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New Trend in Inbound Tourism: Back to Basics with “Minshuku”

Himeda Konatsu [Profile]

[2018.01.18]

Minshuku around the nation are attracting fewer Japanese customers, but they are popular among non-Japanese tourists, for whom the human connection and the flexibility they offer are major selling points.

Where Tora-san Stays

The plots of Otoko wa tsurai yo (It’s Tough Being a Man), a popular Japanese film series released from 1969 to 1995, revolve around unlucky-in-love Tora-san, an itinerant peddler of cheap wares. The stories unfold in various picturesque locales, and minshuku, private homes offering no-frills accommodation, are often the setting for Tora-san’s meeting with the lady he falls in love with in each episode.

In the thirty-first installment of the series, released in 1983, titled Tabi to onna to Torajirō (Tora-san’s Song of Love), Tora-san is staying at a minshuku on Sado Island. The owner is an aged woman who rents Tora-san a room on the second floor of her house and cooks his meals in her kitchen. If he wants company, she’ll climb the stairs to sit and chat with him in his room. This style of people passing through and mingling with local inhabitants was the epitome of minshuku hospitality in the “good old days” of Japan 40 or 50 years ago.

Minshuku, often described as Japanese-style bed-and-breakfast inns, are run by families renting out spare rooms in their home. Since minshuku rooms are in private homes, in the old days there were no locks on the doors, and sometimes only fusuma paper sliding doors separated the guest from the family members sleeping in the next room.

Minshuku still exist, although nowadays amenities like locks on the doors are the rule. Guest quarters may be separate from the family’s rooms, but baths and toilets are often still shared. Still, many Japanese today prefer privacy and up-to-date facilities, and old, shabby minshuku are slowly disappearing. But although minshuku may not be top-of-mind among Japanese travelers, demand is emerging from a different market segment: foreign visitors to Japan, who are making up for the drop in Japanese clientele as they look for a novel experience or some old-fashioned warmth and friendliness.

Minshuku Popular with Foreign Visitors

Suzukaze, in the Ariake district of Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture, is a minshuku operated by 71-year-old Masuda Sadaaki, who in his younger days stayed at guesthouses around the world during his travels as a backpacker. Masuda started Suzukaze 10 years ago and sleeps under the same roof as his guests.

The prefecture centers on Kagoshima Bay, with the Satsuma peninsula on the west side and the Osumi peninsula on the east. While the Satsuma side of the bay abounds with popular tourist attractions, the Osumi side, where Ariake is located, has fewer such assets. Yet Masuda says that he’s had many foreign guests staying with him since he opened his minshuku. Suzukaze looks appealing, and rooms at this relatively new and tidy-looking building are fully booked until spring.

Suzukaze is popular for its homey atmosphere. The single-story wooden home has just two guestrooms, both Japanese-style.

Meanwhile, plenty of plain, old-style minshuku have their share of foreign guests. Takayama, in central Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, attracts over 400,000 non-Japanese tourists yearly. The city has several large hotels and well-appointed ryokan, but there are dozens of minshuku too. One of them is Sōsuke, which has operated for 45 years in a 135-year-old traditional minka farmhouse moved from the countryside and re-erected on its current site. Sōsuke has a nostalgic feel, not just because of its age but also for its shared bath and toilets and squeaky floors.

Sōsuke’s 13 rooms are generally fully booked on weekdays by non-Japanese travelers, many of them repeaters. Proprietress Tamai Keiko proudly relates how one Swedish family first visited as a couple. On their second visit, they came with their son, and the son, now a university student, later brought his girlfriend to stay. Tamai also points to a photo of a group of young Australians hanging on a wall. Years later, a guest identified himself as one of those in the photo, taken during a school trip to Japan years earlier.

Things did not always go smoothly when the minshuku first began welcoming foreign tourists. There were culture clashes, with some guests neglecting to take their shoes off indoors, and others not comfortable with the idea of sleeping on the floor. But despite such hiccups, around 30 years ago the number of non-Japanese staying at Sōsuke began to overtake the number of Japanese patrons.

Sōsuke is popular with foreign travelers to Gifu’s Takayama.

  • [2018.01.18]

Journalist. Relocated to Shanghai in 1997. In 1998 founded a Japanese-language information magazine covering trends among Japanese businesses targeting China. After stepping down as editor in the summer of 2008, launched the online Asia biz Forum (AbF) to provide information on Chinese and Asian business. Graduated from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics School of Public Economics and Administration in 2014. Her works include Chūgoku de kateru chūshōkigyō no jinzai senryaku (Successful Human Resource Strategies for Small- and Medium-Sized Companies in the Chinese Market).

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