The flyers were provocative: New houses priced at more than ¥35 million, but the builder promised that the mortgage would amount to ¥0 a month. A free house is obviously too good to be true, but we decided to check out the merchandise to see what the story was.

The houses had not yet been built, but the lots were set aside in the corner of an existing subdivision in northern Chiba Prefecture. They had remained prepared and vacant for almost 20 years. The builder bought up more than a dozen and erected a model house on one, a two-story structure fronted by a large carport that extended almost the entire width of the property, though only half of it seemed to be reserved for sheltering cars. It didn't take long to figure out the reason for this somewhat ostentatious addition. The roofs of both the house and the car port were completely covered with solar panels.

The builder was taking advantage of the government's plan to boost solar as a viable energy source. In July 2012, it became possible for homeowners with solar systems to sell their energy to regional power companies for a fixed price. In order to make the plan attractive, the original rate was set artificially high — ¥42 per kilowatt — which would help homeowners pay off the high cost of the system itself. Since then, as the price of the equipment has come down, so has the guaranteed price for the energy. It's now ¥37 per kW.