Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Guesthouses are proliferating in Japan's countryside, but at what cost?

by Amy Chavez

Guesthouses are popping up all over Japan’s countryside. Even where I live, on Shiraishi Island (population 542) in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, a new guesthouse will open in June. The building was converted from an old traditional Japanese minshuku (inn): The previous dining room is now a common room and the spacious kitchen is now open for all guests to use.

When I asked the owners why they decided to open a guesthouse, the wife said: “We wanted to be able to accommodate more guests, but since we’re already running a minshuku, we don’t have time to cater to them. A guesthouse is easier as the customers can cook their own food and we don’t have to be on-site all the time.”

At just ¥3,000 per person per night, it also provides budget accommodation for travelers who may find them an attractive alternative to traditional minshuku and higher-class ryokan, both of which typically include extravagant meals.

Another friend, on the tiny island of Awashima (population 257), also runs a minshuku but is looking to open a guesthouse by summer.

“I’m getting old!” he laments. “I don’t want to have to work so hard anymore. With a guesthouse, people can cook their own food.”

Running a minshuku or ryokan really is a lot of work. The owners typically do everything from taking care of individual guests’ needs to cooking meals, filling the bath at night, cleaning the rooms, washing the sheets and making up the futons. A large portion of such accommodation in the countryside is run by retirement-age people who have been doing this job their whole lives. While domestic tourism isn’t what it used to be and customers are scarce, many continue to operate their facilities for the small income it provides to complement their retirement. It’s also not surprising that to ensure they can continue working into their twilight years, many are keen to change their business model.

Max winces when I ask him how he started in his line of work. “I didn’t really mean to get into this business,” he says hesitantly.

We’re having a morning cup of joe and a gluten-free muffin while sitting in the restaurant of his recently opened Uno Port Inn, a refurbished minshuku-cum-guesthouse. Uno is the jump-off point for most tourists to Naoshima and some of the other “art islands” of the Seto Inland Sea. The guesthouse is conveniently located near the train station and across the street from Uno Port, where the ferries leave for the islands.

Max is tall and skinny, his fingers are long and his chin is pointy. His head is capped to contain his shoulder-length locks and he is dressed in dark colors.

“My passion is film,” he confesses while proffering some flyers for the Uno Port Art Films series of screenings he heads up every summer. “My parents had both passed away and there was this Japanese house just sitting there empty. I thought I should do something with it. So I started renting out the rooms. That original house is my Art House Project,” he says, drawing an analogy with the Naoshima initiative that involves using previously empty traditional Japanese houses as venues for art projects.

Max is a combination of struggling artist and hopeful businessman. He works with his filmmaker wife and has a daughter at college in the United States, where Max himself spent 20 years of his life. There’s something of Ichabod Crane about him. He is pensive, cautious and gracious. When seated, his back curves over.

“What’s the difference between a guesthouse and a minshuku?” I ask him, which causes him to squirm in his seat. He touches his chin with his elegant fingers and thinks.

After some pondering, he offers: “With a minshuku, there is contact between the owner and the customers. But a guesthouse must be a place where the customers interact with each other. The main thing is the communication. You offer rooms, of course, but also a common area where people can talk, a restaurant with some healthy food, good coffee, Wi-Fi, and generally provide a place for people to hang out and meet other travelers.”

Between such lucid statements, Max congenially greeted his guests as they passed the table, asking if they had slept OK. They were Swedish, Dutch, German, American. It’s a Setouchi International Triennale Art Festival year and the tourists have come in droves. Including me. The town is bustling.

Uno Port Inn has only showers (no Japanese bath) and the toilets are Western-style. You can leave your shoes on all the way down the hallway till you get to the bedroom entrance, and once inside your room, you can sleep on beds. The spacious futon closets are instead used to stash suitcases.

There is a glaring absence of cryptic English signs informing you of Japanese etiquette (to take off your shoes, to shower before getting into the bath, etc). This is because there is little Japanese etiquette to explain.

Guesthouse owners also don’t have to explain Japanese nomenclature (ofuro (bath), kotatsu (table-style heater), etc.) since most of it is now superfluous. And I suppose the customers don’t have to worry about committing embarrassing faux pas either.

Guesthouses are easier to run and they cater to young people, budget travelers and the abstemious. Casual dining meets casual accommodation. Extravagant meals still take place, but in restaurants rather than at the accommodation. Guesthouses are new, clean and fashionable. Aging minshuku and ryokan are not.

With Japan’s graying population, the task of providing more accommodation in the countryside to accommodate the booming number of foreign tourists is going to fall on the shoulders of the older generation who already live there and who have been in the hospitality business for decades.

While Western-style toilets, beds and other changes will surely bring acclamation from tourists, I can’t help feel there are lugubrious implications. How much Japanese culture will be forgotten — or never learned — among foreign travelers? Is it possible that tourism could bring about an oblique destruction of traditional Japanese culture? What about “When in Rome …”? Japan is so unique, I never considered it just might some day become like so many other places that, once discovered, become victims of their own popularity.

Maybe some day we’ll consider the times of decrepit old minshuku “the good ol’ days” — when you slept in futons on tatami mat floors, soaked in a hot bath and spent the evening with the kind, elderly hosts who cajoled you with local stories while you consumed traditional home-cooked meals that had been in their family for generations.

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