Houshi Ryokan is one of the world oldest hotels which has been operating in Japan for roughly 1300 years and remained a piece of history in this quickly changing world. In the public eye and the media, the hotel is famous for its age.
In 1994 the hotel was recognized as the oldest one in the world, and held its position for 17 years, after it was recognized, that there is another Japanese hotel, which is even elder. The hotel is more than a family business, it has three strong pillars, the myth about its foundation, its hot spring and the strict rules.
The History Of The Houshi Ryokan
The first ryokans were built in the 700s and were free rest houses. At that time travelling was a dangerous activity, the infrastructure was underdeveloped, nowadays we cannot imagine, but the travelers had to spend the night often under the stars and many of them died because of starvation. The Buddhist monks intended to improve on these conditions, so they started to set up the so-called ’fuseya’ which were the ancestors of the ryokans.
On the other hand, there are the guests and they have their own interpretations of the ryokan’s authenticity. As Cohen interpret it, ’the postmodern tourists have become less concerned with the authenticitiy of the original’. (Wang, N. 1991) A common tourist for example would not connect the ryokan’s authenticity to the gender of the manager. Their perception about authenticity would not be compromised just because of the fact, that a woman runs the hotel, instead of a man. As I searched more information on the internet about the hotel, most of the articles only mentions that the same family owns since its foundation, but it is not written that according to the tradition, the oldest son inherits the right to run it. The tourists can be easily deceived, because they often have very poor knowledge about their chosen destination.
There are other, conspicuous signs of breaking the traditions. As I already mentioned, in the ryokans the visitors have to change their shoes to a zori, right at the entrance. In recent years a lot of ryokans left this custom, so the guests do not need to change their shoes. This can be interpreted like the transformation to satisfy the guests convenience more. In the Houshi, this tradition hasn’t changed, as it can be seen in the video. Although other things, such as the frequent visitors of the ryokan has changed. There were parties with geishas and hostesses, rich and influential guests. Nowadays, there are no parties anymore, and families became the frequent visitors. There are festivals and even there is a museum and a Japanese garden around the hotel. The original culture changes, but with time become generally recognized as authentic.
I analysed the Tripadvisor comments about the Houshi (during autumn of 2015), altogether 51 reviews arrived, 10 rated the hotel excellent, 22 very good, and only 3 marked it as terrible. Another interesting fact is that I only found 8 reviews, written in English, the others were written in Japanese. The English visitors only gave excellent and very good ratings. As a German woman wrote ’Since you enter, you put on the slippers and you get your tea you feel like you have entered another time. This is the same thing you do in other ryokans, but because of the size and the age of this one, I guess the feeling is amplified. I felt we were the only non-asians.’ More or less every English comment reflects the same impression. The reviews also reflect that there are more Japanese than Western guests. This is also enhance the authentic atmosphere of the hotel.
Thanks to the strict and conservative rule of inheritance, the Houshi could have been operating for more than a thousand years. Although nowadays it can be seen that this strict rule started to let up as a woman will be in charge of the hotel. It is very possible that in the future the family will give up the tradition, to live a more liberal life, and this change would definitely cause the transformation of the hotel’s authenticity. The family has the knowledge and the feelings about this authenticity and a different owner might not adopt these. It is also can be seen that in the family’s interpreation the authenticity means the ownership an their duties, which is rather a burden, meanwhile the tourists (especially from the Western countries) identify it with the real and traditional Japanese culture and hospitality.