Photo/IllutrationFinnish visitor Jari Helenius relaxes at a “sento” Japanese-style public bathhouse in Osaka’s Higashi-Yodogawa Ward with Masatsugu Morikawa, operator of Hostel Moku-Moku, in the background. (Mari Endo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

OSAKA--Masatsugu Morikawa was surprised to realize that the simple things in life, like taking a soak at a public bathhouse, offer huge appeal to foreign visitors.

As Morikawa explains, daily aspects of Japanese culture can translate into extraordinary experiences for non-Japanese.

It gave the 35-year-old pause for thought, and in April last year he opened a small inn here.

His inn, Hostel Moku-Moku, has proven popular, in part because guests are given the opportunity to relax in a large bathtub at a “sento” Japanese-style public bathhouse as part of their stay at no charge.

Morikawa's efforts rang a chord with the owners of stores and restaurants in a nearby shopping arcade, and they are now also aggressively trying to attract more tourists.

Situated in a traditional district near Hankyu Awaji Station, the budget hotel is easily accessible from Kyoto.

Morikawa used to work at a consulting firm to help redevelop local communities. But he decided to quit his company and channel his energies into revitalizing his hometown.

He started by remodeling a wooden row house built more than 60 years ago in Osaka’s Higashi-Yodogawa Ward. This became Hostel Moku-Moku.

The main attraction of the inn, which is a three-minute walk northwest of the station, is free bathing at the nearby Showayu sento traditionally operated by Morikawa’s family and now run by Morikawa's older brother.

It is located just 30 meters from Hostel Moku-Moku. A dip normally costs 440 yen ($4), but Morikawa covers the bathing costs for his inn’s guests himself.

A Finnish guest, 31-year-old Jari Helenius, took a soak in a whirlpool bath at Showayu and praised the “melty feeling” given off by the air bubbles.

Heidi Makkonen, 28, who stayed at Hostel Moku-Moku with Jari, said Finland offers few opportunities for such bathing, adding that she found the inn online.

Sporting a big grin, she said she enjoyed bathing in the sento’s section for women.

Since he opened the inn, Morikawa has recommended to all his non-Japanese guests that they should visit the sento.

An American was shocked to take a bath with an electric current running through the water, calling it “crazy.” A guest from France became enchanted with drinking the “ume” apricot juice after taking a bath.

Morikawa recalled the time he talked an Asian tourist who hesitated to strip naked in front of others to try the traditional public bath.

“Seeing the reactions of non-Japanese, I became aware that our daily life is full of attractive, extraordinary experiences for them,” said Morikawa.

In the hope that visitors from overseas could experience more aspects of everyday life, Morikawa drew up a map of a nearby shopping arcade and surrounding areas.

Two versions of the map--in Japanese and English--were prepared, which show a shop that sells takeout sushi, a sake shop where customers can enjoy drinking while standing at a counter and other stores beloved by locals.

The map prompted local shop owners to start their own campaigns.

For example, an “okonomiyaki” restaurant that serves savoury Japanese-style pancakes developed an English menu and holds a program to allow foreign visitors to cook “takoyaki” octopus dumplings themselves.

Many non-Japanese sightseers visit a coffeehouse near Hostel Moku-Moku to sample its cheap breakfast "combo" of toast, a boiled egg and a cup of coffee--for the price of a single cup of coffee.

Morikawa said he used to worry that long-established shopping streets would not survive if they did not take measures to attract new customers.

“When people visit from overseas, they spend more in their destinations,” he said. “The greatest benefit was that all local residents started efforts to welcome overseas visitors, and that in turn activated the local community’s ‘metabolism’.”