We started the day in Higashi-Naruko, which was even more silent than usual. We say no one but the barber and the woman in the bakery… truly a ghost town.
We went to Marumiya Onsen, next to Kanshichiyu and behind Ohnuma’s, an extremely traditional inn that doesn’t allow day visitors. They are strictly for long-term toji guests looking to stay there for health reasons. There was a funeral in progress, the wake being the day before, so we couldn’t go inside. Although the place has not been obvious before, it is 4 buildings wide, 2 stories each, so instead of growing vertically, it grew horizontally. As we walked by, it is clear that the last two buildings have been rarely used for a decade or two.
We moved over to the main part of Naruko, hoping to interview one of the owners or managers of the big, hotel-like ryokan. We confirmed with Miyamoto-san that Naruko Kankou Hotel is the only one of the large ones still owned by the family.
We went into Naruko Kankou and asked for an interview. We were about to talk to their manager of 40 years, when Onuma Mizue-san (60s) approached us and agreed to an interview.
Although it looks new and modern, like a Tokyo hotel, it is actually one of the two oldest hotels in the area. It has been in operation for well over 400 years (since 1620!), 14 generations of her family. It is the only one still purely owned by the family, no outside investors. Through proper management and shrewd choices, the inn has retained ints family ownership. They employ about 120 people, 1/3 of the staff is long-term. The low turnover among the staff is part of the reason for their staff. Guests that come back see the same staff members visit after visit, that increases the feeling of hominess. They have between 50,000-60,000 guests per year, which is probably more than all of Higashi-Naruko combined. The hotel expanded to 100 rooms in the 1960s during the Leisure Boom. During those years, group tours were incredibly popular, so guests would arrive on a bus, all together. Since those days, that style of travel has declined. They see many more individual travelers than they used to. Another big change was that in the 1970s and into the 1980s, they would host conferences (they still do, managing to host about one a year now, of about 200 people), but they were more common back then, they would have a big banquet after… not only would they get the money from the rooms, but also from the huge parties after. Considering the amount of drinking at a Japanese party, that was probably a considerable amount of money. Since Japanese companies no longer have bottomless expense accounts, those kinds of parties are long since over.
Onuma-san talked about an “onsen pass” which for 1200 yen, gets you access to 6 baths. It comes with a small map, and is to encourage people to try many of the baths that Naruko has to offer. Since it usually costs 500 yen for a day pass, it is a significant savings.
Other types of cooperation: while there is a Ryokan Association, there is a subcommittee of the Mistresses of the Inns. Last year, those ladies got together and harvested and brewed plum wine. They plan to repeat the project this year.
She said that in the past, there was nothing but competition between the different businesses, all the hotels trying to get as many guests as possible. In the current climate, with everything in decline, it is not appropriate for them to compete, but it is important for them to draw people to Naruko as a destination as a whole. Once in Naruko, they can see the great variety of accommodation, and stay wherever they feel most comfortable, whether the luxury of Naruko Kankou or the rustic charm of Radon. This particular hotel is famous for its sulfur baths, Higashi-Naruko is famous for its bicarbonate of soda baths, Naruko has a wide variety of baths, 7 different kinds, and while unique, it is hard to market, as it is not a grabby enough PR point to build a campaign around.
There is a nationwide tourism campaign run by JR, which rotates based on the year. 2 years ago, Sendai was the featured destination, so even Tokyo Station was plastered with posters advertising Sendai. During that year, they did organize some volunteer guides for Naruko, so people lured to Sendai and then out to Naruko would not be totally lost.
Back in the day, right after WWII, there were many widows left over from the war, many single mothers. Many of those women turned to prostitution, because there were a lot of guests coming to Naruko and that meant a large client pool.
She mentioned that actually working for an inn was an attractive option, they would be guaranteed a place to stay (most had quarters for the staff), food, and clothing (a uniform). Few other employment opportunities would offer such security to a single mother. In those days, Naruko would draw single women from all the surrounding communities, since that is where the jobs were. So, that was something Naruko could offer that other places could not. These days, she recognizes there isn’t anything Naruko can offer that isn’t offered elsewhere. She understands why young people are leaving, there is nowhere to work. If Naruko could offer more jobs, people who wanted to stay could actually stay because as it is, even if they want to, they often can’t.
How could that be improved? She had no good solution…
Although born in Naruko, she has lived in both Sendai and Tokyo. She does have one son who was living in Sendai, but who has moved back to Naruko to help at the hotel. She said that when he came back, like many people, he had trouble readjusting to the pace of life, but after seeing how everyone here works together, they do find their spot.
When asked how the hotel had weathered 400 years of changes and how her family had maintained control, she gave credit to her staff and good management. If they didn’t have such good people, drawing in guests year after year, they would have had the same fate as the other hotels. They do have many return visitors.
The hotel is like a cruise ship, there really isn’t any need to leave the building. They have a night club, a karaoke room, conference rooms, they have a huge beautiful bath in wonderful shape with high-quality toiletries. (If you visit as a day visitor, it is 1000 yen, twice the going rate, but keeps out the riff-raff).
She admits times are tougher than they once were, but she does not feel that all is lost. They are still doing more than enough business to stay afloat, but they do hope they can maintain that level or attract more visitors.
By both expanding size and services, they have still maintained tatami rooms and lots of traditional touches. From a western perspective, it is a much more comfortable place to stay that some of the worn-out places in Higashi-Naruko. So, while they have made concession to the present (spa treatments, massage), it is still Naruko, it still employs 120 people, and still attracts tens of thousands of guests to Naruko. Perhaps some of those changes are what has allowed them to stay in business and family-owned.
August 11, 2010