Tales from the Ryokan
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One of the highlights of our trip was our four-night stay atKinmata, a traditional ryokan (bedand breakfast) tucked away in the heart of Kyoto's main shopping district. Locatedin a two-story wooden building that once housed a Japanese trading firm, the 209-year-oldinn contains a Japanese bath, two tranquil courtyards, a collection of antiquefurnishings and a gourmet restaurant. The service was impeccable, the food wasdelicious and even the futon beds that we slept on were surprisinglycomfortable.
But what I didn't realize until I opened the small book on mybedside table was that the middle-aged man with the kindly eyes who greeted usat the door was not just the innkeeper. He was the seventh-generationdescendant of the man who founded the inn in 1801 and the proud father of a college-ageson being groomed to take over the family business.
Here in America, it's unusual for family businesses to last two generations, much less seven. In Japan, there are shops, restaurants and other businessesthat trace their origins back hundreds of years. In speaking to its current proprietor, Haruji Ukai, it became clear that multi-generational businesseslike Kinmata have some valuable lessons to teach small businesses in the UnitedStates about how to survive in even the toughest of times.
Here are three of them:
1. Find yourniche. While Kyoto, Japan's former imperial capital, boasts numerous luxuryhotels that accommodate thousands of international visitors, Kinmata has chosento stay small. The inn contains only seven rooms, and innkeeper Ukai, who doubles as Kinmata's chef, prides himself on using only the freshest fish,vegetables and other ingredients in the meals that he prepares. "Icontinuously pursue the original taste of the natural [ingredients] in the 21stcentury so that our guests may be satisfied," he says.
2. Providepersonal service.While larger hotels rely on concierges to make theirguests feel at home, Ukai welcomes each guest personally as he or she checks in.Though he employs a small staff to assist him (along with his wife and mother),he himself carries bags, serves breakfast and fields questions from guests whoare trying to find their way around the city.
3. Prepare forthe next generation.Because small businesses rarely get acquired or gopublic, their owners often have no choice but to shut down the business whenthey decide to retire. At Kinmata, Ukai's son is attending college in New Yorkand perfecting his English with an eye toward spending a few years working at amajor hotel in Kyoto before returning to Kinmata to help his father run the ryokan. Even if you don't have a son or daughterwho's willing to take over your business, it's wise to start grooming asuccessor to take the reins one day.
"We are looking to the future while at the same time devoting ourselves to respecting the traditions of Kyoto and maintaining this delicate cultural asset," Ukai says. "I will try to do my best to pass it on to the next generation just as it was passed on to me."