Welcome to the last hotel you will ever check in to

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


Catering to the needs of a maximum of just 18 guests, the Lastel is one of the newest and most sought-after boutique hotels in the port city of Yokohama.

Its reception area is marble-and-chrome, the furnishings are plush and there are ornate arrangements of flowers on each of its five floors.

Guests generally stay four or five nights, according to Junko Tsuruno, of the hotel's facilities improvement section, but are no trouble to the front desk and never require room service.

Everyone who stays at the Lastel - its name is a contraction of 'last' and 'hotel' - is deceased and awaiting a slot at one of the city's overworked crematoriums.

'People have to wait an average of four days because the crematoriums in Yokohama are so busy,' said Tsuruno. 'Also, this is a big city and people's homes are small, so when a family member dies they have nowhere to keep them. And that it where we come in.'

The city of 3.7 million has just four crematoriums and efforts to build more have been frustrated by local opposition.

But demand is likely to increase further as Japan ages and the baby boomer generation reaches the end of its lifespan.

In 2010, 1.2 million people died in Japan, putting the annual death rate at 0.95 per cent, compared to the global average of 0.84 per cent. The figure is expected to rise to 1.66 million people in 2040, making death a booming business.

And a lucrative one.

Despite nearly two decades of economic decline and stagnant wages, families still continue to spend big when it comes to paying their final respects. The average funeral costs 1.2 million yen (HK$118,000), while hiring a monk to come to the family home to pray for the deceased can get up to one million yen alone, including the payment for a Buddhist name that the deceased will take with him or her to the afterlife. Made up of five, seven or 11 kanji characters, the longer the name, the higher the price.

With flowers, urns, coffins and hearses, the market is worth a hefty US$21 billion every year.

That is enough to attract plenty of newcomers to the domestic Japanese market, ranging from railway companies to the Aeon supermarket chain and the nation's largest agricultural association.

Nichiryoku, which opened Lastel in June 2010, was founded by Hisayoshi Teramura 45 years ago to sell gravestones. A decade ago, he expanded into the funeral business before realising the growing demand for peripheral services.

Lastel has two viewing rooms where relatives can spend time with the deceased at any time of the day or night. Family members are issued with a chipped card that they put into a slot and automatically delivers their relative to the booth from the refrigerated storage unit. Coffins have the traditional double doors that can be opened to reveal the face and a bowl of incense is constantly alight.

A night in these luxurious surroundings is 12,000 yen.

Other floors have meeting rooms, places for prayer and for relatives to rest. One room has a black bath with flecks of gold where families help the trained staff to wash the body one more time before it is cremated. Across the road is another building where relatives can spend as many nights as required in luxuriously appointed rooms, while a third two-storey building serves as a restaurant.

And despite facing competition from newcomers and rivals who are cutting costs by outsourcing, Nichiryoku still plans to expand.

'The funeral business as a whole is shrinking as the economy shrinks,' said Tsuruno. 'Twenty years ago, people used to spend more and are now opting for cheaper funerals or smaller graves.

'But given the pressure on crematoriums, our president believes there is room to expand in this sector and we plan to open more such hotels for the dead in the future.'