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Japan's 'minpaku' lodgings offer unique holidays but few bargains

Sleep in a century-old house for $370, or perhaps a temple for $1,080

Setouchi Omoya, in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, can accommodate groups of up to 12, but the century-old folk house is booked solid for the next few months.

TOKYO -- Six months since Japan began regulating Airbnb-style room-letting, tourists have an array of charming accommodations to choose from -- Buddhist temples, century-old folk homes and cottages with a view of Mount Fuji. But they will find few bargains.

A couple months before the private lodging business act took effect on June 15, Airbnb had around 62,000 listings in Japan. Almost immediately after the law went into force, that number stood at about 27,000.

But since those early summer days, more than 10,000 lodgings have obtained proper licenses, and many of them are competing for tourists by providing unique experiences and services.

These marketing efforts contrast to the days before the act, when minpaku, as the practice is known in Japan, was popular because of the bargain rates travelers could get compared to hotels.

Setouchi Omoya, in Fukuyama, a city about 200 km east of Osaka in Hiroshima Prefecture, is a remodeled folk house more than a century old. It is registered under the new minpaku law and can accommodate groups of up to 12. Airbnb lists the property at 41,040 yen ($370) a night, but the house is booked solid for the next few months.

Most overseas guests are families of around 10 from Hong Kong, Taiwan or China.

Meanwhile, in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, Miidera Temple has remodeled part of its monks quarters and accepts reservations via terahaku.jp. It's a pricey experience, at 120,000 yen per person per night. An overnight visit includes staying at a site with a 1,300-year history, morning prayers, sutra transcription and Zen meditation. Up to two children under 12 can stay for free.

Miidera in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, remodeled monk accommodations to provide tourists with a cultural experience.

Temples have become popular with foreign visitors, some of whom are searching for a unique "Japan experience" while others simply seek vegetarian venues. But the ancient sites are also expected to start drawing more minpaku travelers.

Vacation rentals, popular in Europe and the U.S., allow owners of beach homes, lakeside cabins and other properties to earn some extra cash. The custom is now catching on in Japan.

Garden Shed, a cottage near the Yamanaka Lake, southwest of Tokyo, offers a view of Mount Fuji. Equipped for long stays, it has a wood-burning stove, barbecue gear, a washing machine and other amenities.

The Relux website, operated by wireless carrier KDDI subsidiary Loco Partners, specializes in luxurious lodgings as well as those that exude charm, such as Setouchi Omoya.

Among other hurdles, the private lodging business act limits homeowners to accepting guests for no more than 180 days a year. This makes it difficult to turn profits on minpaku rentals in expensive urban areas. But the limitations are less of a business hindrance to people who operate rural lodges.

The act allows vacation rentals to open in designated residential areas, where hotels and inns are not allowed to operate under the Inns and Hotels Act. But it also allows municipalities to ban the practice.

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