Tokyo's low-cost hostels prepare to service flood of Olympic tourists

September 14, 2013

By YOSUKE WATANABE/ Staff Writer

Although independent travelers from around the globe are expected to descend on Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics, industry insiders say hostels in the capital are still far from being friendly to foreigners.

Some groups are now trying to rectify the problem, which often stems from cultural differences and misunderstandings.

“It is up to accommodation providers to try to overcome differences in habits and cultures between Japan and other countries,” said Isao Sawa, 76, operator of the Ryokan Sawanoya hostel in the Yanaka district of Taito Ward in eastern Tokyo.

Financial difficulties led Sawa to begin actively trying to accommodate foreign tourists in the 1980s. He said that through his own experiences, he can understand why hostel operators may be reluctant to seek foreign lodgers.

Sawa said embarrassing moments were quite common at first: One foreign guest didn’t flush the toilet correctly, leaving the bathroom soaking wet. Another urinated in the bath area, and a third unplugged a common-use bathtub for soaking, believing it was unhygienic to leave used bath water for other guests.

Sawa solved the problems for the most part by posting and providing English-language materials and illustrations to explain how the facilities should be used.

“The differences in manners and culture are surmountable barriers,” he said. “We have to turn the Olympics into an opportunity.”

A 2008 national survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications found that 38 percent of all hostels and inns in Japan did not accommodate one single foreign guest during all of 2007. As many as 72 percent of those hostels and inns also said they did not particularly want to service visitors from abroad.

The Tokyo Systematized Good Will Guide Club, an association of volunteer interpreters who help foreign tourists in the Ueno and Asakusa districts of Taito Ward, hopes to improve the situation over the seven years before the start of the sports event.

Founded in 1983, the Tokyo SGG Club currently organizes 152 volunteers who can speak English, Korean, Chinese and other languages. Club officials said its members assist roughly 7,000 people from around 40 countries every month and have helped more than 550,000 individuals in total.

The officials said they expect people from more than 100 countries to visit Tokyo for the Olympics.

“We hope to show people from around the world true Japanese hospitality while maintaining the quality of our skills,” said Fumiaki Ishizeki, the 65-year-old club president.

Khaosan Tokyo Laboratory, a hostel in the Nishi-Asakusa district of Tokyo’s Taito Ward, also targets foreign guests.

One feature of Khaosan Tokyo Laboratory is displaying traditional Japanese culture.

On Sept. 11, 40 guests from the United States, France, Spain and other countries were invited to test their chopstick skills by participating in the summer tradition of trying to eat “somen” noodles as they floated down a long bamboo trough on the hostel’s balcony.

The event was the brainchild of Hiroshi Kozawa, who heads the Tokyo Hostel Network, an association of five low-cost hostel operators in areas lining the Sumidagawa river in eastern Tokyo. Kozawa, manager of seven Khaosan hostels in the capital, said foreign tourists account for more than 90 percent of all guests at the chain.

“The Olympic Games will increase Tokyo’s global media exposure,” Kozawa, 42, said. “More foreigners will want to visit the city.”

Khaosan Tokyo Laboratory provides bunk beds in dormitory style rooms. Prices start at 3,400 yen ($34) per night.

Ryan Foster, who was in Japan for the first time, said he would like to find an affordable place in Tokyo for an extended period during the 2020 Olympics so he can visit various sporting events, although he believes families and elderly visitors will prefer larger and more plush accommodations.

The 25-year-old corporate worker from the United States said an inexpensive dormitory-style inn would allow visitors to mix with people from different countries and discuss the Olympics.

Kozawa said: “Accommodation prices skyrocketed during the previous Summer Olympic Games in London and Beijing. We have to start working now to make ourselves more friendly and attractive to foreign travelers looking for cheap accommodations so that they will not turn their backs on us.”

By YOSUKE WATANABE/ Staff Writer
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Foreign guests try to catch “somen” noodles with chopsticks on a hostel balcony as they float down a bamboo trough in the Nishi-Asakusa district of Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 11. (Yosuke Watanabe)

Foreign guests try to catch “somen” noodles with chopsticks on a hostel balcony as they float down a bamboo trough in the Nishi-Asakusa district of Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 11. (Yosuke Watanabe)

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  • Foreign guests try to catch “somen” noodles with chopsticks on a hostel balcony as they float down a bamboo trough in the Nishi-Asakusa district of Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 11. (Yosuke Watanabe)
  • Members of the Tokyo Systematized Good Will Guide Club help foreign tourists in the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center in Taito Ward on Sept. 11. (Yosuke Watanabe)
  • Isao Sawa poses in front of his Ryokan Sawanoya hostel in the Yanaka district of Taito Ward. (Yosuke Watanabe)

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