrokes, a couple of phone calls, and a quarter of an hour to summon up the price of a single. “Y19,200,” (about $230) was the oddly precise answer. “Fine.” Picking up a resort map (“let’s design the you from tomorrow”, it said in Japanese), I made it to the 12th floor room in time to capture a Seagaia sunset, the lone and level pines stretching far away.
The unfunny pun and bloky jokiness of the message on the plastic wrapping on the bathroom sponge—“Get yourself all in a lather”—and the enormous condescension of the instructions—“Just add shower gel”—brought on a grimace, although with the words only in English and French (“Enrobez-vous de mousse”), the nuances of the patter would be fortunately lost on almost every guest.
I made a beeline for the top-of-the-tower 42nd floor bar, Stella, to snatch a sundowner, but a sign declared that it was closed due to that most embracing of catch-alls, tsugo (“circumstances”). Turning tail, I headed for the first floor cocktail bar, Pacifica, and settled in on a sofa for the long haul.
An Australian lounge bar duo, Kishh, were tuning up and threatening schmaltz. Was that a spelling mistake, I wondered to myself. Shouldn’t it have been Kitschh? While navigating the drinks menu for ways to keep the tab below $100, I pondered ways of escape, but there were no other bars left in which to hide. Teeth grated, I braced myself for the first set, which went like this:
Sheryl Crow, If it makes you happy
Toto, Georgy Porgy/Africa
Roberta Flack, Killing me softly with his song
Olivia Newton-John, Have you never been mellow
The Carpenters, Close to you
Carole King, It’s too late
They knew their audience, full credit for that. ONJ’s Have you never been mellow was a 1975 flop around the world but a hit here. The heavily tattooed Mandy and Michael joined me for a drink between sets.
“I’ve heard Killing me softly before, you know.”
“Tell me about it,” Mandy guffawed. “Thing is, when people here latch on to something, they never let it go. I mean, Abba, Whitney Houston, The Carpenters. Imagine playing The Carpenters to anyone under 60 back home!”
“This is our fifth six-month contract at Seagaia,” Michael said. “We love it here—open your window and you’ve got a fresh breeze coming in off the sea. We’ve played all over Japan, Chiba-chuo, Narita, but this is the best.”
He let slip that Seagaia had been hit hard by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the prefecture, which had brought the shutters down on several eateries as well as “top bar” Stella.
“Tonight’s the busiest it’s been in months. This bar is the only place that’s making any money, apart from the breakfast restaurant.”
“Any requests”, asked Mandy as they prepared to take the stage for their second set.
“Got any Motorhead?”
It turned into a lively enough Saturday night: a woman in tight denim shorts for which, despite her lithe figure, she was a touch too old, partied like it was 1989, dancing on a tabletop as if the Bubble had never popped. A party of minor-league rock stars and their groupies swilled champagne and guzzled cocktails at the table next door. Eventually one of their number asked drunken unsociable me in fractured English where I was from. I played my cruelest card. “I’m from the UK.” So simple yet so devastating, it floors the enquirer every time.
With all respect to the charming and competent Mandy and Michael, when Seagaia opened it was able to attract a different league of celebrity: Sting played the opening night concert on October 31, 1994. He also recorded a couple of TV commercials for Seagaia, ones that a definitely older and perhaps wiser Gordon Sumner almost certainly doesn’t want you to see today.
“OK Miyadzaki, let’s go,” exclaims the prickingly monikered one as he leaves his palatial country estate to his tune, Take me to the sunshine, written specifically for Seagaia, as the voiceover intones, “Our first guest is Sting. A resort of sun has been born. Miyazaki Seagaia.”
In the second, a sleep refreshed Sting throws open his windows with a hale “Good morning, Seagaia,” to the chords of When we dance. The narrator continues, “A place abounding in sea, wide open spaces, and sun. Book now and relax big time. Miyazaki Seagaia, a global resort of sun,” leaving Sting to sign off with “Miyadzaki, I love it!”
Dubiously reliable muckraking hack Christopher Sandford reports that Sting was paid around £500,000 for the Seagaia deal, which if true, works out to almost £50,000 a word, two out of the eleven of which he cheerfully mangles. (Although it is not beyond the realms of chance that he was told to mangle them, for that deftly clunky foreign touch.)
There’s a national penchant for counting things in trios, the “Three Greats” (三大). Wikipedia lists 242 examples, ranging from the familiar, such as the three great gardens or the three great night views and the now obscure, such as the three great brushes of the Kan’ei era (1624-1643) and the three great centers of child kabuki actors, to the prosaic, such as the three great garbage bands (you read that right) of Kanto and the three great centers of seven-flavored pepper condiments.
There is no listing, however, for the Three Great Structural Legacies of the Bubble (三大バブルの構造物遺産). With so much competition, one of the three is tricky to pick: could it be the absurd 158m Play Park Gold Tower in the tiny town of Utazu on the Inland Sea, with its gold throne and gold toilet slippers, the ridiculous recreation of a French chateau in the heart of Tokyo, Taillevent Robuchon, or the risible mock-medieval Hotel Kawakyu on the remotest tip of the Kii Peninsula? Two are shoo-ins, however: Dutch theme park Huis ten Bosch and Seagaia.
Desperate to regain the tourist luster it had lost since its days in the limelight as the locus of the honeymoon boom of the 1960s, the Miyazaki prefectural and city governments, spearheaded by six-term (1979-2003) governor Suketaka Matsukata (1918-2007), teamed up in 1988 with local travel and leisure firm Phoenix International Tourism and its president, Muneyoshi Sato (1919-), to begin planning Seagaia, the very first project approved under the notorious Resort Law of 1987, which offered tax breaks, flexible approval procedures, and—disastrously—easy financing from state-backed banks to resort plans that met with the blessing of the government.
A prime spot on the coast north of Miyazaki was selected and 135 hectares (335 acres) of state-owned pine forest that had been planted as a windbreak on the sandy shores before the war was sold to the Phoenix Resort Group at a knock-down price. Garlanded modernist architect Yoshinobu Ashihara (1918-2003) drew up the plans, and with an initial budget of Y80bn (about $1.1bn at the time), construction of Seagaia—which for starters necessitated the uprooting of 100,000 pines—got underway in 1989.
The sheer scale and audacity of the vision was—and remains—breathtaking: in addition to the centerpiece hotel, Ocean 45, which was to become the Sheraton, Seagaia was finally to be graced with three other hotel complexes, two 18-hole country clubs, a golf academy, a tennis club, an onsen, a spa, a marina, a bowling alley, a zoo, a world-class convention center, and last but very much not least, Ocean Dome.
When it opened in advance of Ocean 45 in July 1993, Ocean Dome was a repository of superlatives: the world’s largest indoor pool, with a 140m long beach, featuring the world’s largest retractable dome, at 300m by 100m, and the world’s largest and most sophisticated wave-making equipment. The real beach was only 500m away, but how could cantankerous reality compete with the seductions of the hyperreal, a temperature-controlled, Caribbean-themed paradise where the water was maintained at a constant 28°c and the air at 30°c, where the “sea” had been purged of its saltiness and there were surf juggler shows, synchronized swimming spectaculars, and amusement arcades to keep boredom at bay? Mere sand, so humdrum, could not have been expected to satisfy the dictates of the hyperreal, although it could have been sourced from anywhere; instead, the beach was made of marble, imported from China and crushed to powder.
Ocean Dome reached the apex of the hyperreal when the wave machines were cranked up and stoner surfer dudes were given free rein to frolic. Pinch yourself sporadically as you watch the following to recall that it all plays out indoors.
By the time Seagaia opened to the strains of Sting, the bill had spiraled north of Y200bn ($2.5bn) and it needed 5mn visitors a year—nearly 15,000 a day—to break even. At first, the planes to Miyazaki were crowded with pilgrims, but the prices were prohibitive: admission to Ocean Dome cost Y4,200 ($50) for an adult, more than Tokyo Disneyland, and a two-night trip for a family of four could easily eat up Y400,000 ($5,000). Not much support could come from the locals, either, in Japan’s poorest mainland prefecture, and from the outset Seagaia was losing around Y20bn ($250mn) a year. In February 2001, Seagaia collapsed under the weight of an accumulated Y326bn (nearly $4bn) in liabilities. The press conference following the bankruptcy filing was a battle of the octogenarians, with the businessman Sato (81) heaping the blame on himself and the governor Matsukata (83) washing his hands of all responsibility.
The notoriety of Seagaia was now such that only foreigners were to be found sniffing around its corpse, and in June 2001 it was sold for just Y16.2bn ($200mn) to US private equity outfit Ripplewood Holdings, whose founder and CEO Tim Collins claimed the price was “reasonable”. Ripplewood set about restructuring: one of the early victims, in December 2002, was the Tom Watson golf course.
Down to the last purple swirl on the carpet, the clubhouse interior was an insect preserved in amber.
Colors at the Seagaia Tennis Club had been bleached and washed out. Depth of perspective had been drained from the scene, like a David Hockney painting of California.
Ocean Dome first shut its doors from October 2002 until the following summer, before closing for good in September 2007. In December 2009, Ripplewood offered it to the city and the prefecture for free, but in August 2010 they spurned the offer, citing the crippling expense of maintenance and repair.
Is there anything more sinister, I asked myself, than an abandoned multistory car park?
Yes, plenty, came the answer swiftly: a bank of vending machines was still dispensing drinks to no one at all. Then there was the bus parking lot, which had been taken over by the prefectural riot police.
Were they expecting an outbreak of mutinous assembly and disorderly conduct at the 19th hole?
Ocean Dome was a stupendous structure by any measure, a geometrician’s heaven and a photographer’s dream. In marvel I wandered past its vast and trunkless legs of stone and sauntered round the decay of its colossal wreck.
Back at the Sheraton, the aerial approach road struck me as the embodiment in concrete of an elephant in white.
Few conferences have gathered at the World Convention Center, with its main hall able to hold 5,000 people, since a G8 summit in 2000; this Sunday, it was largely given over to wedding ceremonies.
The aesthetic spirit of Seagaia is that of the country club and the golf course, of palm and pine and gin and Jag, of Beverly Hills and the Home Counties, with a dash of Bauhaus Modernism and just a drizzle of Albert Speer.
The illusion of affluence conjured up by the Rolls-Royce is undercut by the building behind it, a hotel falling helplessly into ruin.
Ripplewood closed the Phoenix Sea-Side Hall in December 2001, giving nature ample time to go to work. Around the back, mossy pipes created lovely abstracts and a bicycle turned into a trellis.
Frogs plopped into the pool on my approach and paint blistered painfully in the men’s washroom.
Bereft of the consolations of the hyperreal, holidaymakers now are forced to deal with the inconveniences of the real. Down by the sea, a lifeguard hosed down a rubber ring while a lady with parasol stepped out of a 19th century watercolor of the beach at Deauville.
Ripplewood CEO Tim Collins may be ruing the day he struck the Seagaia deal: it took until the year to March 2007 to turn an operating profit and until the year to March 2010 to turn the bottom line black, with Seagaia reporting net profit of a measly Y500mn ($6mn) on sales of Y11.2bn ($135mn), down 8.9% from the previous year due to an aggressive discounting campaign.
The strategy, fraught with geopolitical risk, is to lure visitors from the Sinosphere, above all China. It’s hard to see what the appeal might be, though: while the Seagaia Sheraton is one of seven Sheratons in Japan, with no more planned, there are already 29 in China, many in resorts, and there will be 55 by the end of 2013. Why pay the premium to venture overseas only to struggle with a strange tongue and funny foreign food?
The one thing that might have saved Seagaia is a casino, but debate on casino legalization has been dragging on for decades with no end in sight, stymied by the vested interests of the pachinko industry and the legislators in their pockets. My guess is that Seagaia will stagger on for a decade or two and that centuries hence, a hunter in pursuit of deer amid the pines will stumble on some fragments huge, and pause to wonder:
“What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”