[From February Issue 2014]
The Park Hotel Tokyo (Shiodome, Tokyo) has “Artist Rooms” in which sumo wrestlers and Zen characters painted in ink seem to dance dynamically. These rooms are for foreigners who make up 60% of the hotel’s guests. These rooms were created as part of a project to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the hotel. “In this space, it’s possible to experience the Japanese aesthetic,” general manager HAYASHI Yoshiaki says, explaining the project.
Each Artist Room has been entirely produced and designed by a single artist. “More than just painting, they’re creating a room,” says Hayashi. The project has been a fascinating one for artists, too. They can not only express their world view with an entire room, but can also leave the PR to the hotel. He says that there are many applicants, although the remuneration only covers the cost of the materials.
Four Artist Rooms were created in 2013. Black ink was used in all of them. There are plans in the future for rooms with color. “With nine more being created in 2014 and 2015 respectively, eventually we’ll have 31 rooms. We’re planning to transform the 31st floor, where all the Artist Rooms are located, into an Artist Floor where the Japanese aesthetic sense will be on display along corridors and in a private lounge,” says Hayashi.
As the hotel wanted to appeal to foreigners in particular, accommodation information on Artist Rooms is only available in the English version of its website. Currently, Artist Rooms are more popular with foreign guests than with Japanese guests and sumo designs have been particularly well received. The hotel also has some rooms in which relaxing videos of colored carp can be seen. Those rooms are popular with both non-Japanese and Japanese.
At Utanobori Green Park Hotel (Esashi Town, Hokkaido), the selling point is rustic charm instead of stylishness. Tour groups travel the four hour bus journey there from Sapporo eager to enjoy the hotel’s attractions which gives them a taste of Japanese culture.
“This time, it’s a tour of five days and four nights including Sapporo and Otaru, but Utanobori is the main attraction,” says Sarisa RASRICHEAM, a Thai guide. “We offer all sorts of Japanese experiences that are not possible to acquire on regular tours. It’s also possible to get to know the Japanese countryside.”
After arriving at around 6:00 pm, female tour guests change into a yukata and the men into a jinbei. They watch “iai” (the art of drawing one’s sword, cutting down one’s opponent and sheathing the sword in one motion), experience flower arrangement and make sushi on their own. Between meals, they can enjoy a shooting gallery – typically found at country festivals – try their hand at “kendama” (cup and ball game) and enjoy “nagashi-soumen noodles.” After dinner, they have the option to go by bus to a night safari. In winter time, it’s possible to enjoy kamakura (snow huts).
“They must come to enjoy our ‘anything goes’ parties,” says vice general manager SHOJI Kazunori. As the number of direct flights between Bangkok and Shin-Chitose has increased, he’s been creating package holidays aimed at Thais together with a Thai travel agent. It’s been four years since the first tour.
The attractions are mostly performed by employees using handmade materials. They cost next to nothing. “Our guests are wealthy Thais. Since we’re in the countryside, it’d be pointless competing by trying to match the fancy things they’ve seen around the world. That’s why we decided to simply entertain them.”
Although the hotel caters to guests from Thailand, only one employee is fluent in Thai. Most employees communicate with guests in English, with gestures and by using the few Thai words they’ve picked up during their four years’ experience. “Even so, we’re sometimes told ‘your service was as good as that of a three-star hotel,’” says Shoji, who’s encouraged by this response. He’s also thinking of offering tour packages to tourists from other countries.
The Tour Club, a Kyoto guest house that opened in 2000, has been a pioneer in the field of accommodation aimed at foreigners. While a student, the owner SHIMIZU Keiji traveled around the world staying at guesthouses. This experience gave him the idea of running guesthouses aimed at non-Japanese – there were virtually none in Japan in those days – thus transforming Japan into a country in which backpackers from all over the world could visit.
His business proved successful and more and more guesthouses opened in Japan. Shimizu himself opened another guesthouse and a furnished hotel for foreigners staying for longer periods. During this time, he began hearing comments from guests like: “I’d like to stay at a capsule hotel” and “Instead of a private room at a youth hostel, I’d like to stay at a low-cost ryokan that has a shower and toilet.”
“Capsule hotels and ryokan are a kind of accommodation that is unique to Japan. I thought of creating accommodation aimed at foreigners that would combine the two and be available at a low cost,” says Shimizu, explaining how he hit upon the unprecedented idea of the “Capsule Ryokan.”
Regular capsule hotels are tightly packed with mass-produced capsules. However, bearing in mind the proportions of tatami mats, it was difficult to use such capsules. He also was determined to create a comfortable space. “With a measuring tape in hand I went around checking the toilets of bullet trains and camper vans; places in which a small space was used efficiently,” he says, recalling the days when the original concept of Capsule Ryokan was taking shape.
His Capsule Ryokan opened in 2010. One room is for capsules only, but is only fitted out with eight capsules – less than in a regular capsule hotel. Each capsule is furnished with a tatami (straw mat) floor and comfortable futon. The latest check-in is 10:00 pm. Since no one comes in or goes out at night, it’s not as noisy as regular capsule hotels. Lockers large enough for backpacks and suitcases are available. There are also small rooms that sleep two furnished with tatami and equipped with a high-tech shower and toilet.
“Guesthouses can be found all over the world and I’ve been striving to popularize them in Japan. I think that my next step will be to popularize this new business model all over the world.” Just as expected, this globally unique style of accommodation became hugely popular with foreign guests soon after opening. As videos were taken of the interior of the building and uploaded to video sharing sites, its reputation continued to grow. And so, in 2011, it was chosen by foreigners as the No. 1 hotel in Japan on the word-of-mouth travel site Trip Advisor, beating luxury hotels.
Shimizu’s dream of transforming Japan into a country that is accessible to backpackers is coming true. “However, although Japan’s sightseeing spots have plenty of charming attractions, there aren’t enough signs or displays in English; this makes it hard for foreigners to discover the good points,” he says. There’s room for improvement in services that allow foreigners to fully experience the best of Japan.
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo