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.
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.