Ryokan inns continue to draw foreigners to Japan

Japanese ryokan in Hoshinoya in Kyoto, Japan.

In recent years, more foreign tourists to Japan have been attracted by one of the nation's traditional travel charms-ryokan inns.

Aiming to make use of the tourism resource unique to the nation, a symposium targeting ryokan proprietors for the better understanding the needs of tourists was held by Mitsubishi Research Institute (MRI) and two tourism-related organisations in Tokyo on July 22.

According to a survey conducted in February by All Japan Ryokan Hotel Association (AJRA), about half of the respondents were from East Asian countries and regions-Taiwan topped the list with 24.8 per cent of the total, followed by Hong Kong at 11.4 per cent and China at 9.2 per cent. The survey covered foreign visitors who stayed at 34 ryokan across the nation, and there were 549 valid responses.

During the symposium, the proprietor of a family-run ryokan that recently started receiving more visitors from foreign countries discussed the efforts they made to attract them.

Nozomu Shiga, president of Ryokan Wakaba at the Kurokawa Onsen spa resort in Kumamoto Prefecture, decided last year that his ryokan would take steps to bring in more visitors from overseas.

In 2012, foreign guests accounted for only several per cent of all his guests each month. But Shiga, 41, said this year they sometimes exceed 20 per cent per month, partly due to him and his staff taking English lessons.

They also produced menus, inn guides and Kurokawa Onsen resort maps in English, and revamped the facility's English website and booking procedures.

Shiga found that these measures did not cost as much as he expected. "What we should really do first is resolve to bring in more visitors from overseas," he remarked at the symposium.

Traditional experience

During the symposium, the survey results were announced by the youth group of AJRA.

Japanese-style guestrooms, onsen hot springs and Japanese food are the top three reasons foreign visitors choose to stay at traditional ryokan inns, according to the survey.

Asked why they chose to stay at ryokan, 72.5 per cent of respondents from Europe, the United States and Australia said they were "interested in the facilities, including Japanese-style guestrooms and architecture."

Among respondents from Asian countries and regions, "to go to a hot spring" was the most popular reason, cited by 61.2 per cent of all respondents from the area. "To eat Japanese cuisine" was also a common motive among all respondents.

"Foreign visitors are very satisfied with ryokan in general. At the same time, their interests regarding ryokan vary depending on where they're from," said a member of AJRA in charge of inbound strategy.

One notable survey finding was that about 80 per cent of respondents from Europe, the United States and Australia were in their 20s and 30s, whereas those from Asian countries and regions represented various age demographics.

Naoya Obana, 43, a senior consultant from MRI said, "This might indicate that many backpackers and young tourists from European countries, the United States and Australia tend to stay at ryokan."

Many ryokan staff worry their English is not proficient enough, according to another survey by AJRA. However, 71.1 per cent of respondents from Europe, the United States, and Australia replied they felt they could communicate with ryokan staff.

Also, 67.6 per cent of respondents from these countries said they did not feel uncomfortable at all during their stay at ryokan. Respondents from Asia provided similar numbers-53.8 per cent said they were successful in communicating with ryokan staff and 69.5 per cent did not feel uncomfortable during their stay.