CHIBA – With the 2020 Games just six months away, residents in Chiba, a city that will host several Olympic and Paralympic competitions, are preparing to open their doors to visitors under a program that encourages residents to host paying guests during popular events.
Kenji Kaminaga, 82, is among those looking forward to the summer. While he will not attend the competitions, he plans to play his part by sharing his house when Chiba stages three Olympic and four Paralympic sports.
“It’s fun to interact with people from abroad. I have always liked inviting people to stay over at my house, and this has given me a chance to become more aware of other countries and their cultures,” said Kaminaga, who began hosting guests last year to prepare for the crowds.
Tokyo’s neighbor has been encouraging residents to participate in the so-called event homestays, pushing them to interact with visitors from around the world. Under the program, residents will take in guests if their local government requests them to ahead of not only sports competitions, but festivals and other events expected to draw crowds to places short of lodging.
Kaminaga offered a room to two people from Ukraine when Chiba staged an international aviation event in September. In December, he hosted a student from Singapore.
Airbnb-style lodgings known as minpaku have gained attention since they became legal in June 2018 to relieve the hotel shortage created by the growing tourism boom. The law allows people to rent their homes, or the spaces within, to paying guests for up to 180 days a year after notifying their municipalities. There are other avenues to starting a minpaku business, but these require time and effort to comply with local rules.
But the procedure for running “event minpaku” is much simpler since residents can only take one group of guests per event, according to Chiba Municipal Government official Noriyasu Namioka, who is in charge of the project.
The city of Chiba, which has a population of about 980,000, is situated conveniently between Tokyo and Narita airport. Therefore, Namioka hopes providing a new type of lodging experience will prompt more travelers to stay overnight instead of opting for a day trip or simply passing it by.
“Event minpaku is a win-win for both residents and visitors. It gives residents the opportunity to interact with people from around the world. At the same time, it meets demand from travelers who wish to experience different lifestyles in the country or stay over for a cheap price,” Namioka said.
As a dress rehearsal of sorts, Chiba sought residents to host guests during three events last year, including the Red Bull Air Race world championship in September and a fencing World Cup event in December.
Living by himself in a two-story house, Kaminaga is confident he has found his passion since becoming a host on the advice of his son Takashi Kaminaga, an architect. He had wanted his father to engage in something new ever since he retired many years ago. Minpaku was also a perfect way for him to get close to his father again.
“There are rooms in the house that are not being used, and it is exciting to see guests from around the world stay at the house where I lived for a long time,” his son, 44, said.
“My father and I had grown apart since I moved out after university and started my own family. But doing this together has also given us a chance to communicate regularly.”
Following rounds of cleanups and decluttering, Takashi and a colleague listed Kaminaga’s house on a website run by Airbnb Inc., the world’s largest broker of private lodging. They have been charging guests between ¥3,000 and ¥4,000 ($27 and $36) per night.
When the Kaminagas hosted two guests from Ukraine — a taekwondo competitor and her father, they introduced them to a conveyer-belt sushi restaurant and a ¥100 shop, among other places.
“There was nothing difficult about hosting guests from abroad, and language wasn’t such a big problem because you can always communicate with your heart,” the elder Kaminaga said. “It’s a relief to know you can make friends from around the world without having to travel.”
Takashi Kaminaga said he recalls when one guest started calling his father her “father in Japan.” They still keep in touch on social media.
Chiba will stage three Olympic sports — taekwondo, fencing and wrestling — at the Makuhari Messe convention center, when the games commence from July 24 to Aug. 9.
It will then host sitting volleyball, taekwondo, wheelchair fencing and goalball during the Paralympics from Aug. 25 to Sept. 6.
To support residents who host, Chiba has organized workshops to explain the procedure for listing rooms online. Lessons introducing key English phrases are also held to facilitate communication.
Though event homestays haven’t generated much of a buzz, they have been held on more than 50 occasions, including marathons and cherry blossom festivals, since December 2015, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
They were also used during the Rugby World Cup last year, especially in host cities that were unaccustomed to staging events.
Kumamoto Prefecture had about 170 people stay at residents’ homes when it staged two of the RWC pool matches.
Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture also requested residential support because the city can only accommodate about 1,400 people despite agreeing to host matches at its 16,000-seat venue.
A German visitor who was hosted by residents there said dubbed the stay an “authentic Japan experience,” noting that he needed to use a translation app on his smartphone to communicate.
Kaminaga, who still recalls the excitement he felt during the Tokyo Games in 1964, is eager to build on his new passion even after the 2020 Olympics.
“Meeting new people from around the world and simply going for dinner is something I want to keep doing,” he said.
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