I discovered the Ryokan Collection, the world’s first consortium of luxury ryokans, which are traditional Japanese inns and small luxury hotels. These small, family-run inns, many of them clustered in hot spring towns throughout Japan, have, over the centuries, developed Japan’s special art of hospitality, called omotenashi. Today, there are over 50,000 ryokans throughout Japan that provide this special brand of premium service.
The Ryokan Collection consists of 32 ryokan members, all of them representative Japanese inns that have passed rigorous inspections. This traditional hospitality and Japanese way of meticulous service have been the main reason behind the success of family-run ryokan businesses for centuries.
The service you will find at Ryokans explain why they are an unconventional type of luxury hotel. Delicious home-cooked meals served in a special ritual, friendly staff and relaxing onsen hot springs are the main reasons behind their huge popularity. These traditional inns are usually located far from the big cities, surrounded by rich nature and close to natural hot spring sources, exposing visitors to the unique charms of the various regions in Japan. These are the authentic experiences of the rich culture that the Japanese have nurtured for centuries.I had the pleasure of speaking with Hiroki Fukunaga, the founder and CEO of The Ryokan Collection. You will discover below our discussion of the Japanese art of welcoming at Ryokans.
Can you describe for us a Japanese Ryokan?
The first Japanese Ryokan was established 1,300 years ago; we have achieved a long history. We have 15 Japanese Ryokans in the cities of our country. The Japanese Ryokans were meant to treat people’s health in the countryside. When you come to visit, the Mother will look after you and take care of you. They prepare meals, they prepare a place to sleep. That is the traditional experience. When you visit the Ryokan, the Mother of the house will look after you. They serve the best of whatever they get for the day, and they serve it for dinner and breakfast.
Most of the Ryokans also have natural hot springs. Natural hot springs are one of the ways local Japanese people choose to relax. We normally go there to look for some nice spring in the countryside; they enjoy natural hot springs. We try to provide this kind of experience to other people around the world. Japanese Ryokans are small establishments in the countryside with natural hot springs, usually in the best place in the region. The difference between these kinds of hotels and hotels in America is that the style is totally different. Sometimes you will see on the threshold of a Japanese house three people sitting on the mat. And you will share the natural hot springs and the public baths with other people, and you can communicate with other people. Also, while you are in the Ryokan, you will wear a yukata (a cotton kimono). So, while there is no dress code for the dinner, you will be expected to wear a yukata.
How does the Japanese art of welcoming compare with the art of welcoming in other cultures?
I myself used to work for international hotels in a couple other countries. In a Japanese ryokan, you will find something very different. In France, of course, there is a certain way of treating customers. It’s very different, but it’s good and bad. In both Japanese-style service and Western-style service, there are both good sides and bad sides. But it’s very important to learn about different ways of thinking and how people react to things. So come to Japan to learn about how we Japanese serve the customers, treat the customers. That should be a great difference for you to mature in your career.
What inspired you to create the Ryokan Collection?
I used to work in an international hotel chain, a U.K. company, for about 10 years. Then I traveled all over the world to help the company’s marketing team. During my time at the U.K. company, I once had the chance to organize a big General Manager meeting. We arranged the meeting in one of the Ryokans near Tokyo, in an area known for its hot springs. We were all wearing yukatas and enjoying a Japanese kaiseki.
All the General Managers, who had come from Europe, were very pleased to stay in that kind of place. They never even knew that this kind of product existed. I myself was very surprised that they were learning about it for the first time. These GMs—who are senior people from all over the world—were supposed to know everything about the hospitality industry. That was when I realized that we could do something for the Japanese Ryokan so that they could open up and receive more business from international customers. I figured that if we sent this kind of information all over the world, we might have a lot of customers who would show interest.
So, I traveled all over Japan, visiting a few Japanese high-end Ryokans, sharing my passion, and that was when we decided to create this brand. We act as a bridge between international customers and the Japanese experience. So Japanese Ryokans who are interested in welcoming more international customers come to us. We began with 11 properties; at the time, in 2004, it was called Luxury Ryokan Collection. Now we have more. This was why I created the brand: I wanted to do something for the Japanese hotel business. Some of them are very good-quality, even better than 5-star luxury hotels. I also wanted to do something to help the local culture. They need to be maintained, taken care of, and improved. We really wanted to do something to help the local Japanese culture, and that is at the heart of the creation of this brand.
Known for his international expertise on luxury hotels through his magazine, Laurent Delporte shares his vision and experiences in the world of hotels on his site DELPORTE Hospitality. He decodes the behind-the-scenes action in the sector: from food and beverage facilities, accommodations, architecture, to the quality of services. He offers interviews, advice, and articles as pragmatic resources that industry professionals and private individuals can refer to in their search for information.