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Behind every good Japanese inn is an 'okami-san'

Traditional hostelries rely on the centuries-old custom of female bosses

For Sachiko Nakamichi, being the okami-san -- or "female boss" -- at Beniya Mukayu means looking after every detail at the ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. (Courtesy of Beniya Mukayu)

TOKYO -- Akemi Nishimura enters the library of Hiiragiya, one of Japan's iconic ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, with a reserved bow to her guest. She glides the translucent shoji door closed and sits smoothing an elegant kimono as an assistant serves us tea. Nishimura is an okami-san, the unassuming proprietor and general manager of her establishment in Kyoto.

Guinness World Records lists a ryokan in Yamanashi Prefecture as the oldest hotel in the world, and more than 43,000 are currently operating in Japan. Most are presided over and run by an okami-san such as Nishimura. At a time when Japan is grappling with a lack of female executives, the okami-san -- or "female boss" -- at traditional ryokan is an enigma. Her job has been considered women's work for 1,300 years, yet these demure women are living history and the epitome of female authority. Their responsibilities are indispensable and their influence complete.

"The first ryokan began as a way for Buddhist monks to communicate philosophy while offering hospitality to travelers," says Nishimura, a sixth-generation okami-san and an "ambassador" for the Kyoto Tourist Board. "Japan was a farming country with little need to move around. When people began traveling for commerce, ryokan filled the need for lodging.

"My family were samurai who sold land near the ocean and moved to Kyoto. They began selling seafood and accommodated workers at our facility. The next-generation patriarch was interested in swords. He began accepting more lodgers to fund his passion. Over generations my family knew many artists and politicians and used their network to establish Hiiragiya as it is run today."

Nishimura smiles, adding, "Most ryokan were established by men, but they didn't know how to take care of visitors. The owner's wife was tasked with taking care of guests since it was a family business. The female proprietor of the ryokan became known as the okami-san. She offers hospitality and oversees most of the staff. The job usually passes from generation to generation of women within a family. We are taught by our mothers and grandmothers."

Top: Entering Kyoto's Hiiragiya is like experiencing living history. Bottom: Guests are encouraged to experience harmony with nature. (Courtesy of The Ryokan Collection)  

Ryokan are typically small hotels featuring abundant hospitality, simple rooms, kaiseki meals of seasonal local ingredients served in the room and a place for the senses to experience harmony with nature by appreciating a garden or soaking in a hinoki cedar bath. Nishimura points out that a ryokan is different from a hotel. "Ryokan have their origin in Japanese culture with roots in both Buddhism and Shinto (the national religion of Japan)," she explains.

Akemi Nishimura is the sixth-generation okami-san at the Hiiragiya ryokan in Kyoto. (Courtesy of The Ryokan Collection)

"Shinto teaches an appreciation of nature and Buddhism gives us a sense of generosity. I offer service to others at Hiiragiya not only for them, but also very much for myself. This forms the basis of the ryokan experience, omotenashi, or service from the heart holding nothing back. In addition, everything in the ryokan must be in harmony with nature." This attention to small particulars is shitsurae, or setting, the companion core value to omotenashi.

While this kind of service might seem seamless and simple, it requires years of apprenticeship and study. Nishimura's grandparents arranged for her to study flower arrangement, tea ceremony and hospitality.

Hiroki Fukunaga, chief of the secretariat for the luxury travel committee of Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and founder of The Ryokan Collection, a consortium of luxury inns, finds the term okami-san complex to pin down for Japanese guests. "The okami is the symbol of the family business, a brand ambassador so to speak. She is very much like the mother of a household," he explains.

Top: Greenery is ever-present at Hiiragiya. Bottom: The ryokan serves traditional multicourse kaiseki meals made with local ingredients. (Courtesy of The Ryokan Collection)

"The term okami-san came into use in the Edo Period (1603-1867). It's very public. A high-class guest usually refers to me as okusama, or wife of the house," explains Sakiko Hasegawa, okami-san of Yagyu No Sho Ryokan at the base of Mount Fuji in the Shuzenji region of Japan. "Okami-san is traditional, not a formal term."

Sakiko Hasegawa, okami-san of Yagyu No Sho, located at the base of Mount Fuji, came to her job late in life. (Courtesy of The Ryokan Collection)

Hasegawa came to her position after many years as a housewife, without following the customary path. "For me a ryokan is such an important part of Japanese culture that I felt honored to be able to undertake the job," she recalls. "My husband's family was in the Tokyo restaurant business, and his aunt founded the ryokan as its okami-san. On retirement, she asked my husband and me to take over. I was 50 years old when I began to learn my job. The aunt told me, 'We run this place for money, but our job is mainly to serve the guests.'

"My husband and I decided to split responsibilities. He undertook solid tasks such as maintenance of the 15 rooms. I took responsibility for more subtle tasks involving the guest experience. My grandmother and mother were strict about a traditional education. So, it was easy for me to continue studying things like [Japan's traditional] tea ceremony and flower arranging. I also had to learn very sensitive things such as how to open and close sliding Japanese doors, to bow as okami-san, to walk properly in a kimono, welcoming guests and how to seat guests around a table."

Top: The approach to Yagyu No Sho. Second from top: Forest views. Third from top: Guests are encouraged to experience nature while soaking in a cedar tub. Bottom: Yagyu No Sho serves fresh and seasonal delicacies with artistic presentations. (Courtesy of The Ryokan Collection)

Hasegawa insists on keeping to tradition as it was established at the ryokan, yet tries to be flexible. She is happy to comply if a guest requests a chair instead of a seat on the floor. "Most important for me is to anticipate what the guest is experiencing and make sure they are happy. That said, I have no desire to change the traditions we observe, but to use them in a contemporary way. It's very difficult to keep traditional ways. It involves many craftspeople such as carpenters, tatami mat makers and chefs. But I am determined. I want to be a traditional okami-san." To remain relevant, she works hard to keep a social media presence.

In contrast, Sachiko Nakamichi has a unique take on being an okami-san at the ryokan Beniya Mukayu in the Kaga hot spring area of Ishikawa Prefecture facing the Sea of Japan. Her story exemplifies the importance of the core values of Japanese culture.

Born in Kanazawa city, she was teaching in an elementary school when she was introduced to Kazunari Nakamichi, who was looking for a wife. "The engagement went quickly, and we were married within three months. Before the wedding my husband-to-be told me that his 100-year-old family business, Beniya Eiraku Ryokan, had financial difficulties and he needed my help," she recalls. She quit her teaching position at 28 years old and invented her job as okami-san to help save the business.

The lobby of the Beniya Mukayu ryokan, top, and a private bath. (Courtesy of Nippon Design Center Inc.)

"We were just coasting, and because of the lack of services and facilities we had little income," she says. "Our business was focused on group tours, and it had fallen apart. We had so much debt we were nearly bankrupt."

Nakamichi brings a unique perspective to her job as okami-san at Beniya Mukayu, in the Kaga hot spring area of Ishikawa Prefecture. (Courtesy of Beniya Mukayu)

With little available capital the couple decided to take small steps and focus on service. "Kazunari and I kept making constant efforts that didn't cost money. I put simple flowers from the garden in the rooms. We tried to slowly improve the quality of the cuisine, and personally welcomed and said farewell to the guests as often as possible. Eventually we increased the room rates, paid our debts and made a very small profit." Over time, rooms and the lobby were rebuilt or renovated.

Eventually, the ryokan's name was changed to Beniya Mukayu, a Buddhist term meaning "richness in emptiness." Then the couple set about exploring the meaning. Sachiko Nakamichi believes that an okami-san's primary responsibility is the shitsurae, or careful preparation of setting. "In Japan there is an expression, 'fueki ryukou,' from a Haiku poem," she explains. "To me it means 'to change while the core remains the same.' Beniya was not changed, it was reborn."

Rooms with a view: "Thanks to the richness of emptiness at Beniya Mukayu, time is filled with freedom," says Nakamichi. (Courtesy of Nippon Design Center Inc.)

"Everything that guests experience is in harmony with the concept of mukayu and everything points in the same direction," she says. "Besides interior design, I also carefully chose the small amenities such as bedding, pajamas, yukata (cotton summer kimonos) and spa services. Now we serve food in a restaurant so people can communicate with our chef, who has been with us for 15 years. My husband does traditional tea ceremony for guests, and I offer yoga classes. Furniture is simple. Rooms are like empty vessels. Thanks to the richness of its emptiness, at Beniya Mukayu time is filled with freedom."

Nakamichi has helped her ryokan evolve over the years by finding a team in sync with her aesthetic. This includes architect Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama, who designed spare, contemplative rooms using traditional materials with a contemporary twist, and a long collaboration with Hara Kenya, art director for the Muji retailing brand. "The charm of this hotel lies in the fact that it has been undergoing steady, gradual change," Kenya has said.

Nancy Craft, who has more than 20 years' experience bringing Westerners to Japan as a Conde Nast Traveler Magazine travel specialist through Esprit Travel and Tours, offers another take on the role of the okami-san. "While the Western stereotype of gender inequality in Japan's corporate world still is largely true," she says, "many non-Japanese are surprised to learn that within the world of hospitality, women are empowered with an almost mystical, elegant feminine power that has been honed by centuries of training and tradition."

Fukunaga agrees, but suggests that Japan may be moving toward a future in which the role of okami-san may lose its exclusively female connotations. "Recently, Japanese men are allowing themselves to be softer. I've come across men who are interested in being okami-san. Soon guests will start to see more males doing the work," he says.

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