January 28, 2009


An Eco-Friendly Inn Wins Customers (Akanean, Ltd.)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.76 (December 2008)
"Towards a Sustainable Japan -- Corporations at Work" (No. 74) (Japanese only)

Nasu Town in Nasu District, Tochigi Prefecture of Japan is an ideal vacation spot particularly for citizens of the Tokyo metropolitan area, since it takes just one hour and 15 minutes by bullet train, or about two hours by car from Tokyo to Nasu. "Akanean" is a hot spring inn in this town rich in natural beauty. Hot springs could be considered a cultural experience in Japan, steeped in culture and tradition.

Nestled in nature, Akanean has three old traditional guesthouses. Guests who stay here say they feel completely at home. Many customers enjoy homemade cooking that the "okami" (matron of the inn) prepares using local foods, and quality open-air hot spring bath with the water supplied directly from the spring.

According to the 2008 White Paper on Tourism (by Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism), the average number domestic overnight leisure trips was 1.54 times per person in fiscal 2007 (8.3 percent down compared to the previous year) and the average person stayed 2.47 nights (9.2 percent down). Reasons for these decreases were reportedly a decline in the average number of paid vacation days taken by workers and a trend of opting for recreation closer to home, such as dining out and playing video games.

While Japan's tourism businesses, including accommodations at sightseeing spots, are suffering due to the economic slowdown, Akanean has been gaining popularity from a steady increase of new and repeat customers. Less than a year after opening in 2004, Akanean earned Japan's top reputation in a customer survey of Rakuten Travel, Japan's largest online hotel reservation website, and it won the gold prize of the Rakuten Travel Award in fiscal 2007.

Akanean was opened as an inn with a homey atmosphere to make visitors feel as much at home as if they were returning to visit their grandparents. "Our accommodation is very small, operated almost entirely by our family members. We don't publish corporate social responsibility or environmental reports. We haven't done the kinds of environmental activities that big companies do. But as an extension of our household tasks, we do what we ourselves can do, and leave the rest to others. We are promoting environmentally-friendly activities as best we can," says Tsuyoshi Takahashi, who works for Akanean. What follows is an interview with Takahashi and Jun Yuasa, who doubles as the head of Akanean Ltd. and as an accommodations consultant, about their environmental activities.

Saving Trees with Reusable Chopsticks

Akanean's food is basically prepared by the matron, Yuasa's mother, who used to run a small restaurant in Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo. When she moved to Nasu to take care of Yuasa's grandmother, she opened an inn that opens only on weekends to entertain guests with homemade cooking.
This was the beginning of the Akanean inn run by Yuasa and his mother.

In 2006, two years after the inn opened, Takahashi started to help out, fascinated by the matron's cooking. All her dishes are prepared using local ingredients and based on recipes learned from the grandmother.
Soon, for the environment they came up with the idea of encouraging people to use their own chopsticks ("hashi") instead of disposable ones.
In Japanese, this idea is known as "my hashi."

Akanean announced on its web page on Rakuten Travel's site that it offers a free drink to guests who bring their own chopsticks for meals at the inn instead of using the inn's disposable chopsticks, in order to encourage them to pay attention to the global environment. This campaign was also reported in a local newspaper in Gunma Prefecture, which stimulated neighboring accommodations to start similar approaches.
Meanwhile, to expand its "my hashi" campaign, Akanean joined the "My Hashi Club" -- a network of people who carry their own chopsticks -- organized by Ministop Co., a convenience store chain operator headquartered in Tokyo. Some people who found the inn's name in this club's member list made reservations at Akanean. (Japanese)

Takahashi says, "Customers who did not know about the 'my hashi' approach until they visited our inn also supported the idea when we explained about it. And, in many cases, they bring their own chopsticks when visiting our inn next time. Recently, many repeat customers come to Akanean bringing their own chopsticks."

A wood stove in the inn's main building to warm the rooms in winter.
Fuel wood comes from the thinning of forests as a part of local forest management. Yuasa adds, "While loading the stove, we chat with customers about where the wood comes from. A number of customers tell us that they were fascinated by wood stove and actually installed one in their new country cottages.

Using Composted Food Waste for Cooking Dishes

Even though the inn may have only three groups of customers at a time, waste is produced every day. Takahashi comments, "Two years ago, when I began working at Akanean, the number of visitors increased rapidly thanks to the Internet, but it was difficult for just two persons at the time to handle all the waste alone. They had not time to sort out all the waste, so just burned it instead. But with more workers now, the situation has improved. Food waste is the main type of waste produced here. We compost it in summer and process it into fertilizer using a food waste processor in winter."

Takahashi points out that environmental efforts like the "my hashi" campaign, the use of thinned wood for the wood stove, and food waste composting, do not immediately reduce costs. Akanean pays the municipality 10,500 yen (about U.S.$100) a month in general waste collection costs, and 5,000 yen for food waste collection, although Akanean saves on the latter by composting its food waste. The inn has also reduced the use of kerosene for heaters by using a wood stove, though fuel cost savings have been reduced by high oil prices.

These approaches, however, have brought about other benefits to Akanean.
Using ash generated from the wood stove and composted food waste as fertilizer for its vegetable garden, Akanean now grows its own vegetables. The home-grown vegetables have also produced a pleasant surprise. When the inn served a family a dish of freshly sliced fish with fine strips of Japanese radish grown in the garden, the family's child devoured it. Since the child was originally a vegetable hater, the family was elated, and later posted this episode on an Internet blog; this kind of customer response has attracted new customers to Akanean.

Simple Happiness for Guests from the City

Other environmental efforts at the inn include using Japanese cedar wood produced in the prefecture for interior materials, burning used disposable wooden chopsticks as fuel in the wood stove, and replacing old electric appliances with energy-saving models. The inn staff make various environmental efforts -- whatever, whenever and wherever they can.

"The matron's ideas, experimentation, and passion toward food are expressed in her dishes. We staff think that our dedication is shown in each of our efforts and really gets through to our customers. We believe that if we try our best to take good care of nature, nature will touch our customers who come to stay here," says Takahashi. He senses that guests coming from the city to Akanean are, to some degree or another, feeling guilty about disturbing nature.

To sustain various systems in urban areas, a tremendous amount of energy is required. Participating in any economic activity there means increasing the environmental impacts. And adversely affecting nature in this generation means a bigger burden on the next generation. People in urban areas may have no choice but to turn a blind eye to the facts so that they can get on with their daily lives. That is the reality of living in the city.

But people who get away from the city life even if just for a day can save the amount of energy otherwise consumed in their usual life at least for that day. People who come to this inn in Nasu can save energy while eating local foods, enjoying the moonlight at night, taking a hot spring bath, using their own chopsticks, warming up at a wood stove that burns local wood scraps, lying on a wooden floor of locally-grown cedars, and most of all, just unwinding.

"We want to help guests from the city, even for a day, experience a way of life that is deeply rooted in nature, so that they can feel free from guilt just for a moment and truly relax. We just want them to feel simple happiness. To that end, we will continue making steady environmental efforts," says Takahashi.

Sustainability of Akanean

Both Yuasa and Takahashi say that "systems thinking" helped their work greatly. One of the teachings of systems thinking is that "good deeds will be rewarded." This is wisdom passed from generation to generation, and they agree that it is both common sense and important.

About systems thinking

Yuasa, speaking now as a professional inn consultant, says that large hotels and inns that sell themselves as self-contained accommodations where customers can stay, drink, dine and shop without going outside were the winners in the accommodations industry for some time, but now they are in trouble. "Today, the tourism destinations that attract repeat visitors are where the community has a lot of things to offer.
Vitality in the entire community, where local shopping-street associations, souvenir shops and tourism facilities are mutually supportive, will lead to the sustainable management of each shop and facility in the community," he comments.

The town of Nasu is home to a vacation house of Japan's imperial family and to an expanse of nature that has remained pristine by the intent of the late Emperor Hirohito. For local residents, it is natural to cherish and learn about nature and to live close to Mother Earth. The products of nature and home-grown vegetables are common items seen and exchanged in the daily lives of the townspeople. The nature and people of the town nurture a local atmosphere in which people get to know each other and deepen their relations by exchanging those vegetables.

Says Takahashi, "We realized that we can make customers happy with many things that do not cost much. Wild ayu (sweetfish) from local residents, bamboo shoots taken from a nearby bamboo grove, tara-no-me (shoots of Japanese angelica trees) in spring, myoga (Japanese gingers), sansho (Japanese pepper) --- these are all gifts of nature. We realize how much we enjoy nature's blessings. The fact that our guests also realize the same thing and go back home with appreciation for nature makes us happy.
This is the most important source of sustainability for Akanean."

(Written by Reiko Aomame)