Revamped traditional ‘kominka’ homes offer rural charms, urban amenities to foreign tourists
FUEFUKI, YAMANASHI PREF. – An old traditional Japanese house with the charm of a countryside idyll, but featuring all the modern amenities sought by foreign travelers and young Japanese women. A home reminiscent of the old days that is still somehow up to date.
This is the best of both worlds that lodging owner Yoshie Hoyo wants to offer, and more and more overseas visitors to Japan are making this lodging a destination in itself.
“The concept is to offer the experience of living in the countryside without abandoning the comforts of city life. Having lived both in Tokyo and the countryside, I want a lifestyle in which I do not have to choose either but can have both,” said Hoyo.
Nestled in the mountain town of Ashigawa in Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo, the traditional-style wooden house, known in Japanese as a kominka, was built around 100 years ago and has the characteristic features of a thatched roof, a hearth and a tamped earth floor.
Left vacant for nearly 10 years, the two-story house has a helmet-shaped roof commonly found in the area, situated in one of the hamlets in Ashigawa, now part of the city of Fuefuki. Called Sawa No Ie, the house opened in October 2014, and thanks to word of mouth, social media and the popular Airbnb online site, it has steadily drawn guests.
Hoyo also operates another similarly-styled old house renovated into paid accommodations called Saka No Ie. Built around 60 years ago, it just opened in June. Hoyo markets the two houses under the name Kominka Yado Loof.
“When we think of the countryside, we think of dilapidated old houses and how living there is somewhat uncomfortable, but I wanted to make it a bit stylish and show life in the countryside in its best shape,” said the 29-year-old, who had previously lived in the area for 13 years.
Foreign visitors to the two houses have come mainly from Europe and Asia.
Frenchman Francois-remy Monnier, the first foreign lodger at Sawa No Ie, in November 2014, said he was looking for an alternative to a hotel near Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain and now a tourist magnet as a World Heritage site, and was drawn by the kominka’s concept.
The 47-year-old businessman described his two-day stay as “immersive,” eating meals cooked over a hearth with charcoal and sleeping on futon bedding on the second-floor in a loft-style room.
“While sleeping on the futon, there was the sound of the flowing river. This was one of the most peaceful moments,” he said, adding he also enjoyed his conversations with Hoyo, who can speak English. He said he hopes to return.
Malaysian Teng ghee Khoo, who stayed at Sawa No Ie with a group for two days last April, was similarly enthralled. The 35-year-old said the house made him feel like he was experiencing “the old times in Japan.”
Khoo said he searched online for a lodging where he could experience Japanese culture. “The longer you stay, the more you will learn,” he said, professing his love for Japan and traveling.
The house, dating back to around 1907, took half a year to renovate. It only accepts one guest or group of guests per house per day and can be used by an individual or up to 10 people. Prices, however, are not cheap; it can be up to ¥30,000 for an individual but cheaper in a group.
Sawa No Ie is divided into themed rooms, with a living and dining space on the first floor, as well as a hearth. The hearth was originally sunken, which usually requires a formal Japanese kneeling style, but has been renovated into a table-style space where guests can sit.
There is also a wood-burning stove and a veranda, and outside the house, a wine cellar that was formerly a bomb shelter.
Hoyo said she was careful when refurbishing the house to suit the needs of young people and foreign tourists because she did not want to do too much retouching lest the old house lose its intrinsic beauty.
In doing so, she took a different approach to the operators of many lodgings based on renovated old buildings, which have mainly appealed to older Japanese travelers for the memories they bring back.
A young woman herself, she decided to target this customer base along with foreign travelers, giving more attention to the house interior and up-to-date services such as Wi-Fi connection and Apple TV.
After returning to her hometown with the aim of embarking on a sustainable business, she soon noticed there were 156 houses like Sawa No Ie in the area, and nearly 100 houses in Ashigawa left vacant. She quickly saw the business potential.
While Ashigawa, with a population of just around 400 mostly elderly people, was hardly a tourist spot, it is just a 30-minute drive away from Mount Fuji and a 90-minute drive from Tokyo. There are also nature-related activities such as trekking in the area.
By request, Naohito Tousen Watanabe, who owns a shop that makes traditional hanko Japanese seals and stamps in Yamanashi, comes to the house to teach visitors how to create and carve one’s name using one or more Chinese characters.
“I want this culture of making seals more known worldwide and to bring this closer to people abroad such as by putting them on accessories,” Watanabe, 48, said, drawing a parallel between his work to breathe novelty into a centuries-old tradition and Hoyo’s effort to revitalize the old house.
Efforts to transform such houses as tourism resources are gaining official notice. The government-affiliated Development Bank of Japan said in a 2015 report that interest in kominka is high among foreign travelers and estimated the economic impact of their stays in such houses was worth ¥38 billion (around $325 million).
A 2015 white paper on tourism released by the Japan Tourism Agency also cited the successful model of utilizing kominka in a district in Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture, which increased its inbound tourists 2.5-fold between 2011 and 2013.
Kominka are set to get a boost from the government as it gears up to meet its target of 40 million inbound tourists in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympics.
In mid-December, the government set a goal of raising the number of regional areas utilizing kominka to 200 spots by 2020.
While more support for traditional houses is welcomed, Hoyo said she plans to continue operating the lodging without looking for financial aid. The house initially started operation through crowdfunding.
Hoyo recalled the anxieties she felt when she first started the business, but expresses confidence in having found a niche market that lets young Japanese and foreign visitors experience kominka of this kind “for the first time.”
Some people, such as a traveler from Singapore, are delighted by their experience as they do not have a rural hometown to call their own, according to Hoyo.
“Most of those coming here feel that staying at a hostel or resort inn is boring, while going out on an outdoor camp is a bit like overkill, so the middle ground is this,” she said.