Hoshinoya Tokyo starts a new tradition

Combining ancient customs with modern luxury, Hoshino Resorts has revolutionized Japanese hospitality. 

Hoshinoya Tokyo starts a new tradition

In the bustling Otemachi financial district of the Japanese capital, the 17-story Hoshinoya Tokyo stands at the nexus of modernity and tradition. Sleek interiors and panoramic skyline views are expected of a brand-new hotel—not a traditional Japanese inn, known as a ryokan. But following the centuries-old custom of the ryokan, guests take off their shoes upon entering the lobby and encounter the crisp, grassy scent of tatami mats underfoot. Communal spaces are available for watching cultural performances, sipping green tea, and even—in the case of the top-floor onsen—for bathing in natural, mineral-rich hot-spring water, pumped up from the ground far below.

Though the bare plastered walls, large clay formation and dim lighting in the basement restaurant don’t feel traditional, the menu pays homage to the time-honored multicourse kaiseki dinner. It’s hard to spot at first. When the first dish arrives at my table, it looks more like a model of an intergalactic spaceship than a plate of shrimp mousse and bamboo charcoal-blackened crackers. But a patient server in an intricate gray suit explains that the dinnerware is made from the petrified wood of the pillars of the feudal mansion that once stood here, owned by a samurai and his heirs throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The utensils are reclaimed metal spikes excavated as the current property was being built. Rather than throw these pieces out, the CEO of Hoshino Resorts, Yoshiharu Hoshino, used them in his “modern ryokan.”

“It should not be fake culture—it has to be real,” insists Hoshino. “We make sure that we incorporate those historical and cultural elements into our ryokans and resorts, but at the same time they have to be used in a way that modern travelers can appreciate.”

The phrase “modern ryokan” may seem oxymoronic, as the traditions embraced by these Japanese inns date back to A.D. 705. But Hoshino’s greatest accomplishment has been reconciling these ancient institutions with the luxurious standards of present-day hospitality. As a fourth-generation innkeeper, he reinvented his family’s century-old ryokan at a time when chains such as Hilton and Marriott were successfully spreading Western models of hospitality across Japan. Hoshino’s concept took off, expanding from that original property to 37 in the last 27 years, and quickly becoming one of the largest and most well-known luxury brands in Japan. Now, as the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics ignite a mad dash of hotel construction (currently at an 18-year high), others are also embracing Japanese tradition, trading their swimming pools for onsens, plush carpeting for tatami mats and room-service menus for kaiseki. “Incorporating the elements and charms of a place is not the work of headquarters; it’s the work of the people in the hotels to reflect that understanding of local culture,” Hoshino says.

His philosophy wasn’t drawn up at corporate headquarters, either. In the early 1900s, Hoshino’s great-grandfather and his son operated a humble ryokan in the Nagano mountains, located at the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano. The Hoshinos dug and discovered the bubbling hot spring on the property that soon became the region’s main attraction and namesake of the Hoshino Onsen Ryokan.

When Hoshino’s father took over in the 1950s, the Japanese economy was booming. Families started traveling around the country, and more international flights brought a new wave of tourists. By the 1960s, the Nagano region was considered the most popular destination in the country; owning a second home there became a status symbol for the Tokyo elite.

“I must’ve been six or seven when I knew that I was going to enter the family business,” Hoshino recalls. “When I grew up, my grandfather would introduce me to people in town as ‘the fourth generation.’”

But when Hoshino returned to Japan in the mid 1980s after graduating from Cornell University, new resorts operated by Western brands were popping up everywhere. This oversupply of rooms put a financial choke hold on the Hoshino family’s quaint ryokan. In 1991, when Hoshino was 31 years old, he was tapped to be the new president and charged with saving the business. “If everything was okay, I would’ve never succeeded my father at such a young age,” Hoshino says. “I was very nervous: We were an old ryokan and had a small equity base when all our competitors had new facilities and a strong financial base.”

It was futile to compete with these newer, larger resorts. But the young CEO noticed that they seemed to care more about property values than service. Whereas Western chains promised standardization—so that a person visiting a Hilton in Tokyo or Las Vegas will always be guaranteed a clock, television and other staples—Hoshino made the revolutionary decision to ban such amenities from his. “We wanted to create a very different environment so that guests can feel that they are away from the stresses of their life,” Hoshino says. “We want the real background noise to be the sounds of the birds, river and wind. All of these important elements are usually blocked by TV noise.”

Hoshino spent the next decade cultivating local talent and creating incentives to retain promising recruits. It wasn’t easy. Hospitality jobs required staff to work long hours. They certainly didn’t carry the same prestige as working for technology giants like Panasonic. But while other businesses had a strict hierarchy, Hoshino encouraged workers to question procedures and make suggestions, regardless of seniority. Employees weren’t limited to housekeeping or cooking; they learned the entire workings of the ryokan, from checking in guests to running the restaurant. Hoshino also advocated a work-life balance—he still carves 60 days annually out of his busy schedule to ski—and the company’s insurance plan was updated to cover workers if they wished to take one- or two-year sabbaticals to travel the world or finish school.

“It took me 10 years to find the right people to work for me,” Hoshino says. “I learned it’s very important to value the people who do the cooking, housekeeping and marketing of the ryokan and to maintain their motivation.”

Whereas other small properties were losing money in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Hoshino Onsen Ryokan started turning a profit. The inn began selling out in summer. Then in September and October. Occupancy soared on weekdays and winter months. In 2001, just as Hoshino felt he had revived the family business, he was asked by an investor to turn around a failing property in Kobuchizawa, an hour away at the base of Mount Yatsugatake. “Everyone thought it was impossible,” Hoshino says. “Again, I was nervous to take this on. We just had enough people to run our own ryokan profitably.”

Hoshino accepted the challenge and applied the “ryokan method” of combining excellent service with an authentic local experience.

In three years, he turned that property around, too. Hoshino then began acquiring and renovating one or two properties per year, typically in rural settings. He started with his family’s own hotel, then a $100-to-$150-per-night ryokan. They shuttered for sweeping renovations meant to bring Hoshino’s vision of his hometown property to life. “I grew up here,” he says. “I knew the history and the shapes of the trees and the flow of the river—it wasn’t very difficult to come up with a local vision.”

The Hoshino Onsen Ryokan reopened in 2005 as Hoshinoya Karuizawa, the first in a rebranded line of resorts that celebrate the environment, history and culture of the destination. The property embraces its natural setting in the nation’s first wild-bird sanctuary, with Ural owls and rare copper pheasants. The Yukawa River winds throughout the resort, carrying illuminated lanterns at night. In addition to the Hoshino Onsen that’s open to the public, the property has a private “meditation bath” filled with mineral-rich hot-spring water. The spa offers thermal mud packs and shiatsu massages, and the hotel restaurant, Kasuke, is named after Hoshino’s grandfather who helped start it all.

With each new resort, Hoshino implements a rigorous planning period before construction. This typically lasts one or two years, or however long it takes Hoshino and a trusted landscape architect to understand how the wind, temperature and leaves change each season. He never rushes the process, even if it takes seven years and 22 visits, as it did in the case of Hoshinoya Taketomi Island in Okinawa. “I like to think we are creating scenery,” he says, “not just a building.”

Hoshinoya Kyoto opened along the Oigawa River on the site of a century-old residence of a Kyoto merchant. Japanese court nobles would spend their summers vacationing there near the shrines, temples and bamboo forest of Arashiyama. Today, birds chirp, deer navigate the river banks and local fishermen move up and down the waterway in wooden boats. Resort staff celebrates local tradition with incense ceremonies and morning breathing exercises. Michelin-star chef Ichiro Kubota devises a new kaiseki multicourse menu each month to address the slightest shift in seasons. He can spend 30 minutes preparing an edible ornament the size of a quarter, which guests gobble up in one bite.

“History helps us, and visitors enjoy the land,” Hoshino says. “I believe that if Japanese customers are satisfied with our services, we will be saluted by international guests as well.” Hoshino’s ryokan method has apparently caught the attention of Western chains: Marriott aims to open 10 new hotels in Japan that will feature such amenities as hot springs, tatami mats and kaiseki menus.

With 35 properties in Japan, Hoshino isn’t racing to build more—at least not in his home country. In 2015, the company began to operate  its first international location with Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa in Rangiroa, Tahiti. The property isn’t a ryokan, but Hoshino applied his classic method. It is exclusively staffed by local Tahitians, who devise activities taken from their culture. Last year, Hoshino unveiled his second property outside Japan with Hoshinoya Bali, a retreat overlooking the canals of the Pakerisan River in the lush hills of Ubud.

The real test of Hoshino’s ryokan method came with the recent opening of Hoshinoya Tokyo. The company’s previous locations were all removed from the buzz of the city, but Hoshinoya Tokyo could hardly be more urban—a high-rise surrounded by more high-rises and scurrying pedestrians. Still, Hoshino believed that once the initial surprise of taking off one’s shoes in the lobby wore off, the property’s penthouse onsen, breathtaking views and elaborate dinners would appeal to anyone. He was right.

The Hoshinoya Tokyo restaurant now serves what may be the most sought-after 12-course meal in the Japanese capital. Reservations are made available at 1 p.m. on the first of the month and are claimed within minutes. Executive chef Noriyuki Hamada is the only Japanese chef to be recognized by the Bocuse d’Or, and when the leaders of Japanese government meet with high-profile foreign dignitaries, they often come here.

Now it’s on to the next chapter in the family’s long-running story, and things are looking bright. Hoshino Resorts’ stock price has doubled since it went public three years ago. More international travelers are visiting than ever before. And Hoshino has his sights set on the West, calling it “the next frontier.”