Tokyo office building seeks success as pet cemetery


TOKYO -- When the sliver-shaped, post-modern office building went up in Ginza two years ago, there were still lots of people wanting to rent space in Tokyo, but then the bubble burst, rents fell, and one thing followed another, and, well, it's now an old story. Another expensive building went up in a big city only to find the market had changed.

But just because people were no longer interested didn't mean there weren't potential tenants, or so, evidently, was the thinking of the landlord. Hence the birth recently of the Ginza Century Club, a high rise cemetery for pets.

The 10-story structure has a curious history and thus may have been built from the very start with a less than traditional use in mind.

The floors are extremely narrow, less than 700 square feet, withquestionable flexibility for all but the smallest firm. Neighbors say its construction was unusually rapid and ruthless, with tenants in the old building tossed out overnight.

The property then bounced around a bit. Land deals in major cities are often a bit complicated and Tokyo is a city with more than its share of mysteries.

The current use isn't quite as bizarre as it might seem. Many Japanese holidays include a visit to the grave of a relative. And, sentimentality aside, waste disposal of any sort is a problem in a congested city like Tokyo.

Indeed, in recent weeks a proposal to require clear trash bags so garbage men could better sort recycled goods provoked the normally acquiescent Japanese into an uncharacteristic minor rebellion. Getting rid of a deceased pet is such an extreme example of the difficulty that it is considered a category unto itself.

Few people have a home with a yard. Pet graveyards are few and far away.

A new publication on living in Japan by the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan notes that dead animals require a surcharge.

Consider Kuma (bear in English), a large black and white German Shepherd. His ashes now reside in a white silk box on a freshly painted shelf.

Kuma is the first resident of a side closet of a small, though lavish, marble Memorial Hall in the penthouse suite of Ginza Century Club.

Cost for his new home: $3,000 plus $180 a year for maintenance. Five other dogs and two cats are now several floors below in the more modestly priced ($2,000 initiation fee) quarters.

Given the difficult economy, said Michiko Meguro, managing director of the funeral kennel, a cut rate price of $500 was being considered for group burial sites.

Like most businesses, the Century Club obviously doesn't want to demean its product.

After all, even in the current depressed office market, Ginza rents remain more than $300 a square foot, 10 times the cost of New York and 25 times the cost of Baltimore.

Almost 1,000 other pet owners already have put down payments and there is some optimism that all 8,000 potential spots could be filled in the next two or three years, Ms. Meguro said. Inquiries, though no commitments, have been made concerning lizards, hamsters, and birds.

A rough calculation based on information provided by Ms. Meguro suggests in excess of $20 million in revenue could be the result of a $16 million investment and, given sufficient demand, capacity could be stretched.

The crypts are small, only about 10 inches by 10 inches, resembling tiny lockers. In anticipation of strong demand, architectural drawings have been prepared to replace a small lounge and coffee vending machine area with more luxury tombs.

The Century Club encourages pet owners to customize their pet's resting place. The owner of vault number 2597, occupied by a small Scotty, has a tiny vase of purple flowers on the narrow shelf outside the vault. The two cats each have a can of their favorite foods, as well as a small ball.

Visits are encouraged.

At least for a little while. And then? The initial fee really covers only five years, with renewal subject to renegotiation. Tokyo is constantly re-inventing itself and it's always possible the office market, or whatever other market originally intended to be served, will rebound.

"This is a building," noted Ms. Meguro. "It can't keep ashes for ever. Eventually, they should go back into the earth."

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