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What it’s like to stay at the world’s oldest hotel

Mayumi Maruyama

Minobu, Japan (CNN) — Tucked deep in the mountains of Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture, the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan has tatami floors, kimono-sporting staff and signs in handwritten calligraphy. It feels like time has stood still here – and that’s not a coincidence.

Legend has it, it was the year 705 when the oldest son of Fujiwara no Kamatari, the most powerful aristocratic family during that period, was wandering from the capital when he discovered hot springs in the area.

Soon after, a ryokan, or traditional Japanese hot springs hotel, was built. For more than a millennium, guests as varied as overworked Tokyo salarymen, famous leaders like the Tokugawas (a shogun family who ruled Japan for 400 years) and even the country’s current Emperor Naruhito have come to soak in the waters and enjoy the bucolic scenery.

The ryokan has long been well-known within Japan. But its popularity received a huge boost in 2011 when the Guinness Book of World Records designated Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan as the oldest hotel in the world.

The announcement put it on the bucket lists of many international travelers, and now the ryokan works to accommodate these tourists while staying true to its 1,300-year-old traditions.

From city to country

Getting to the ryokan is not simple. First, travelers pass through the bustling chaos of Shizuoka station in the prefecture of the same name, then board the bullet train heading eastward.

From there, the world slowly slips away. Stations get increasingly smaller as the surrounding area gets more rural. At some stations, there’s not even a ticket booth in sight.

The hour-long train ride gives a full view of Mount Fuji when the sky is clear. The rice fields and old homes that still have tile roofs resemble a scene from Miyazaki’s animated movie “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Travelers disembark in Minobu, a village of only 11,000 people, and wait for a shuttle bus provided by the ryokan.

Minobu is so small that the ticket booth at the train station only accepts cash and issues paper tickets – a stark contrast to Tokyo, where LED lights fill the city streets and people pass through train gates with a touch of their phones.

In Minobu, there’s no convenience store or McDonald’s. Instead, the small streets are home to local businesses that have been open for generations.

From there, it’s an hour-long drive down a winding road, pushing deeper and deeper into the mountains, until finally the ryokan comes into view.

Staff members in traditional kimonos greet travelers, escorting everyone to the lobby. They give guests slippers with their names pre-written on a piece of paper next to them. No shoes are allowed beyond this point.

“From the baths to the rooms, I can feel the presence of history here,” says Michiyo Hattori, a guest who was at the ryokan to celebrate her 70th birthday.

Learning to let go

Standard rooms at Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan have three sections: two sitting areas and one living space. Traditional Japanese hanging scrolls called kakejiku hang on the walls, showing images of nature with the artist’s signature written in calligraphy.

The windows are so large that the forest view looks like a Monet painting covering the wall.

A large river flows below and bellows of steam hint at the presence of hot springs. Outside, a man with a fishing pole is catching tonight’s dinner.

There are six hot springs in total – four outdoor and two indoor. Two of the indoor hot springs are available by reservation only, allowing those with tattoos able to enjoy the experience. (In Japan, most hot spring spas continue to prohibit tattoos due to the body art’s association with yakuza gangs, although this is slowly changing.)

Nature isn’t just outside. It’s a major element of the interiors as well: floors are made of local stone, the baths are made of wood and the indoor baths are embroidered with decorative plants.

For dinner, guests are assigned a private room at a reserved time. A five-course meal is served with locally made wine.

Starting small from the first course, with sushi, tofu, and light soup, the meal progresses to smoked fish and eventually grilled meat and hotpot.

When possible, ingredients are sourced locally. Normally, soba noodles are made from buckwheat – here, they’re made from acorns picked from local trees. The stone used for the grill comes from the volcanic rocks of Mount Fuji.

When guests return to their rooms after eating, they discover that their accommodation has been transformed. The living room is now a bedroom with fluffy futons laid on the floor.

No detail is overlooked: the pillow is placed in the perfect position for the best view of the morning forest as guests slowly open their eyes after a deep sleep.

The next 1,300 years

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan’s long history includes many dramatic moments. There were massive fires in 1909 and 1916. A large rock destroyed one of the ryokan’s buildings in 1925. A major typhoon hit in 1982.

As a result, the hotel’s main building has moved three times.

Ryokan president Kenjiro Kawano believes the hotel’s secluded location has allowed the business to survive all these years. And despite its success, there has never been talk of expanding.

“The past president told me to become the ryokan master and not be distracted,” says Kawano. “When you begin to see success, you start to stick your head in other ventures, becoming vulnerable to failure.”

For more than a century, the ryokan was owned by two families, but when it came to deciding who the 53rd president would be, the prior president had a problem – there were no more relatives or descendants who could take over for the next generation.

Kawano first joined the ryokan in 1984 when he was 25 years old and held a variety of jobs – including fixing walls and building computers – before going into management.

The decades he spent working closely with the family-owned business created a strong bond between Kawano and his predecessor. But he had no idea what would happen next.

“I was called to the predecessor’s office one day and he told me I was taking over the business,” said Kawano. “I felt such immense pressure to take over such a historic place. It took me six months to accept the offer.

“My biggest concern was (that I would) be the last generation to maintain this ryokan.”

Japan’s population continues to decline, breaking records each year. Meanwhile, younger generations have moved on to major cities like Tokyo for better opportunities, leaving villages with mostly elderly residents.

Kawano couldn’t legally inherit the ryokan because he wasn’t a blood relative. To solve this, he took over the original shares of the business and created the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Limited company.

Keeping tradition alive

Other challenges include keeping the ryokan’s traditions alive while also making adjustments for a new wave of travelers, many of whom are from outside of Japan.

There are now staff members who can speak different languages, including English.

Kawano says that many ryokans adjusted to modern times by allowing shoes inside the facility and adding beds to the rooms, but that was an adjustment he wasn’t willing to make.

Instead, he had futons custom-made in larger sizes to accommodate the new clientele of Western guests, who tend to be taller than their Japanese customers.

“We plan to keep the concept of taking your shoes off at the entrance as well,” Kawano says. “We want to make sure that our guests experience the authenticity of tradition we have protected over the years.

“I feel that it is my duty to make this ryokan survive. When I pass on the ryokan to the 54th president, I have fulfilled my obligation.”

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