Here is an interesting question, what’s something that countries like the United States, China, France, and Italy have in great numbers and that Japan lacks?
The obvious answer, based on the article’s title at least, is five-star hotels. To put into perspective just how few five-star hotels Japan has when compared to other places, London has 79 hotels, Paris has 61, and New York 60; while China has 137 five-star hotels, Thailand 112, Italy 186, France 127, and the U.S. a jaw-dropping 793.
Japan, on the other hand, only has 32 of this type of luxury hotels.
How could such a developed country like Japan lag when it comes to its number of five-star luxury hotels?
One of the reasons is ryokan. Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns that can offer a luxurious stay (with fantastic meals included) while not being five-star hotels. In a country that focuses greately on the importance of tradition, there was not a significant need for luxury resorts in onsen towns and historical cities when beautiful ryokan did the job.
Kyoto serves as a very good example of the importance and influence of ryokan. While Kyoto is one of Japan’s most visited cities, it didn’t see a single five-star hotel in years since getting a true feeling of the historical city was not fully complete without a stay at a ryokan. Then, the Ritz-Carlton came to fill in that void. Ritz Carlton Kyoto became one of the brand’s flagship hotels, being recognized for its superb service which eclipsed that of other Ritz Carlton properties, particularly in the United States.
However, the opening of the Ritz Carlton did not bring an avalanche of five-star hotels to Kyoto, and the city continued to see little change in its number of full service luxury hotels for years. It wasn’t until 2016 with the arrival of Four Seasons Kyoto that the city started to feel the winds of change. Four Seasons Kyoto marked a huge step for the Four Seasons brand, this being the hotel’s second property after Four Seasons Tokyo at Marunouchi; third if you count the Chinzanso, which stopped being under the Four Seasons umbrella many years ago, leaving the brand with the boutique Four Seasons Tokyo at Marunouchi hotel as their only property in Japan until the arrival of Four Seasons Kyoto.
Three Years after the Four Seasons made its debut in Kyoto, Park Hyatt and Aman upped their game in Japan with the opening of their Kyoto properties.
So, what changed in recent years that encouraged multiple luxury hotels brands to refocus their attention to Kyoto?
A key thing is the sheer numbers of foreign visitors that have been coming to Japan in recent years. Japan is seeing an unprecedented number of tourists with numbers skyrocketing when compared to ten and even five years ago.
And while Japanese going to cities like Kyoto would prefer to stay in a nice ryokan, foreign tourists have different tastes and demands. Henceforth Japan’s sudden interest in constructing five-star hotels.
Another reason behind Japan’s lack of luxury hotels is the popularity of business hotels. During the years that led to Japan’s economic bubble, business hotels started to pop up in numerous cities and towns. Business hotels offered just what businesspeople needed and lacked everything else that would be expected in a big hotel, such as pools, big rooms, and dining options.
Even today, business hotels are a top choice among both locals and foreign visitors alike because of their affordable rates. Who cares about not having a spacious room or having a small bathroom when you can spend ¥8,000 yen per night?
Business hotels were thus an answer to many people who wanted to better manage their budget while going on vacation.
However, the abundance of business hotels and lack of luxury hotels and resorts still left an untapped market that Japan was not exploring and taking advantage of.
With the emergence of multiple five-star hotels, Japan can capitalize on the luxury market it had ignored for many years.
Tokyo, as expected, leads the way in terms of luxury hotels with names like Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, Aman, The Peninsula, Park Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, Shangri-La, and Conrad having a presence there. Local luxury hotels in the capital include Palace Hotel, Imperial Hotel, The Okura, The New Otani, Tokyo Station Hotel, and Hoshinoya.
That’s why the government has come with an initiative to encourage and support the development of 50 luxury hotels.
Tokyo will see more five-star hotel openings in the future, including a new Bvlgari hotel set to open in 2022, and a Four Seasons one that will be opening this year.
As for areas outside both Tokyo and Kyoto,Park Hyatt Niseko opened on January 22, 2020, The Ritz Carlton Nikko will be opening this year, and a Four Seasons in Okinawa under the planning stages.
While Japan is known for the spectacular service one can receive while staying in any kind of accommodation, the country has a clear shortage of five-star luxury hotels.
Some might argue that starting in cities like Kyoto does not feel like an authentic stay without booking a ryokan, but a large number of foreign tourists like to stay in hotels that feel more familiar to them. That’s why the influx of foreign tourists in the past years has spiked the demand for luxury hotels.
One could argue that many American five-star hotels offer subpar services that mimic those of three-star hotels in Asia, so Japan’s luxury hotel shortage would not be a drastic issue in terms of the service one can experience, but that’s a topic for another day.
The development of new luxury hotels is something that locals also welcome, since hotel lounges and restaurants tend to be very popular places for power lunches, special occasions, or when wanting to have a nice time with friends and family.
As these new luxury hotels open, it will be interesting to see if their interiors reflect on Japanese culture, or if they mimic Western tastes. Whatever the case, the development of these hotels will be a huge win for Japan. If only all new Tokyo hotels could open within the next few months considering the room shortage the city is facing during the Olympic.