A Visit to the World’s Oldest Hotel, Japan’s Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan, Established in 705 AD

Nishiya­ma Onsen Keiunkan, a hot-spring hotel in the moun­tains of Japan’s Yamanashi Pre­fec­ture, has been in busi­ness for over 1,300 years, more than five times as long as the Unit­ed States has exist­ed. Nev­er­the­less, it feels con­sid­er­ably more mod­ern than the aver­age Amer­i­can motel, to say noth­ing of the longer-estab­lished lodg­ings of Eng­land. “I assumed that I’d be stay­ing in some­thing like a liv­ing muse­um here,” says Youtu­ber Tom Scott, vlog­ging from his very own room at Nishiya­ma Onsen Keiunkan, “because that’s what I’ve come to expect from the sort of his­tor­i­cal attrac­tions you’ll find in Britain,” where preser­va­tion ide­ol­o­gy holds that “every­thing must be held at a cer­tain point in time, fund­ed by tourists who want to vis­it the old thing and see his­to­ry.”

Not so in Japan, whose notions of new and old have nev­er quite aligned with those of the West. “There’s still tra­di­tion here,” Scott has­tens to add. “It’s not a West­ern-style hotel. You sleep on futons; din­ner is served at a low Japan­ese-style table.” But the actu­al com­plex in which guests now stay “has only been a hotel in the Eng­lish sense for a few decades. Before that, it was just a place to stay and take the waters. Now there’s very fast wi-fi and, of course, a gift shop.”

The move­ment and replace­ment of its build­ings over the cen­turies brings to mind Mie pre­fec­ture’s Ise Grand Shrine, fresh­ly rebuilt each and every twen­ty years, or even the ten­den­cy of exist­ing Japan­ese homes to be torn down rather than occu­pied by their buy­ers.

Though Nishiya­ma Onsen Keiunkan has long shunned exces­sive pub­lic­i­ty — its cur­rent pres­i­dent Kawano Ken­jiro explains that the Emper­or of Japan’s stay there, in his days as Crown Prince, was kept qui­et for that rea­son — it has late­ly become irre­sistible to Youtu­bers. We’ve fea­tured it before here on Open Cul­ture, and just above you can see anoth­er take on it in the House of His­to­ry video above, which explains how it has man­aged its con­ti­nu­ity. Kawano, who’d worked at the hotel since the age of 25, chose not to go the stan­dard route of being legal­ly adopt­ed into the fam­i­ly that had always owned the place. And so, instead of inher­it­ing it, he cre­at­ed Nishiya­ma Onsen Keiunkan Lim­it­ed, a tech­ni­cal­ly new cor­po­rate enti­ty, but one that ought to be good for at least anoth­er mil­len­nia or two.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

A Med­i­ta­tive Look at a Japan­ese Artisan’s Quest to Save the Bril­liant, For­got­ten Col­ors of Japan’s Past

Short Fas­ci­nat­ing Film Shows How Japan­ese Soy Sauce Has Been Made for the Past 750 years

A Last Glimpse Inside the Oku­ra, Tokyo’s Mod­ernist Mas­ter­piece Hotel

How One Man Keeps Show­ing Films in a Japan­ese Cin­e­ma That Closed 58 Years Ago: A Mov­ing, Short Doc­u­men­tary

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Japan­ese Mas­ter­piece, the Impe­r­i­al Hotel in Tokyo

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 or on Face­book.

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  • hasnain says:

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