Even in the heart of crisis, opportunity can thrive. For example, while most people would not think of seeing a new business project through during the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak, Stephane Beaulieu did exactly that.
His most recent endeavour, the Yuzkyu Resort, is located near Yuzawa, in Niigata Prefecture. It includes a number of different rental options: geodesic dome tents, spaces for setting up tents and a small cabin. Construction on a larger luxury lodge is also almost completed. The space features opportunities to play games such as tennis, basketball and badminton; a bouldering wall; a trampoline; and indoor activities such as ping pong and electronic darts. And of course, it offers easy access to all of the natural surroundings of the area — nearby Mount Daigenta, as well as hiking and the opportunity to jump in the rivers and small lake nearby.
Beaulieu’s journey to developing the eco-tourism destination was nearly 10 years in the making. The entrepreneur has long ties to Japan — he studied Japanese and political science at the University of Montréal, and first came to this country in 1995 to work as a snowboard instructor in Nagano Prefecture. He later joined the JET Programme, serving for three years in Tottori and Shimane prefectures. Following his stint as a JET participant, Beaulieu began a career in public service. This would take him from the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy of Canada to Japan on to Ottawa and the Middle East, before he reached his final position as Counsellor for Natural Resources, Energy and Investment at the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo from 2011 to 2014.
He then co-founded First Step Japan, a Shinbashi-based market entry company, moved to Echigo-Yuzawa in 2015, and worked remotely from there, coordinating the import and sale of foreign products online. He has served as governor of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ), and earned an MBA from the McGill MBA Japan program in 2019. Towards the end of 2019, he co-founded A Maze KK, which does real estate development in Echigo-Yuzawa.
Many resort mansions were built in the region during the economic bubble of the 1980s, and Beaulieu and his wife rented one for a year in 2011 and 2012. The move was inspired, in part, by Beaulieu’s desire to recapture a bit of the glory of his younger snowboarding days. They were drawn by the charms of the area — hiking, swimming in nearby rivers and exploring the town. But one thing that stuck out to them was that they saw very few people out there during the summer — four million visitors come to Yuzawa each year, but mostly during the winter, drawn to the skiing and the area’s plentiful onsen. They started looking for places to buy in the area right after that, but it wasn’t until late 2019 that they were able to purchase the land on which Yuzkyu Resort would be built.
A GLOBAL AFFAIR
He and his business partner had many ideas for projects to build on the land, but recognizing that glamping was a hot trend that was showing no signs of slowing down, they decided to create a space where people could camp simply — or a little more on the upscale side.
They began work on the project in the beginning of this year, but things took an unexpected turn, and the project received support from unexpected sources, Beaulieu explained. “The first employee I was going to hire to start in early March to help us get the project on track was a snowboard instructor who was working locally, but had her season cut short when the ski resorts started to close because of the uncertainty around what was happening in the world.
“When I asked her to start on April 1, she said she couldn’t because she had a three-week gig volunteering in a hotel in Kyoto that she found on Workaway. Intrigued, I looked and discovered this online platform for backpackers and travellers who want small gigs to support themselves during their travels. I posted the job describing our project immediately and received more than 150 applications from people from around the world, stranded in Japan and looking for a place to hunker down for a few weeks — which would soon become months.”
What struck him was both the sheer breadth of experience of the respondents as well as the strong sense that the project still had the potential to succeed. “Going through the profiles, I found people with amazing skills and all of a sudden, our vision started to feel very much like a real possibility. We hired a few snowboard and ski instructors from Australia and England who had experience in carpentry; an aerospace engineer from Spain just out of an internship at the Japanese space agency who built our website; an architect from Argentina backpacking through Japan; a civil engineer and carpenter from Belgium and his event planner girlfriend who were cycling around the world and who ended up playing a key role in every aspect of the project; a pro climber who built our bouldering wall; a graphic artist who designed a lot of the space; and many more people with skills that I could never hope to master. A total of 15 people came through during the construction process, from 13 nationalities, all making a huge contribution to the project. We still have the original staff from Poland who clued us in to the Workaway platform and another one of our first hires from Australia working as maintenance and operation staff.”
While the team that helped make Yuzkyu Resort a reality was an international one, there are elements to the property that are also very Canadian. One is the wood that has been used on the decks and in the resort’s inside areas — it’s all Canadian spruce, pine and fir. Beaulieu chalks this up to his previous life in public service, promoting his home country’s forestry products. He also wants to provide his guests with a kind of liberation that comes with wide, open spaces. “The idea of being in the middle of the woods and hanging around a campfire with friends without having to worry about the neighbours is something that I would like to make available to anyone who likes that kind of freedom. I find that it is one of the things I miss the most about being back home.”
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
With a few tents ready just to test the concept and the market, the resort officially launched in August, after the Obon holidays. Although they missed the peak season, Beaulieu says that their site has been getting heavy traffic and a good number of inquiries and bookings — the project was even featured on Niigata television during prime time. They’ve had nothing but positive reviews from guests, which has encouraged them to build a few more dome tents for next year.
And they have other plans short and long term. Yuzkyu Resort is in the process of obtaining its restaurant license. Beaulieu has hopes of serving up Canadian breakfasts and healthy smoothies to his guests in the near future. And, because the space is outfitted for activities ranging from meditation retreats to corporate events, he hopes that he can bring in whole-resort bookings as it becomes more well known.
They are also working on a partnership with a local backcountry guide to stage heli-ski and snowboarding trips from their lodge during the winter. And, farther down the line, if the business model is successful, they’d like to partner with local landowners and create revenue streams for the community to rent out small parcels of land, and perhaps create a more expansive forest resort that offers even more privacy to its guests.
For now, though, Beaulieu is happy that the Yuzkyu Resort is off to a strong start, and welcomes CCCJ members to come and experience a Canada-inspired oasis, just 75 minutes away by Shinkansen from bustling Tokyo.
Custom Media publishes The Canadian for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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