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Business

Clean sheets, cleansed soul

Who says you have to stay in a hotel? New rules in Japan are opening up temples and other exotic lodgings as tourism numbers grow.

A group of Thai colleagues settle into their room at Takayama Zenko-ji. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

TOKYO Tourists to Japan will soon have a much wider selection of places to stay, as a law deregulating vacation rentals takes effect on June 15, opening up lodging options that go way beyond hotels.

An example of what's to come can be found in Takayama, in mountainous Gifu Prefecture. There, a group of Thai coworkers recently explored their room, and were rewarded with a magnificent winter view -- behind a sliding screen was the snow-shrouded garden of the Takayama Zenko-ji Buddhist temple.

"It's gorgeous," one of the guests said.

A large room next to the temple's main hall, more than a century old, goes for around 60,000 yen ($539) a night -- the snapshots for social media are free.

More lies in store for the adventurous traveler, including a walk through the pitch-dark space beneath the main deity to lay hands on a lock, an experience, the temple says, that helps purify the soul. Another guest, a 35-year-old office worker from Taiwan, said he felt "a close connection with Japanese culture" after taking the trip. A meditation session or a turn at copying out sutras are also on offer.

Since opening for reservations in July, Zenko-ji has had nearly 1,000 guests, 90% of them from overseas. This is thanks to Tokyo-based startup ShareWing, which organizes events and stays at temples. "We aim to show visitors the true appeal of old Japan by putting unused treasures to work," said President Naoko Unrinin.

NEW OPPORTUNITY For temples outside Japan's strategic special zones for experimental deregulation, offering tourist accommodations requires a national permit. Zenko-ji, for example, operates as a "simple accommodation" under Japan's hotel business law. But when the law takes effect in June permitting facilities such as private homes, historic structures and temples to host paying guests for a certain number of days per year, registering with the prefectural government will suffice.

Startups are preparing services that will make complying with this law simpler, with the hope of drawing new properties onto the short-term rental market. App developer Chapter8 has introduced a smartphone app for the special zones that helps property owners welcome visitors. A video chat feature lets owners verify their guests, and the app scans passport information to automatically create the legally mandated visitor log.

Japanese internet giant Rakuten, meanwhile, is working with overseas companies including Chinese short-term rental site Tujia to compete against Airbnb, the world's largest room rental service. Even established travel agencies have put aside concerns of upsetting existing clients as the room rental market grows: JTB is working with Sendai-based Hyakusenrenma in the field.

OUT WITH THE OLD Short-term room rentals are expected to play a major role in accommodating Japan's swelling tourist population. Foreign visitor arrivals were over 28 million in 2017, a record high. The government aims for 40 million by 2020.

The entire hospitality sector could feel the impact, if France, where Airbnb has nearly 500,000 listings, is any indication. There, short-term room rentals led to a decline in employment in the hotel sector, according to an industry group. While the number of visitors to France was 83.7 million in 2014, up 6% from 2008, hotel occupancy rates fell more than 2 percentage points to 59.2%.

With the number of visitors to Japan set to keep climbing, there is the concern that there are not enough hotel rooms for them all, especially during Tokyo's hosting of the 2020 Olympics. However, the number of guest rooms in Japan's cities stands to increase roughly 30%, according to real estate services provider CBRE.

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