Photo/IllutrationGuests from South Korea pose for a photo on an old chair set up in front of the Yamashiroya ryokan at the Yunohira spa resort in the Yufuincho district in Yufu, Oita Prefecture, as the entrance has proven a popular spot for a photo opportunity. (Yuhei Kyono)

  • Photo/Illustraion

YUFU, Oita Prefecture--After the president of the Yamashiroya ryokan here was interviewed by an overseas magazine 11 years ago, the inn started efforts to attract foreign tourists.

As a first step, Yamashiroya made its website available in other languages and posted details about the ryokan on more than three globally renowned travel websites.

Yamashiroya has few employees who can speak foreign languages fluently, but the inn's president, Kenji Ninomiya, 56, said, “Language barriers do not matter much, and what is important is that we try.”

Today, the small ryokan is drawing hordes of overseas tourists by showing them aspects of daily life in Japan.

While it has only seven guest rooms and is surrounded by mountains and terraced paddy fields, it ranked third in popularity across the nation in the Japanese ryokan category on one of the world’s largest travel websites.

Just five or so employees work at Yamashiroya, which stands at the Yunohira spa resort in the Yufuincho district, more than 4 kilometers from Yunohira Station on the JR Kyudai Line. Yamashiroya is a 50-year-old, two-story ryokan with four small indoor and outdoor baths.

Over the last several years, people from abroad accounted for 80 percent of all its guests and many were repeat visitors.

Especially popular among foreign guests is its kitchen, from which one can watch the inn’s proprietress and others preparing meals up close. Although Yamashiroya officials said its kitchen is “nothing special,” many guests shoot photos there.

Ma Kapan, 35, who visited the ryokan from Hong Kong with his parents and others, took a picture with employees at Yamashiroya’s kitchen. He said it was his sixth visit to Japan and his second to Yamashiroya.

“It is interesting to see what traditional Japanese home life is like,” Ma said.

When Ninomiya’s wife, Hiromi, 49, who is also the ryokan’s proprietress, told a guest from South Korea that dinner starts at 6:30 p.m. by using English, Korean and Japanese words, the guest understood what she said and smiled.

The popularity of Yamashiroya spread through word of mouth through social networking services.

It placed third in the 2017 ranking for ryokan and other accommodation facilities throughout Japan released by the Japanese subsidiary of TripAdvisor, one of the leading travel website operators.

According to TripAdvisor, the ranking was developed based on the results of five-scale evaluations by users across the globe on accommodation facilities as well as other factors. The most and second most popular ryokan were both high-class inns in Kyoto.

Titled “Yamaoku no Chiisana Ryokan ga Renjitsu Gaikokujinkyaku de Manshitsu ni Naru Riyu” (Why a small ryokan deep in the mountains is always flooded with guests from abroad), a book showing Yamashiroya’s efforts was published by Asa Publishing Co. in July.

“People who have visited Japan many times likely want to go to places where they can see what Japan’s ordinary daily life is like,” said Ninomiya, explaining why he thinks Yamashiroya achieved popularity among foreign tourists.

DEMAND GROWING FOR EXPERIENCES UNIQUE TO JAPAN

The inns and hotels law stipulates that ryokan are hotels “mainly featuring Japanese-style design and facilities.”

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there are 41,899 ryokan in Japan as of the end of March 2015. But few of these, unlike Yamashiroya, are popular among overseas visitors.

People from abroad accounted for 69 million people, or 14 percent, of all the 490 million travelers who lodged at accommodation facilities throughout the nation in 2016, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

But the 2017 white paper on tourism showed only 7.7 percent of tourists from overseas stayed at ryokan in 2016.

Youn Seung Ho, an assistant professor of tourism studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, said one of the reasons why fewer people from outside Japan utilize ryokan is that their operators have become increasingly elderly.

The fiscal 2011 survey by the health ministry showed 60 percent of those who run ryokan are aged 60 or older. The findings also revealed only 11.5 percent of them intend to “appeal to foreign tourists” as part of their future business strategies.

The results of the study indicate elderly ryokan operators hesitate to work hard to attract non-Japanese guests because of difficulties in promoting their inns in other languages or on the Internet.

“Demand is growing for ryokan where hot springs, Japanese food, tatami rooms and other experiences typical of Japan can be enjoyed at the same time,” said Youn. “They (ryokan operators) should change direction instead of simply giving up appealing to non-Japanese visitors.”