Travel

Eat, sleep and stay green at one of Japan's eco hotels

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

Living toxin-free is difficult in modern times, but plotting a quick wellness getaway at a hotel with an ecologically conscious approach to delivering services is more than doable, Japanese environmental activist Kazuhiko Nakaishi says.

The representative director of Bio Hotels Japan says a night at one of these idyllic sanctuaries reminds guests of the importance of being a good steward of the planet, while teaching that caring about one’s self and about nature can go hand in hand.

“It’s impossible to live free of chemicals. But in a hotel, if it’s just for a night or two, you can get a true, raw, organic experience. An organic holiday is a good place to start,” Nakaishi says.

“Whether it’s the food, cosmetics, bed linen or just the atmosphere, I want the guests to unwind in a stress-free environment. If they then decide to adopt any element of the organic (lifestyle) it would be immensely gratifying.”

Nakaishi, 61, established Bio Hotels Japan in 2013, advocating slow living in a country where convenience is king — exemplified by Japan’s 24-hour convenience stores, punctual train system, vending machines, ¥100 shops and capsule hotels.

Officially recognized by the Austria-based Bio Hotels Association, the largest grouping of ecological hotels in Europe, Bio Hotels Japan also creates its own strict brand guidelines and even offers consulting services to businesses interested in going green.

Climate conscious: Environmentalist Kazuhiko Nakaishi heads up Bio Hotels Japan and advocates for an organic and eco-friendly lifestyle through his hotels. | KYODO
Climate conscious: Environmentalist Kazuhiko Nakaishi heads up Bio Hotels Japan and advocates for an organic and eco-friendly lifestyle through his hotels. | KYODO

Running a more environmentally friendly business, Nakaishi explains, does not mean going broke. There can be financial rewards in operating with a sense of social responsibility, including lower energy costs and increased customer loyalty. They may not all be “quick win” opportunities, but the potential rewards are enormous, he says.

The main challenge? Convincing Japanese customers to pay for it.

Organic foods, for example, typically cost about twice as much in Japan than their conventionally produced equivalents. In Europe, the hit is much less severe: consumers pay an additional 20 percent or so for such items.

Various factors push up the price of organic produce in the country. Japan’s shortage of arable land and wet climate, unsuitable for year-round crop cultivation, means that much of the country’s organic produce comes from elsewhere, according to Nakaishi.

“About 80 or 90 percent of the certified organic products you’ll find on store shelves in Japan today are imported. So, obviously, the transport costs and handling charges are reflected in the retail price,” he says. “It’s expensive.”

Undaunted by the cost, Nakaishi only serves food grown in Japan and encourages people to start small, beginning with simply being more conscious of their eating habits. The health benefits of going organic are worth exploring and he does not see why it should stop at food.

Despite being Asia’s most competitive tourism economy, Japan lags behind much of the rest of the world in the green tourism market.

Nakaishi thinks that needs to change and urges the country to put sustainable tourism development high on its agenda. And with the government having set a target of 40 million foreign visitors in 2020, he says there is no better time to start than now.

Yuta Tsubone of the Japan Ecotourism Society, a nongovernmental organization that promotes and educates about the sector, says the Ecotourism Promotion Act, passed in 2007, has led to nationwide efforts to develop Japan’s eco credentials. As of October 2019, there have been 15 communities recognized by the government as ecotourism promotion areas.

Eco-retreat: Yasueso offers chamomile extract baths and organic farm-to-table dining for all-round health and wellness. | COURTESY OF KAZUHIKO NAKAISHI
Eco-retreat: Yasueso offers chamomile extract baths and organic farm-to-table dining for all-round health and wellness. | COURTESY OF KAZUHIKO NAKAISHI

But Tsubone admits there are challenges for community-based ecotourism developments — the most obvious being the lack of financial resources and people to work on such projects.

Of the 100-plus certified bio hotels in the world today, only three are located in Japan: one in Nagano Prefecture, a mountainous area connected to Tokyo via the Hokuriku Shinkansen, one in Fukushima Prefecture in northeast Japan and one on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

While two were existing hotels that underwent renovations to meet the requirements of Bio Hotels Japan, Yasuesou in Nagano — famous for its German chamomile fields and chamomile extract bath — has been committed to sustainability from the start.

For Nakaishi, going organic was also an investment in his health. When he discovered that eating clean could ease his crippling migraines, which started early in childhood, he quickly became a convert.

“In my 40s the headaches were so bad they were affecting my daily activities, so I tried to avoid harmful food additives,” he explains. “Within a few months, the symptoms faded. That’s when spreading organic goodness became my passion.”

However, instead of venturing into the organic food business or trying his hand at selling organic products, Nakaishi chose to sell experiences that would add to the quality of people’s lives and keep them coming back. At least, that was the plan.

“In Europe, tourists are choosing bio hotels, but in Japan the market is so small and none of the three bio hotels are in the Tokyo area, so they’re not so accessible,” he says. “It’s frustrating that we’re not seeing the shift in consumer behaviors we wanted to see by now.”

Nakaishi believes that contrary to heightened ecological awareness among consumers in Europe, the United States and other developed nations, the societal shift in Japan has not been deep enough to break the price-sensitive Japanese culture.

The challenge, he explains, is to close the price gap between organic and non-organic products and services, but Japanese business remains focused on convenience and short-term profit at the expense of long-term sustainability.

“We’re trying to teach Japanese businesses that sustainable development requires immediate action. The longer we wait, the more left-behind we will be from the rest of the world. Both the sellers and the buyers need to change. The policymakers need to wake up.”

He continues: “We don’t have time. We don’t know which is more important: creating customer experiences that boost organic produce sales or driving technological innovation in recycling.”

In the United States, sustainability is becoming a mainstream focus, affecting even fast food and fast fashion.

Global chains such as KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks have announced plans to reduce single-use plastics, while the prevalence of meat alternatives is increasing as awareness grows about the intensity of emissions produced by animal agriculture.

In the world of fast fashion, brands such as H&M and Zara have also stepped up in-store recycling initiatives. In Japan, leading retail clothing chain Uniqlo was one of the first to launch a recycling drive when it began a fleece-only recycling program in 2001. But the average consumer seems to be unaware of how damaging the mass production of cheap, disposable clothing really is.

“Surveys show that many Japanese people are interested in organic products, but whether they will buy and continue to buy is a different story. We need to make these services more affordable and attractive. Clothing, food, everything,” Nakaishi says.

“Bio hotels don’t charge any more than neighboring hotels. We’re partnering up with travel agencies and department stores to create exclusive tour packages. We want to offer customized hotel experiences. We want to do something that sets us apart.”

In an ideal world, Nakaishi would like to see at least 47 of his bio hotels — one in each of Japan’s prefectures. In Europe, he claims, more business travelers are understanding how their travel impacts the environment, thus affecting the growing prevalence of green hotels in big cities.

He says sustainable luxury is not an oxymoron and sustainability can also be luxurious and health-enhancing; Nakaishi is encouraging people to be “global citizens” who aren’t vulnerable to society’s need for instant gratification and quick-fix solutions.

Guests will not find a single morsel of genetically modified food or imported fruit at any of the three bio hotels in Japan — instead they boast farm-to-table cuisine using locally grown ingredients, giving tourists a chance to observe nature up close and enjoy its benefits.

“It’s time to redefine luxury. Organic feels good. Slow life feels right. In order to increase the number of bio hotels in Japan, we need more people to choose eco-friendly accommodations so the demand goes up,” Nakaishi says.

“Being environmentally friendly does not have to cost money. Many times it saves cost and generates profit. It’s not just about doing something out of the goodness of your heart: sustainability makes business sense.”

Japan’s three bio hotels are Auberge Erba Stella in Furano, Hokkaido (1 night, 2 meals from ¥27,000 per person); Otogi no Yado Yoneya in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture (1 night, 2 meals from ¥24,000 for two guests); and Yasueso in Ikeda, Nagano Prefecture (from ¥13,000 per person per night). For more information, visit www.biohotels.jp.