JIN-316 -- Taiwanese Romance the Ryokan

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T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
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Issue No. 316
Wednesday April 6, 2005 TOKYO
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+++ VIEWPOINT Taiwanese Romance the Ryokan

-1: An Occupancy Rate Hovering Around 40%
-2: The Lee Teng-hui Connection
-3: A Goal of 10 Million Foreign Visitors
-4: An Unforgettable Experience

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+++ VIEWPOINT Taiwanese Romance the Ryokan

-1: An Occupancy Rate Hovering Around 40%

The ryokan Amanoya, a fixture of the Yugawara Hot Spring,
between Sagami Bay and the Izu Hakone range, in Kanagawa
Prefecture, was shuttered on March 31 after 128 years.

The Amanoya, which opened in 1877, was one of the oldest
inns in Yugawara. Men such as Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first
prime minister, and Soseki Natsume, its favorite novelist,
regularly stayed there. It is a beautiful building, its
tiled roof peeping from greenery across a red bridge with
balustrades. In 1989 it greeted 20,000 guests.

But the bubble economy burst and from 1993 its occupancy rate
began slipping. In 1998 Amanoya sold its main building. As
the economy continued to sputter along, the annex also
witnessed year-on-year losses in patronage. In 2004 it had
only 6,000 guests.

The Amanoya, seemingly had everything -- location, history,
cachet. Yet it was forced to close.

But in fact the Amanoya is emblematic of a ryokan industry
in decline. In 1990 there were 75,000 ryokan nationwide.
By 2003 there were fewer than 60,000. Even schools are
shifting from ryokan to hotels as lodgings for students on
excursions.

The industry has been battered by a number of problems.
First there was the fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease
at Sun Park Hot Springs in Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture, in
August 2002. Next it was disclosed in 2004 that the practice
of treating spring water -- diluting with tap water,
recycling through filters, or heating-- was widespread.
Today the average occupancy rate at ryokan hovers around an
abysmal 40%.

"Ryokan" is conventionally translated as "Japanese-style
inn." Style here refers not only to exterior and interior
furnishings (tatami, tokonoma, et. al.), but more importantly
to ambience, with trim gardens where carp loll in pools and
water purls to rock-pent outdoor baths, and service, kimoned
women in tabi socks gliding down polished wooden corridors
as they bear trays of local delicacies to guest rooms, or
returning to spread futon mattresses while patrons take in
the waters or in yukata and clogs clip-clop through
the streets of the resort. A ryokan displays the art of
Japanese hospitality, attentive, but never obtrusive,
exquisite in attention to detail.

Now economics or a preference for Western-style lodgings, or
both, has endangered the ryokan. There is, however, hope for
this Japanese institution. Increasingly ignored at home, it
is being discovered by other East Asians who have fallen
under the spell of its hospitality.

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-2: The Lee Teng-hui Connection

Lee Teng-hui, the former Taiwanese president, was in high
spirits even after 40 minutes into a scheduled hourlong visit
to his Taipei home from Sadahiko Oda, CEO of the ryokan
"Kagaya," in Wakura Onsen, Nanaoshi City, Ishikawa Prefecture,
on March 5.

Oda thanked Li for lodging at Kagaya at the end of last year
and also informed him of the scheduled opening of "Taiwan
Kagaya," a genuine Japanese-style ryokan, in Xin Beitou, a spa
in the Taipei suburbs, in 2007. "Kagaya's service was
wonderful," Li said in Japanese. "I would like to stay there
again."

Li, who had visited Japan for the purpose of "sightseeing," a
de rigueur pronouncement to forestall criticism of the Japanese
Government by Beijing, stopped with his family at Nagoya,
where he had been an army officer in training when the Second
World War ended, and at Kyoto University, where he had studied.

When he visited Ishikawa Prefecture, the birthplace of the
philosopher Kitaro Nishida, for whom he had great respect,
he chose to stay not in Kanazawa City, but at Kagaya, 70
kilometers north, in acknowledgement of its continuing efforts
to attract Taiwanese guests since 1996. In fact, 10,000
Taiwanese lodge at the ryokan each year.

Kagaya has tailored its hospitality to suit Taiwanese
preferences. So it doesn't serve Taiwanese guests high-class
"kaiseki ryori" (tea-ceremony dishes), because Taiwanese like
meals served hot. It also serves a "nabemono," or pot dish
cooked at table, so even Taiwanese guests who don't eat raw
things can boil sashimi in the pot. Many Taiwanese dislike
the smell of igusa reed, so the ryokan does not lodge them
in rooms with fresh green tatami.

Because Li refrained from making any political statements,
"Ex-President Li Does Japan" became the focus of stories
filed by the Taiwanese press pool accompanying him. As a
result of Li's visit, the name "Kagaya" achieved a quantum
leap in recognition among the Taiwanese public. Commented
Lin Bo Huang, manager of the Japan Department of Dong Nan,
a major Taiwanese travel company, "Lodging at Kagaya confers
status on Taiwanese." From Taiwanese travel agents the ryokan
receives frequent requests for the reservation of Li's room.

Last year the number of Taiwanese visitors to Japan topped
1 million for the first time. Only more people from Korea
visited Japan. Taiwanese visitors' prefer to lodge in ryokan
at hot spring resorts.

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-3: A Goal of 10 Million Foreign Visitors

Two years ago the Japanese Government launched the Visit
Japan Campaign (VJC). In 2004, 16.83 million Japanese went
abroad, as opposed to 6.14 million foreign visitors to Japan
(preliminary figures). VJC aims to bring these figures in
rough parity by boosting foreign visitors to Japan to 10
million by 2010.

The government hopes for 7 million foreign visitors this
year, banking on the magnetism of the Aichi Expo. But it
is not only hoping; it has taken proactive measures
to attract tourists from abroad. These measures include the
waiver of a visa requirement for Koreans and Taiwanese on
visits of less than 90 days during the six-month Expo period,
and pitching the virtues of a Japan vacation to foreign
travel agents and media types.

Japan is far from a tourist mecca. It ranked 33rd as a
destination for foreign travelers in 2002. It attracted
only 1/14th as many tourists as top-ranked France and even
fewer than other Asian nations such as China, Malaysia
and Thailand.
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-4: An Unforgettable Experience

Like falling in love or visiting a country for the first
time, one's initial ryokan experience is unforgettable.

Mine was some 30 years ago. Having taken the ferry to
Miyajima, in Hiroshima Bay, I inquired at the pierside
Tourist Office about lodgings for the night. I was directed
to a hilltop ryokan, where I committed the faux pas of
stepping shod onto tatami (visitor as well as visit were
perhaps unforgettable). I was shown to a room with a view
of Itsukushima Shrine's torii gate "floating" in the bay.
Equally serendipitous was my being served by the proprietor's
daughter, an attractive woman in her 20s who had learned
English at Columbia University.

I hope VJC succeeds, for in its success may lie the
ryokan's salvation.

-- Burritt Sabin

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EDITOR
Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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