Two rooms have their own bath and toilet but the guests of the other ten rooms have to share a bathroom – these twelve Japanese-style rooms belong to Ryokan Sawanoya, a traditional Japanese inn run by an equally Japanese family. Simple and without much décor, these rooms can be called almost nostalgically Japanese when examined from a Japanese perspective.
This is by no means a bad thing, however, seeing that Ryokan Sawanoya boasts an annual occupancy rate of 95% throughout its 30 year long history, with 87% being guests from overseas.
After talking to Mr. Isao Sawa, the owner of the ryokan, I realized why his traditional Japanese inn was so immensely popular among international tourists.
A couple from England who brought their young children. “This ryokan is wonderful.”
A French tourist who will visit Aichi soon. “This is my second time in Japan and I wanted to see what staying at a traditional inn is like.”
A mother and daughter from France. “We’re going to Kyoto and then return to Tokyo. We’re both short, so we don’t need a large room.”
1. Reason Number One: The ryokan is convenient for those who prefer to travel freely
The reason why Sawanoya started accepting international guests was out of adversity.
It was once a large room type of ryokan primarily for group tours but ultimately couldn’t keep up with the time. In 1982, there were three consecutive days in which Sawanoya had zero guests, and the family wasn’t able to pay the utility bills. At that time, the ryokan of a friend of theirs did accept international visitors, and since their English was broken but alright, they decided to give it a try as well.
“Losing the ryokan was out of question, we were feeding the family with it and wanted our son-in-law to take it over. And when there are no guests coming, the business will collapse. We were really afraid of that.”
But after one year, the rooms were almost fully booked and the number of international guests increased from 5% to 58%. At that time, one night at Ryokan Sawanoya cost 3,800 yen, tailored to the needs of people who’d rather travel individually than with a group and sought to save a bit of money. This concept is still the same today.
“For the majority of Japanese travelers, the food, the service quality, and the general impression become memories of their trip. For travelers from the West, this isn’t the case. They stay at a ryokan in an entirely different way.”
A single room with bath and toilet. A paper crane is placed on top of the pillow as a welcome gesture.
2. Reason Number Two: Staying open while paying attention to the guests’ needs
“A Japanese inn’s services range from carrying suitcases, serving dinner, preparing and stowing away the futon, providing little, heartwarming souvenirs, and so on.
We actually did all that until we had zero guests. But the majority of international guests declined the souvenir at the end or left it behind.
Thinking about it, there’s really no way to find that one souvenir that people from all the world’s 195 countries are happy with. Our guests are all people who are familiar with traveling freely by themselves thus they also want to choose their meals and souvenirs by themselves.”
For more opinions on Ryokan Sawanoya, the results of questionnaires collected over the course of a year are made public on Sawanoya’s homepage every other year.
“I say that I collect this information for other Japanese inns but actually it’s for my own sake. I want to know what kind of trip the travelers want. So even if it’s a lot of work, I don’t mind doing it.
I don’t think we’re all that perfect right now and when looking for a solution to something, you might realize that your own way of thinking is wrong and that there are aspects you can improve on.
Since last year, we have a washing room on the rooftop where you can dry your clothes indoors. We have a lot of guests who stay around three weeks and for them, washing their clothes on their trip seems very important.”
When there’s a complaint, it is a family matter. “Things we don’t realize even when thinking ahead”, says Mr. Sawa.
“There are times I am surprised by cultural differences, things that I wouldn’t think about but are completely natural for others. It’s fine to just leave it at that but if someone had an unpleasant experience and you just discuss a bit to come to a mutual understanding is best, I think. If you simply say ‘I don’t like foreigners who do this and that’, it’s over.”
As a result of things like that happening, the interior of Ryokan Sawanoya has come to look like the battlegrounds of an English poster making contest.
A couple of years ago, one review on the internet stated that “Ryokan Sawanoya isn’t eco-friendly.”
“We were told that Western guests make abundant use of towels, so we changed them every day. But I read this review and we switched to the policy of “We change the towels every two days. Please tell us if you need them changed.”
Reducing unnecessary things doesn’t just improve the relationship to the guests but also can make running a ryokan more comfortable.
Mr. Sawa is a data-maniac. He has an account book called “My Treasure” in which he registers the data of his ryokan guests in a neat handwriting. In recent years, the number of people from France, the United States, and Australia seems to have increased – top management, Mr. Sawa!
There are two baths and you can see the garden from either one. After taking a bath, a lot of people drained the water, something that isn’t done in Japanese bathing culture as you’re supposed to clean yourself with a shower before entering the bath. So Ryokan Sawara altered the plug, making it come off only with special tools. With a circulation system, the cleanness of the water is ensured.
3. Reason Number Three: The warm family feeling, a true rarity
“If Ryokan Sawanoya got bigger or became a chain, I wouldn’t come anymore”, Mr. Sawa was told by returning guests.
“In Japan, there’s the belief that when five rooms turn into fifty, and fifty into a hundred, you’re a success. But you lack managerial effectiveness if you stay the same over decades.
I also thought that people wouldn’t come back if we didn’t improve our facilities, but overseas are incredibly famous B&Bs run by nice old women which have stayed the same for decades. When I asked why, they simply said: “Because there are so many people who like it that way.”
Until then I thought that I needed to have the same standards as everyone else but suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. There’s the desire to go to a place that is different from the norm, and when I became friends with my international guests, I realized that the Japanese way of thinking is very different. As for us, people often say “I like it here because it’s a family business.”
"Around the time of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, we also started doing Facebook. We received about one-hundred messages from around the world two days after the disaster.
'Is everyone alright? I will come straight away, hang in there for a bit longer!' - and they didn't shy away but really came to see us."
The messages that Mr. and Mrs. Sawa received after the great earthquake. They are important to them, so they printed them out.
4. Reason Number Four: experiencing the day to day life in Yanaka
“Now, that’s my personal theory, but I think that if you want to continue something for a long time, it’s important to not go out of your way and focus on things that cost little money. Of course, we don’t hesitate to do the things within our possibilities. For example, instead of serving people dinner we sometimes introduce them to places where they can enjoy the local food.”
As a result, Ryokan Sawanoya’s guests explore the scenic shopping streets of Yanaka with a map in hand, often making wonderful travel memories.
“Around 20 years ago, I went to Germany to visit a German regular guest of mine who visited every year since 1989.
I went to his home and he showed me every part of it, from the basement to the bedroom. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he wanted to know and when I said “I want to explore the town with my wife”, he handed me the keys to his house and told me to come and go freely. I was surprised, he was rather different from Japanese people.
It was the season for white asparagus and when I said I wanted to eat some, and while we said that we only cook for lunch, they made a lot of asparagus for us. They also took me to meet their family, even distant relatives, and introduced me to everyone as “This is Mr. Sawa from Tokyo.”
We always consider it as something special when guests come stay with us but they just made us part of their daily lives without regarding us as outsiders. That was the most enjoyable part.”
This feeling is reflected in Ryokan Sawanoya. Even when the people staying at the Japanese inn had the money to sleep at a luxury hotel, “When I tell them that the beer in our vending machines is 20 yen more expensive than at a liquor store, they go out to a shop to buy their beer there.”
Those that travel with the desire to experience the general day to day life and customs of a foreign country are the people who choose to stay at Ryokan Sawanoya.
This is further validated by Ryokan Sawanoya’s most popular shooting spot that Mr. Sawa showed to me.
From the third floor, the scenery of dozens of little, private houses sprawls out in front of you – for people living in Tokyo, this sight is neither rare nor particularly beautiful but for tourists, it is a glimpse of a more private, homely Tokyo and every guest seems to enjoy taking it in.
“The tiled roofs, the small houses lining up very closely to one another, and skyscrapers in the distance – ‘I’ve come to Tokyo!’ is what many people feel.”
Even if there’s no special reason, approaching one another openly is the key to mutual understanding and nothing is impossible then. Don’t go out of your way and overdo it in terms of hospitability – this is the secret of Ryokan Sawanoya’s popularity.
Mr. and Mrs. Sawa, being photographed by a guest from the United States.
Working as writer and editor. Around the time of the 1967 UN slogan "Tourism: Passport to Peace", I had a similar feeling like Mr. Sawa: "I work to feed my family but if that brings us peace that's enough reason to be motivated."