National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

No tolerance at the inns for China's shoppers

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Last August, Nikkei Business magazine reported the travails of a businessman from a regional city on a sales trip to Tokyo. His company’s accommodation allowance covered a maximum of ¥8,000 per night, but he couldn’t find a centrally located hotel room for under ¥20,000.

After much Googling and mouse-clicking, he finally found affordable overnight lodgings and booked a room. Several sales calls, a dinner and drinks later, he was ready to sack out when he learned to his dismay that in his unfamiliarity with Tokyo’s geography he’d confused Akishima with Showajima (the two are written using similar but not identical characters). The latter, close to Haneda Airport, is served by the Tokyo Monorail line, with good access to the city center. But Akishima, where his hotel happened to be located, required a 90-minute train trip in each direction. Since he’d arranged for an early appointment the next morning, he got very little sleep that night.

The aforementioned gentleman was the victim of the skewed supply-demand situation for hotel accommodations, which is by no means limited to Japan’s capital. Occupancy rates at business hotels in Osaka, for instance, soared from 78.6 percent in 2013 to 85.4 percent by May 2015. As a result, finding affordable rooms on short notice has become much more difficult. Travelers to Fukuoka and Sapporo are also feeling the pinch.

Nor are businessmen traveling on shoestring budgets the only ones complaining. In an article titled “Winners and losers in the hotel price increase war,” Shukan Bunshun (Nov. 19) noted that first-class city hotels have also boosted their room rates.

“The rapid increase in foreign tourists has skewed the balance of supply and demand, and a price war has sprung up that takes advantage of customers’ vulnerability,” remarked Yutaka Nakamura, former chairman of the Japan Hotel Association.

The room tariff system applied in the past, Nakamura explained, has given way to reservations via the Internet, by which room rates are determined by more vague criteria, such as day of the week or check-in time. This tight hotel situation has led more foreign visitors to turn to minpaku (a term that covers stays in both private homes and vacant apartments).

Short-term minpaku arrangements, which can be made via apps such as Airbnb.com, can be quite lucrative for the apartment owners. As opposed to about ¥200,000 a month for long-term rental of a “2LDK” (two rooms, a living room and a dining room/kitchen), tourists might pay about ¥25,000 a night.

“By renting out a place for, say, 20 days a month, an owner can rake in ¥500,000,” journalist Atsushi Sakaki tells Shukan Bunshun (Dec. 3), pointing out that outside services are usually contracted to handle cleanup and hand over the door keys.

Along with concerns over violations of Japan’s Hotel and Ryokan Management Law, the regular residents of such buildings are becoming a bit unnerved by these foreign interlopers, who noisily come and go at all hours. Chinese visitors, with their propensity to shop like crazy — a practice referred to as bakugai (“explosive buying”) — are also a source of friction.

“In the trash collection areas on each floor, you’ll see veritable mountains of discarded boxes for cosmetics, shoes, small electrical appliances and so on,” complained one female resident. “And they don’t even bother to flatten and tie them up for pickup. I had to go to the building custodian for assistance.”

Yukan Fuji (Dec. 5) reported that when police went to investigate a 44-unit condominium in Kyoto’s Ukyo Ward, they found that between late July and early October of this year, some 36 units were being rented out to foreign tourists at rates of between ¥6,500 to ¥8,800 per night.

“Along with endeavoring as much as possible to make Japanese people’s values and living customs understandable (to outsiders), the government should also consider establishing detailed rules for stays in residential buildings that consider the sensibilities of residents and local society,” Yukan Fuji quoted Rikkyo University professor Kazuhiro Tamai as saying.

To meet the demand projections, at least 11,000 more hotel rooms are planned for Tokyo by the time of the 2020 Olympics. But will that be enough?

“Given an event with the global lure of the Olympics, 25 million or more arrivals over a certain time frame doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched,” Nacio Cronin, director of International Public Relations at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, told The Japan Times. “But as it is now, Japan isn’t prepared for that volume of visitors — either in terms of hardware or software. There aren’t enough hotel rooms, nor are the current human resources trained sufficiently to welcome and comfortably accommodate guests from so many different origins.”

The cover story in Nikkei Business (Nov. 30) concluded that the only way to ensure Japan can cope with the projected growth in inbound visitors — which is expected to surpass 20 million this year and reach 30 million by 2020 — will be to channel far larger numbers of them to rural parts of the country. The magazine pointed to Taiwan, which has succeded in attracting many repeat visitors through ways to diversify their experiences, such as by offering some 4,500 km of dedicated cycling trails — a length equivalent to more than four times Taiwan’s entire circumference.

From October, All Nippon Airways and HIS Travel began jointly organizing cycling tours between Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, and Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, via seven islands in the Inland Sea. Some 30 percent of tour participants were reportedly from overseas, including, perhaps not surprisingly, Taiwan.