Japan's New Travel Experience
Nov. 27, 2015
Japan is grappling with some new trends in the tourism industry. While some of the new features benefit visitors not everyone is finding it easy to adjust. Japan is expected to welcome more than 19 million foreign visitors this year. That's more than ever. They'll all be looking for a place to stay which is driving a surging demand in private lodging services.
Popular home-rental website Airbnb is allowing people in Japan to open up their homes to foreign tourists. Last year, an estimated 300,000 people from overseas rented rooms this way.
It allows visitors to enjoy a more realistic travel experience. But not everyone's happy. Problems have arisen with safety and neighborhood relations.
Home rentals present unique benefits to landlords and their guests.
Several tourists from Australia have decided to stay in a private home instead of a hotel.
Their sleeping quarters are on the second and third floors of a three-story house. The nightly fee is about 70 US dollars per person - much lower than rates for hotel rooms in the neighborhood.
They're allowed to use the kitchen, laundry, and other facilities. This is one of the reasons they chose a house over a hotel.
The tourists said they wanted a more authentic travel experience. They were eager to see what daily life in Japan is like.
"It's absolutely beautiful," one tourist said. "We noticed how quiet it is as well. We were thinking being in Tokyo it will be really loud but it has been really beautiful and it's been peaceful in each afternoon."
Yume Shimazaki owns the house. She inherited it from her parents but found it too large to live in alone. Two years ago she began letting out her spare rooms. She offers her guests sake and gives them advice on places to see in Tokyo.
Shimazaki knew her guests wanted to see traditional Japanese culture. So she drew up an itinerary for them.
"I think tomorrow we will do the sumo morning practice, we're happy to get up early," one of her guests said. "And we might finish with lunch at the market. We didn't really have time. This plan was probably the most helpful because we weren't sure how long to spend at each place."
"Every day is different, because I have different people from different cultures coming into my home," Shimazaki said.
Some enterprising groups are renting out entire buildings. A bedding manufacturer had a staff dormitory in Tokyo that it wasn't using. So it renovated the rooms and offers them for short-term accommodation.
A group of 24 tourists from Malaysia stayed there. They each paid about 36 US dollars per night.
Yasuo Shimura manages the bookings and looks after guests. He spent many years working in the firm's sales section before he was asked to change jobs.
He doesn't speak much English, but he's friendly and people warm up to him quickly.
"He sees whether we are OK or not," a Malaysian woman said. "And if we are comfortable staying here. He's very friendly."
A popular website that is behind the boom in privately operated lodging services offers owners and tourists many options.
People who have empty houses or rooms can register their properties. Tourists look online in English to check rate, layout, and reviews from previous renters before making a reservation.
The company that operates the website, Airbnb, is headquartered in San Francisco. About 45 million people from 191 countries use its services.
A company spokesperson says Japan is a promising market.
"Japan is a very expensive place to visit." Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk said. "And so by giving people an option to have a more authentic experience, staying in a residential neighborhood, to meet a local, also saving a lot more extra money it’s quite appealing.
"The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is on the horizon, and certainly people from around the world will want to come to Tokyo, but there won't be enough places to stay and so airbnb is a great option whenever there is a big event."
Reporter Sachiyo Sugita discusses the new trend with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu.
Shibuya: We see that home-rentals are becoming a popular choice for visitors to Japan but how is the government getting on board?
Sugita: Japan is promoting tourism and wants to attract 20 million foreign tourists a year. However, it takes a long time, as well as significant investment, to build new hotels. So the government has designated specific destinations, including Tokyo and Osaka, where home-rentals will be encouraged.
Shibuya: Tell us about some of the problems that are arising with home-rentals.
Sugita: We're seeing some cases where rented apartments are sublet without permission from the owner. It`s also unclear who takes responsibility when an accident occurs or when there's a financial disagreement.
A Tokyo man quit his job to make a living through sublets. He leases several properties and offers them as tourist accommodation.
The monthly rent on an apartment in central Tokyo is almost 1,000 US dollars.
It's sublet to tourists for about 80 dollars per night. The apartment enjoys almost 100 per cent occupancy.
The entrepreneur who asked not to be identified now has 8 properties. He clears about 6,500 dollars a month even after paying rent and utilities.
"I started this business mainly because of the money, the man said. "It's pretty obvious how much money I can make doing this. On one of my units, I made $1,630 profit in a month. It's a much bigger return than I'd get on other investments."
Some of the neighbors at sublets are complaining. Problems are becoming more frequent as the popularity of the home-rental service grows.
A woman who lives in an apartment in central Osaka describes the situation she faces.
A few months ago, foreign tourists began turning up to stay in the building.
"It's really bad today," the woman said. "They just throw everything out."
She says the guests are often noisy at night and they don't separate their trash for recycling.
“Different guests come every day," the woman said. "And sometimes they’re noisy until midnight or 1 am. Even if I phoned the landlord to complain, nothing would change.”
Similar complaints are being made on a residents' forum that's linked to the building's website. Safety concerns as well as possible conflict between renters and their paying guests highlight a need for regulation.
Beppu: We've talked about the problems for residents who share buildings with home-rental visitors. What about the guests themselves? How is their safety taken care of?
Sugita: What happens in an earthquake disaster, for example? Or if there's a fire? Usually, hotels are well prepared for emergencies, but home-rentals don`t have systems in place. If something does happen, it is unclear who's responsible.
Beppu: How are these issues being dealt with?
Sugita: Osaka prefecture has just passed a bylaw about short-term rentals for foreigners. Property owners are now required to notify the government if they let properties to visitors. They must also register guests' names and addresses.
Shibuya: What is the future for home-rentals?
Sugita: It`s important to look after guests' safety and, most importantly, ensure they have a positive experience. At the same time, we need to iron out a few problems and find a way for visitors to get along with long-term residents. Japan is still finding its way managing what's a relatively new style of accommodation.