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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012
Award-winning Hakuba inn offers a warm and bespoke welcome to all
By EDAN CORKILL
A report published this year by a national association of ryōkan (traditional inn) owners notes that one of the most common problems facing its several thousand members is a dearth of suitable successors — meaning there will be no one in line to run them when the current operators retire.
If only they all had sons like Toshiro Maruyama. The multi-talented 38-year-old is savvy with the Internet and has a flair for creative marketing. He's also fluent in English — a particularly important attribute because in the ski resort of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, where he now runs the ryōkan that his grandfather started some 75 years ago, business has recently taken on a very international flavor.
"Early in each season, we get Thais and Singaporeans, who come to just get a taste of snow," Maruyama explained. "Then we mostly get Australians. On weekdays in January and February, 80 or 90 percent of our guests are Aussies. They come for the powder snow."
Hakuba's reputation for consistently great snow obviously gives Maruyama's inn, named Shirouma-so, an advantage over others elsewhere in terms of attracting a new, international clientele. Put simply, Hakuba has something that people are willing to travel from far and wide to experience — and spend lots of money in the process.
But snow alone doesn't explain why Shirouma-so, which is located in the center of Hakuba, just a few hundred meters from the main ski lifts, won this year's Luxury Ski Resort category at the World Luxury Hotel Awards run by a South Africa-based global organization of the same name.
And it doesn't explain why last season, when the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis caused the number of foreign visitors to Hakuba to drop by 35 percent, the number staying at Shirouma-so actually went up by 20 percent. Spend a night in Shirouma-so, though, and you come away with the distinct impression that what explains this small establishment's success is Maruyama himself, and the tremendous energy and creativity he brings to his business.
If every ryōkan in Japan could boast a similar caliber of host, Japan might have already achieved the goal of becoming a "tourist kingdom" that the national government set back in 2003.
Maruyama's approach has been to foster the foreign market, and that has meant making several subtle adjustments to the conventional ryōkan business model in order to render the experience more friendly to non-Japanese.
Perhaps the biggest change is in the approach to meals at Shirouma-so.
The key to the conventional ryōkan business model is that it isn't just about accommodation. Sure, you stay the night — sleeping on a futon laid out on tatami mats by staff — but you also eat dinner, which is usually brought and served to guests in their room. And it's the dinner component that is the most profitable element for the operators.
In fact, when the bill from a ryōkan is broken down, it's not unusual to find that on top of the accommodation fee, ¥10,000 or more per person has been charged for the provision of a dinner spread of local delicacies that in most cases is prepared by the operators (as opposed to professional chefs). Drinks are, of course, charged on top of that.
The problem is that foreign guests often want to explore and eat outside the hotel, or at least have the option to do so.
"I actually have two very different approaches for Japanese and foreign customers," Maruyama explained. "When a Japanese person calls, I quote them the rate that includes dinner and breakfast. When a foreigner calls, I quote them the breakfast-only rate, and then tell them they can choose to have dinner for an extra charge if they like," he said.
It's a small difference, but one that appears appetizing to many guests. On the night I stayed, with the ski season near but still not officially open, two parties of Australian guests and two of Singaporeans had all elected to eat dinner outside.
"Most times, the foreigners stay with us for between three and seven days, and they choose to have dinner in the ryōkan just once, for the experience," Maruyama said.
Nonetheless, on the occasions they do eat in, the enterprising Maruyama has come up with some creative ways to make sure they enjoy themselves.
For instance, dinner can be taken with a ¥1,800 "Japanese Sake Tasting Fest" package. That translates into six cups filled to the brim from a selection of some 20 varieties, including six — notably Doburokkun, which is sweet and comes with rice lees inside — from Nagano Prefecture. And to add to the fun, they all come with explanations in English of their origin and taste.
For those of a more demure inclination, there's a "tea-ceremony experience," while for children there's plenty of traditional wooden toys and, on particularly auspicious nights, Maruyama will happily give a demonstration on the large taiko drum that stands in the lobby. (When the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano 1998, he played at the opening ceremony.)
Maruyama makes no apologies for providing what some may brand watered-down versions of Japan's traditional culture. "If I stayed in a hotel in Sydney or on the Gold Coast in Queensland, then I would still appreciate being able to get a taste of Aboriginal culture. That's normal," he said.
And, again, the proof appears to be in the pudding. Maruyama's cultural offerings are so popular with his overseas guests that from this season he is going to organize some for the town itself, so that visitors to other hotels and ryōkan can take part.
In addition, Maruyama has done all the obvious things in order to woo and then satisfy foreign clients. He created a website in English, registered Shirouma-so on Expedia, Trip Advisor and other international accommodation-portal sites, ordered large-size slippers for foreigners, bought a proper coffee-maker — and, aware that some foreigners are not comfortable with the idea of going naked among strangers, he even installed private shower cubicles beside his on-site hot-spring baths.
For a Hakuba-native, Maruyama has an intriguing resume. After graduating from university he decided he wanted to get a taste of entertainment "in its most pure form" — so he went to work at Disneyland in Chiba Prefecture.
"I was a guide on the The Jungle Cruise ride he said. "Welcome to The Jungle Cruise," he then called out like barkers do.
"The thing I learned there was that it's not enough to just show things to tourists. You have to get them involved — make them be a part of the action," he said.
Maruyama has since become Hakuba's go-to emcee and event organizer. "I emcee the annual fire festival, and this year I am actually planning it," he said, referring to the February event whose highlight is lines of skiers holding up flaming torches as they snake down a mountain at night.
After five years at Disneyland, Maruyama jumped to another unlikely posting as a trainer at the private gym attached to the Tokyo offices of the global investment bank, Goldman Sachs. "That was another good experience," he declared, "because I got to speak in English to all the staff there."
At least as important as that, though, was likely the fact that a particularly well-heeled group of foreign businessmen and women suddenly knew all about Hakuba — and Shirouma-so.
"A lot of them came to stay at our ryōkan," Maruyama explained. "They liked Hakuba so much that many of them ended up buying their own holiday homes here."
And indeed it wouldn't be surprising if it was one such former guest who nominated Shirouma-so for the World Luxury Hotel Award — something that Maruyama only found out about after the fact.
In winning the award, Shirouma-so no doubt benefited from the award operators' clearly revisionist definition of the term "luxury." Visitors expecting to be flown the 200 km from Tokyo to Hakuba by private helicopter, or delivered to the ski lifts in a Bentley limo, will go home disappointed.
But instead, Maruyama will meet you in his white mini-bus at Hakuba Station (after the four-hour train ride from Shinjuku Station) or at the highway bus depot (after the six-hour trip from Osaka, or the hourlong one from Nagano Shinkansen Station). As well, he'll also help arrange for lift tickets, ski or snowboarding rental and lessons, if you're interested.
On the website of the World Luxury Hotel Award, the organizers write that "Luxury is changing. It is not about good food or service. It's increasingly about discretion and simplicity, facilities and service excellence, exceptional food, attention to detail, effective management."
On those counts, Shirouma-so really does seem worthy of its award. Now the only question is whether many of the country's other ryokan operators can follow Maruyama's lead.
For more about Shirouma-so, visit www.shiroumaso.com. Hakuba can be reached directly by Super Azusa Limited Express train from JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, or by taking a shinkansen to JR Nagano Station and then an Alpico bus. Highway buses also run from Osaka to Hakuba.