Jack of
All Trades

B&B Owners Reveal Their Work and Rewards

Running a bed and breakfast (B&B) has long been considered a retiree’s dream. However, since Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms simplified the process of marketing unused rooms, a growing number of people are jumping into the short-term accommodation business. It seems an easy pursuit — a little cleaning, a simple breakfast and a bit of friendly conversation for a financial reward.

According to statistics published by the Japan National Tourism Organization, over 24 million overseas visitors came to Japan in 2016, up from 19.7 million the previous year. The figure is set to increase this year, with the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games drawing even more tourists, and making it the perfect time to step into the world of B&Bs.

Visas and Licensing

There are 27 types of status of residence in Japan, but only a few will allow a non-citizen to open a business — and that includes Airbnb minpaku setups.

Residents holding visas with no work limitations, such as the Long-term Resident
visa, Spouse or Child of Japanese National visa, and the Permanent Residency visa, can proceed to hotel licensing the same as any Japanese citizen. Other non-citizens dreaming of life behind a check-in counter will need a Business Manager visa.

Once a visa and a building or plot of land is secured, the licensing procedure can begin. This is where things get complicated since, in addition to the national requirements set out in the Hotel Business Law (Ryokan Gyoho also known as the Inns and Hotels Act), there are prefectural and city requirements. This means that identical buildings in different jurisdictions may face distinct hurdles on the road to licensing. For this reason, it is essential that prospective innkeepers take their plans, with rough diagrams, to the local Health Department (hokenjo) and consult the officials there.

Under the Hotel Business Law, there are four accommodation categories: hotels (hoterugyo), ryokans (ryokangyo), low-cost lodging houses (kan’i shukusho), and boarding houses (gesshuku). The license required is partly based on the number of rooms on the premises.

Hisashi Matsui, a Tokyo-native, runs Inn By The Sea, a small guesthouse in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. With three rooms, it’s licensed as a kan’i shukusho. But getting licensed, he shared, was a challenge.

“Even though we started out with a building built specifically to be a pension (a guest or boarding house), there were still updates that were required to bring us in line with newer specifications, and the whole process was pretty stressful.”

It also took longer than expected. “The waiting is the worst part, as you’re constantly wondering if your application is going to be declined.”

Rejections do happen. An official at the Kamakura branch of the Health Department explained that a common reason for licenses to be refused has to do with the availability of water on a property, including the number of washrooms, bathrooms and sinks.

Former Vancouverite Craig Oldring, co-owner of Morino Lodge in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, has been in the business for roughly 12 years. When he and business partner Matt Dunn, started out, they made sure to follow all necessary requirements. Oldring told The Canadian how they approached the licensing of their first lodge.

The lounge area at Myoko Morino Lodge in Niigata Prefecture.

“[We were] foreigners and [we were] in a town [that] — 12 years ago — [did] not [have] many foreigners, so we [were] going to be under scrutiny. We did everything as [legitimately] as we could.”

Not only did they get licensed, they incorporated, and joined local professional associations. Their care paid off and they now have two lodges and ten chalets in Hakuba, and one lodge in Myoko, Niigata Prefecture.

Japanese-language support was crucial to their success. “Both Matt and I speak Japanese fairly well, but technical [and] admin stuff can sometimes get a bit boggling,” Oldring said. “We’ve learned a lot of that vocabulary [now], but [12 years ago] we were lucky that our wives — who were our girlfriends at that time — were both Japanese, and helped a lot in that process.”

The Work

To be an innkeeper — particularly on a small scale, without employees — is to be a jack-of-all-trades. It means cleaning, cooking, repairing, bookkeeping, marketing, shopping, gardening, and doing countless other tasks. It’s a tall order, especially at the beginning.

“I don’t think we slept those first few months,” said Oldring.

For veteran innkeeper Takashi Suzuki, a third-generation hotelier and owner of B.B. House in Kamakura, it’s not so much the workload as the repetition. “It’s a bit monotonous,” he explained. “Especially if you do all the cleaning yourself.”

It is essential that prospective innkeepers take their plans, with rough diagrams, to the local Health Department and consult the officials there.

For those who plan to live on-site, one factor to be aware of is the mental toll of always having strangers in your house. “It can be exhausting,” Matsui said. “It’s your house, but you can’t live as if it is.”

Nick Kowal runs Hakuba Powder Lodging with his wife and children.

If you have children, it’s important to consider the impact it will have on them, too. Suzuki, who grew up in the ryokan his parents ran, recalls feeling that inn guests were taking his parents away from him. “It feels as though they pay more attention to guests than to you. I resented our guests for that.”

This is why ensuring that on-site family quarters are big enough and private enough goes a long way toward making a family-run inn pleasant for everyone.

Nick Kowal, who hails from Mississauga in Ontario, runs Hakuba Powder Lodging with his wife, Hiroko, and three children. Their business is made up of three cottages and one lodge, in which they have an apartment. In Kowal’s case, the children have enjoyed their lifestyle.

“When the kids were younger, they used to run around the house looking for people after they all left, kind of in shock,” he said. “The lodge keeps them busy, and they truly understand that the world isn’t just about speaking English or Japanese.”

Kirsten originally from Edmonton in Alberta, rents out her home’s first-floor secondary suite on Airbnb and finds this is also a family-friendly way to go, especially for the more introverted innkeeper. As her family shares only the front entrance with guests, interaction mostly involves only check-in and check-out.

Happy Guests, Happy Innkeepers

What inn keeping really comes down to is a desire to help people enjoy their holiday, but it’s not an easy task. The same service can garner a five-star review or a complaint e-mail, depending on the guest. However, usually guests go home happy, and innkeepers are left feeling fulfilled. As with any business, seeing happy clients at the end of the day makes all the hard work worthwhile.

View from the deck of Inn By The Sea in Kamakura

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