Luxury is changing
I travel overseas two or three times a year. I draw inspiration from coming into contact with new people, new cultures, and new surroundings. And at the same time I rediscover what I find good about Japan and what I can only get at home. Take water, for example. My travels around Asia quickly made me realize how luxurious it is for the waters in Japan's rivers to be pristine and our tap water to be drinkable without a second thought.
Sometimes luxury is tangible, like food or architecture; sometimes it's not, like regional characteristics or ethnic culture. There are already innumerable luxuries around us.
When I travel and encounter the histories, cultures, and natural environments of people around the world, I recognize, cherish, and respect the luxuries and what lies behind them. In this way, we can build good relationships and be happy in a world filled with so many wonderful spots. We can be grateful to our planet for all that surrounds us and live life happily.
In this sense, traveling is deeply meaningful for everyone.
I used to be satisfied just getting on a business class flight and spending time in the air. But when I traveled to Australia, I had a two-hour layover, so I ran off to the beach, rather than going to the lounge and having a glass of champagne. The beautiful scenery etched itself into my memory, and that's what I feel is real luxury. Of course, flying business class and spending time in the lounge isn't a bad way to pass the time when you're traveling. But when I think about the experiences and beautiful things you can't get anywhere else, I'm filled with a sense of wonder about how a country, its people, and its natural environment are luxuries.
Shirouma-sō, the Japanese-style inn (ryōkan) that my family runs, recently became the first in Japan to receive the Global Winner prize at the World Luxury Hotel Awards, in the 2012 Luxury Ski Resort category. Our inn offers nature and snow, the wonders of mountain life and skiing, and architecture that makes the most of traditional materials from the region. Our guests enjoy rustic, old-fashioned family-style hospitality, and local specialties made just the way mom would make them. Bringing all these things together, we've created luxury that’s earned recognition on the global stage.
When I heard we'd won the award, I was kind of shocked. I thought maybe they'd mistaken us for someone else, because our inn is not a "luxury" in the typical sense of the word. But I realized the award means our style of hospitality is a luxury. We put a lot of time and effort into taking care of our guests, and I saw this personal touch counted for a lot.
We're not the only Japanese inn or guest house (minshuku) to offer mountain scenery, traditional lodging, and local cuisine. Those things aren't what set us apart. Instead, I believe our inn received the award because we recognize that all the wonderful things, we've had from the outset, are a kind of luxury and because we take pride in making the most of them and sharing them with our visitors.
For example, at Shirouma-sō we don't have an elevator and there isn't a refrigerator in every room. Sometimes guests ask why we don't have these things—adding them would be easy and not very expensive. But we don’t. Even a small increase in electricity consumption would contribute to global warming, and then future generations might not be able to ski in Hakuba. That’s why we tell guests about our philosophy and reflect it in our service. Instead of an elevator, we suggest a room on a lower floor; instead of a fridge in each room, we have a shared refrigerator. If a guest requires a refrigerator in the room or can't use the stairs, we're happy to recommend another local inn that fits their needs.
We believe that it's valuable to provide the hospitality of the entire area.
I worked for several years at a world-famous theme park, and that gave me know-how about hospitality. In Japan, you'll often hear the phrase "customer satisfaction", but until about 10 years ago, you never heard "customer delight". Of course, we want to satisfy the customers' needs, but we also want to go further so they are pleased beyond their expectations. Working at the theme park also gave me experience that's useful for the outdoor events in Hakuba with which I've been involved. After working hard day after day in a skyscraper, people come running to nature to get their hands dirty.
I see their happy faces when they say "That was so much fun! Let's do it again!" To me, that’s luxury.
We want our visitors to enjoy the experience of luxury as much as possible, so we pay attention to every detail, including our visitors' safety.
To continue providing intangible valuable experiences, I believe what's truly important for the future is working to improve our communities and society as whole, rather than putting one's own interests first.
Talking about sustainability and new luxury, I feel they are actually very old things. How do we keep what we have—things money can’t buy? At Shirouma-sō, that's our foundation. Our ancestors were farmers. They took people who came to ski into their home as guests. We've kept things as they were for generations, and we tell our guests about this history so they know why we're keeping up these traditions, which are so valuable.
When I went to the award ceremony in Kuala Lumpur with a local lawyer the next day, we went to a town called Malacca, which has been influenced by countries like Portugal. Malacca's an old town, but its people have done an amazing job preserving the scenery from the old days. My companion thought it was all so beautiful. He took me to a tiny inn that was his favorite. The inn was simple, but its history has been preserved and kept beautiful. The town was small and didn’t look rich. But what struck me was that my companion found beauty in things like a traditional inn and a shop full of antiques.
As a traveler, I'm filled with a sense of wonder about how a country, its people, and its natural environment are luxuries, and a sense of respect and gratitude toward that country and its land. At our inn, we recognize luxury and reflect it in our hospitality—luxury is welcoming travelers by offering them experiences they can't get anywhere else. We can take pride in taking a really good trip and getting to know diversity. If we can continue to experience trips like this, we can be grateful for our surroundings and live life happily. That's truly valuable. My hope is that by continuing to have good trips myself, our hotel and I can continue provide this kind of value.
*World Luxury Hotel Awards