Japan’s beautiful ryokans are lying empty as the country still keeps tourists out over Covid fears

Japan’s beautiful ryokans are lying empty as the country still keeps tourists out over Covid fears

The slender figure of general manager Yajima Yajima in a kimono gazes gloomily at the £6,000 Japanese cedar bathtub.

In the juicy Kyoto summer, he languished a little. The golden and fragrant wooden tub is empty with only a small slug of water. The scent of cedar and rose scent fills the air of these old Japanese rooms.

“Traditional Japanese baths like this crack are not used very often, so the water you see is a necessity. And since each one is handmade, it would be a crime,” explains Mr. Yajima, whose subtle light is now from The rice paper Raj window of the Sowaka Hotel passed by.

His duties undoubtedly belong to the country of “machiya”, in the heart of Kyoto’s Gion district, where traditional wooden structures, lovingly restored residences, restaurants and hotels can be found.

This one-hundred-year-old special machiya used to be an elegant geisha restaurant and is now a luxury hotel the size of a bantam. But its survival is questionable.

Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. Once fed up with hordes of foreign tourists crowding the narrow streets and ignoring etiquette, many in Kyoto, Japan yearn for their return (Image: Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sowaka and its cedar bath require guests to function. But what can be done? The machiya – a beautifully restored poem of Japanese craftsman genius – has been without guests for days on end due to an ongoing closed-door policy to control infections, feared domestic travelers and the “seventh wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic raging in Japan.

Unlike other wealthy countries, Japan has imposed a border closure on individual travelers since April 2020, despite its relatively low death rate from Covid-19. Group travel is allowed, but these policies are derided as unpopular and unhelpful.

Such tight border controls are endorsed by largely elderly voters and citizens who still express their disgust at those who take off their masks in the streets.

But some Japanese feared they might shoot in their own feet. Nor did they turn a blind eye to the double standard of allowing themselves to travel freely abroad.

“Closing the border makes no sense,” said Dai Miyamoto, a tour guide at Localized Kyoto. “Japan now has the highest weekly Covid numbers in the world.”

With a record 31.9 million international tourists in 2019, Japan is the 11th most visited country in the world, according to the Japan Tourism Organization.

Now it only hosts a handful of them. Unlike other parts of the planet, stay-at-home vacations haven’t filled the void during the pandemic.

“More than 80% of our profits come from overseas because Japanese people usually like to stay for one night and only travel on weekends. So we are mostly empty,” Mr Yajima said.

“One more year and we’re done.”

He added that Sowaka’s business plan is to take into account loose foreign guests who take longer breaks than the famous Japanese.

Sowaka is a traditional hotel of the quintessential “ryokan” type that has been attracting both locals and foreign tourists for many years, and it is equipped with modern comforts not usually found in old Japanese ryokans, making it a beacon for inbound travelers.

Blending the ancient traditions of Japanese inns with a modern twist—a trend in Japanese hospitality—even helps preserve Kyoto’s delicate and endangered wooden machiya houses.

But just when the newly established ryokan thought it was time to celebrate its success, Covid-19 struck, making the city even more miserable than wabi-sabi.

Tourists visit a garden at Kennin-ji Temple in Kyoto (Photo: Kosuke Okahara/Getty)

Many other new hotels were also caught off guard. Hotelier Juno Takimoto joined the fray four years ago, at the height of Japan’s tourism boom, when the number of tourists in Kyoto increased fivefold.

He built a beautiful new hotel, Takasegawa Bettei, on the banks of Kyoto’s winding canals, incorporating traditional prosperity into the “Machiya spirit” and won a Michelin award for his efforts. But when Japan closed its borders, “business became deadly,” he said.

In an interview at his hotel, accompanied by the charming and bleak “kon-chiki-chin” beat of the Kyoto Gion festival, he said: “Tourism is Kyoto’s saviour. Less than 10 years ago, the economy was in a nationwide recession. predicament.”

“Now we’re back in a corner because all industries are in a bind. The most exposed are small hotels and travel and transportation. The economy can’t take it.”

Small businesses in Japan have received state relief payments and limited furloughs during the pandemic. But the economic downturn continues. Mr. Takimoto said Lexus had vanished from the once crowded streets of Kyoto due to a domino effect, and the once-crowded shelves in malls now looked sad and bare.

The crumbling glamour burns, and Japan’s ancient capital has long been a tourist destination. They flock to its World Heritage temples, shrines and see geisha in wooden buildings. Severely scarred by the urban plague that scarred most Japanese towns, Kyoto retains enough of a legacy to be the only game worth a tourist candle after Tokyo, even though much of its past has been flattened.

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Therefore, it has an extraordinary attraction for tourists. The pre-pandemic city welcomed 53.6 million travelers in 2017, killing a population of 1.5 million. So much so that some locals are happy to see the end of “tourism pollution”. They say it has brought the city back to life lost from the stampede by millions.

For some, visitors to Kyoto were as welcome as butter sushi until Japan closed its borders and remained closed. “Don’t take pictures on the street”, “Sit on our bridge” or “Eat on the road” pleads for multilingual signs posted in many hotspots in an attempt to reclaim public space robbed by overtourism. Pandemic.

“The mood has eased now,” Mr. Takimoto said. “Because the city is facing bankruptcy, a lot of places, shops, you name it, are permanently closed.”

Sowaka’s general manager was even more outspoken. “Our message is: open borders for God’s sake, there is a distress situation here!”

Begging for the return of inbound tourism must be a bitter pill to swallow for the Kyoto people, who are known for their domineering. But to preserve the precious fragments of old Kyoto, this may be their only option.

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