Why Japan Has the Oldest Businesses in the World?: Hōshi, a 1300-Year-Old Hotel, Offers Clues

Per­haps, when the state of the world once again per­mits rea­son­ably con­ve­nient trav­el, you plan to vis­it Japan. If so, you’d do well to con­sid­er stay­ing at one of the coun­try’s ryokan, the tra­di­tion­al inns often locat­ed at hot springs. No accom­mo­da­tions could appeal more deeply to those in search of “old Japan,” and many ryokan deliv­er on that adjec­tive in the most lit­er­al sense. Take the Nisiya­ma Onsen Keiunkan, whose 1300 years of oper­a­tion at its hot spring in Yamanashi Pre­fec­ture make it the old­est hotel in the world. But it has yet to get the doc­u­men­tary treat­ment by Fritz Schu­mann, a Ger­man film­mak­er with an eye for Japan pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his video on the “moun­tain monks” of Yam­a­ga­ta.

Schu­mann has, how­ev­er, made a sub­ject of the sec­ond-old­est hotel in the world, Komat­su’s Hōshi ryokan, found­ed in the year 718.  That Japan boasts both the word’s old­est and sec­ond-old­est hotels should sur­prise nobody who knows the nature of its busi­ness­es. “The coun­try is home to more than 33,000 with at least 100 years of his­to­ry — over 40 per­cent of the world’s total, accord­ing to a study by the Tokyo-based Research Insti­tute of Cen­ten­ni­al Man­age­ment,” write The New York Times’ Ben Doo­ley and Hisako Ueno.

“Over 3,100 have been run­ning for at least two cen­turies. Around 140 have exist­ed for more than 500 years. And at least 19 claim to have been con­tin­u­ous­ly oper­at­ing since the first mil­len­ni­um.” These shinise, or “old shops,” include brands like Nin­ten­do, found­ed as a play­ing-card com­pa­ny, and soy-sauce mak­er Kikko­man.

Doo­ley and Uneo high­light Ichi­wa, a shop that has sold mochi — those slight­ly sweet rice-based con­fec­tions often mold­ed into aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing shapes — for over a mil­len­ni­um. “Like many busi­ness­es in Japan,” Ichi­wa “takes the long view — albeit longer than most. By putting tra­di­tion and sta­bil­i­ty over prof­it and growth, Ichi­wa has weath­ered wars, plagues, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, and the rise and fall of empires. Through it all, its rice flour cakes have remained the same.” At BBC’s Work­life, Bryan Lufkin exam­ines Tsuen Tea, a fix­ture of sub­ur­ban Kyoto since the year 1160, back when Kyoto was still Japan’s cap­i­tal, a his­to­ry that grants the city pride of place among tra­di­tion­al­ists. There, writes Lufkin, “many long-stand­ing busi­ness­es also tout a ded­i­ca­tion to good cus­tomer ser­vice as an ele­ment that keeps them thriv­ing.”

In Kyoto, or any­where else in Japan, this is “espe­cial­ly the case with ryokan,” which “treat guests like fam­i­ly.” Like many things Japan­ese, this aspect of the ryokan expe­ri­ence will both sur­prise first-time vis­i­tors and be just what they expect­ed. Whether in their look and feel, their set­tings, their stan­dard of ser­vice — or rather, in a com­bi­na­tion of all those qual­i­ties and oth­ers besides — ryokan offer some­thing avail­able nowhere else in the world. So do Japan’s oth­er shinise, which also set them­selves apart by hav­ing amassed the resources (finan­cial, famil­ial, and oth­er­wise) to keep going through hard times. This past year has been anoth­er such hard time, and with the ongo­ing pan­dem­ic still caus­ing a great deal of human and eco­nom­ic dam­age around the world, we might look to Hōshi and its long-lived kind for lessons on how do to busi­ness in the future.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Soy Sauce Has Been Made in Japan for Over 220 Years: An Inside View

Moun­tain Monks: A Vivid Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Monks Who Prac­tice an Ancient, Once-For­bid­den Reli­gion in Japan

Dis­cov­er the Japan­ese Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Col­lect­ing Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

The Japan­ese Tra­di­tions of Sashiko & Boro: The Cen­turies-Old Craft That Mends Clothes in a Sus­tain­able, Artis­tic Way

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

20 Mes­mer­iz­ing Videos of Japan­ese Arti­sans Cre­at­ing Tra­di­tion­al Hand­i­crafts

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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