AsiaOne speaks to Singaporeans who are overseas during the Covid-19 pandemic and sees how they are coping. Know someone with an interesting story to share? Let us know!
When Singaporean Marilyn Ichihashi opened a bed and breakfast in February this year in her husband's hometown of Hokkaido, it was, in her words, "absolutely bad timing".
The couple had relocated to the northernmost Japanese prefecture from Singapore in June last year with the aim of setting up their own business.
"When my husband was working in Singapore, he found it intriguing that there are more people in Singapore than in Japan who have an entrepreneurial mindset. This spurred him to run his own business in his next career and a B&B was at the top of his list," shared the 34-year-old, who worked as a leasing executive in Singapore.
The couple, who met on Tinder and got married in 2018, decided that with its scenic views and popularity as a holiday destination, Hokkaido was the obvious choice for the business.
The idea sprouted during a holiday they took to the town of Furano in 2017. "The place felt amazingly peaceful and it triggered my desire to lead a non-urban lifestyle," shared Marilyn.
But within two months of opening their B&B Plus Shooting Star accommodation, the couple was forced to close its doors as authorities declared a state of emergency in the city and across Japan due to the coronavirus outbreak.
"It was very challenging and tough for a new start-up to endure zero revenue," shared Marilyn, who is also a trained yoga instructor and conducts in-house classes at the B&B.
While she declined to reveal the exact amount sunk into the venture, she'd only share that the amount was "all of our life savings".
In order to still maintain a livelihood during the lockdown, the couple pivoted to selling Japanese curry rice bentos for takeaway instead.
When the business was finally allowed to reopen in June, domestic travellers were their sole customers, and with much of the world still in the throes of the pandemic, the demographic has remained till today.
To supplement their income, Marilyn teaches socially distanced yoga classes during the day, and the B&B takes one booking for dinner from the public every night.
Through our conversation, it is clear that what the business has got going for it are its two 'mountains', both active in more ways than one.
The former refers to Mountain, the couple's blue point ragdoll cat whom Marilyn lovingly transported from Singapore. "Mr Mountain", as he's fondly known to guests, or the "boss cat" according to its owner, is apparently quite the draw of the B&B. Guests have been known to travel to the locale just to catch a glimpse of the adorable feline.
Mount Tokachidake, on the other hand, is an active volcano situated in the vicinity of Furano and is among the most well-known mountains in Japan. The B&B's dining room was intentionally constructed with full-height windows that open up towards the mountain ranges, so guests can enjoy the majestic view along with their meals.
Labour of love
Managing a bed and breakfast as newie entrepreneurs means having to roll up their sleeves and do all the dirty work themselves. This includes scrubbing the floors and learning professional bed-making techniques worthy of a top-class hotel.
For both Marilyn and her husband Kanji, 43, who came from corporate backgrounds, it was a steep learning curve. But with experience comes expertise, and they're now able to have a bedroom cleaned and sanitised all within an hour.
"If guests are staying for dinner, we'll also need to work on the dinner preparation, so it can be pretty hectic and physically exhausting," shared Marilyn, who incorporates local Singaporean delights such as bak kut teh and laksa into the diverse menu and considers it among the B&B's differentiating factors.
But with indications that a third wave of Covid-19 infections could be sweeping across the country, Marilyn shared that the Japanese government is discouraging travel and all travel campaigns have also been suspended. This has no doubt put a dampener on foreseeable business prospects.
Despite the considerable challenges, however, Marilyn and her hubby are not quite ready to throw in the towel just yet.
With all their savings ploughed into the business, she let on that they are "counting on (the business succeeding) for our lives", while keeping optimistic that the situation will improve by 2022.
"We hope to see more guests, at least from the domestic market for now, and hopefully the world can find a way to cope with this virus so that borders can reopen."
And despite the fact that their life in Japan involves "lots of labour work, from housekeeping to gardening", Marilyn is enjoying the moment.
"I like what we do, and the lifestyle now," she shared, even though the inevitable homesickness hits now and then. Like a true Singaporean, it's the food that gets to her the most. "I miss Singapore food! Claypot rice, chilli crab, salted egg dishes, nasi lemak and the list goes on. When there is a chance to return, I think my stomach will explode!"