You'll find the world's oldest hotel in Japan's Yamanashi prefecture. The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan hotel has welcomed guests for over 1,300 years and was founded in 705 AD. To top it all off, the Japanese hot spring inn has been run by the same family for 52 generations.
In 2011, the Guinness World Records recognized it as the oldest hotel in the world. Japan also boasts the world's second-oldest hotel, Hōshi Ryokan, which is also featured in the Guinness World Record book.
It seems that the Japanese business is well placed to withstand the test of time, or perhaps the answer lies in the hot springs' healing waters.
History of the world's oldest hotel
The 37-room inn sits at the foot of the Akaishi Mountains, also known as the Southern Japanese Alps, approximately 87 miles (140 km) from Mount Fuji. Since it opened its doors 1,316 years ago, all of the inn's hot water has come directly from the local Hakuho Springs.
Thanks to its close proximity to the hot springs, the hotel, a type called an onsen — a hot spring or a guest house built around hot springs — boasts naturally sourced hot baths in each guest room, as well as public hot baths for guests to share in the main areas of the inn.
Since Fujiwara Mahito first built the inn, it has seen a number of renovations over the years, with a major refurbishment taking place in 1997. Even with these renovations, the inn has kept its traditional onsen architectural style, it also features washitsu style elements with tatami mats and classic Japanese art and furniture in every room and facility.
WiFi was added to the inn in 2019, so now guests can access the internet as they wish. However, most guests will most likely be keen to place their devices aside for their stay so as to fully embrace the relaxing atmosphere, take in the striking views, and soak all their aches and pains away in the hot spring baths.
How the hotel industry has evolved
In simple terms, the first "hotels" were a place for weary travelers and wanderers to rest their heads, eat a warm meal, and sit around a hot fire. This type of resting place has existed since antiquity. The ancient Greeks were some of the first to develop thermal baths designed for rest and recuperation, and the Romans took this further with thermal baths in England, Switzerland, and the Middle East.
Since then, places for travelers to rest have evolved as travel has changed.
Japanese Ryokan ('guesthouses') — the category under which the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan falls under, began in the 8th century, but reached their peak of popularity in the 17th century, as trade increased between the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Many were built along the Tokaido highway that links the two and became popular among traders, officials, and samurai using the route.
In Europe, in later medieval times, cloisters and abbeys often offered accommodation for itinerant travelers and pilgrims along main routes. While along the Silk Road and other trade routes, caravanserais were established at one day's journey apart and offered a safe place for caravans to stop. These usually included stables and storerooms for the animals and goods, a bathhouse, kitchens, and prayer hall, and were often designed around a large, central space where travelers could gather to talk and exchange stories.
Later on, guesthouses and inns gained popularity around the world as places for travelers to stay, where food and beds were offered mostly to merchants and tradespeople along main thoroughfares.
Hotels as we know them today only really came into being a few hundred years ago, roughly in the late 1770s. Some people believe the Grand Hotel in London, in the U.K. was the first establishment to call itself a hotel, in 1774. Rather than a place to rest their weary bones while on the road, hotels like the Grand served a new type of clientele — those looking to enjoy a getaway.
As people traveled more frequently, the hotel industry has kept pace with society's changes and needs, and has now become an important part of many economies.
Nowadays, travelers have a wide choice of hotels, from B&Bs, small guesthouses or inns, to five-star, glitzy palaces with all the amenities one can dream of.
For some, it's even better when you find a comfortable hotel that offers a blend of traditional and modern amenities, such as the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan.
Traditional Japanese architecture
One of the ways the world's oldest hotel has managed to stand on its own two feet for such a long time is partly thanks to its use of traditional architecture and traditional service. In a country that experiences many typhoons, earthquakes, and high humidity year on year, a flexible structure and regular upkeep are key to longevity.
Naturally, renovations have played a crucial part in keeping the inn intriguing and comfortable for guests to keep visiting it every year for over 1,300 years. That said, traditional Japanese architecture and design also play an important role.
Traditional Japanese architecture began to develop its unique style in the 8th century, although it came into its own in the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries). These styles have since inspired designers the world around, and it's easy to see why. Some of the main attributes of this architecture can be broken into a few main elements.
To begin with, there's a lot of wood used in traditional Japanese architecture. With high humidity levels, frequent typhoons, and many earthquakes shaking the country's islands, wood was traditionally preferred over other materials like stone, even for large buildings. It is commonly available, offers more ventilation, and can be more durable in these conditions. It is also more flexible, which is safer in earthquake-prone Japan, even with the risk of fire.
Combining these natural materials with the typically minimalist Japanese architecture style, nature and sustainability are interwoven to create a calming atmosphere.
With this in mind, roofs are another main element in Japanese traditional architecture. Not only are they typically curvy, wide, and elongated, making them pleasing to the eye, they're also designed in a way that protects windows from rain. This allowed for windows to be open for ventilation throughout the year, no matter the weather, and to keep water out of the house.
Moving to the interior part of a traditional Japanese house or hotel, you could expect to see shōji (moveable screens) and fusuma (sliding doors), and tatami mats used as flooring.
These traditional elements work together to allow in or block light in a balanced way, and to create a flexible space. The screens and sliding doors can also be moved around easily depending on the need for space, creating wider rooms or sectioning them off as desired. Again, they also allow for a lot of ventilation.
There is a deep respect for nature in traditional Japanese architecture. The style aims to create balance and harmony between humans and their natural surroundings — something that is still noticeable in the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, and perhaps why it's been so popular over the years.
Even after its renovations, there is a clear link between the hotel and its surrounding natural environment, with the hot springs as the focal point, where humans meet nature to find balance.
How hot springs work
Hot springs, or onsen as they're called in Japan, originate deep below the Earth's surface where water is naturally heated by the Earth's internal heat before rising to ground level. They're typically found near areas with volcanic activity, which are common in Japan.
A widely accepted definition for a hot spring is a source of warm water that is hotter than 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.7 degrees Celcius) when it flows from the ground. They can sometimes be hotter than the surrounding ground and air temperatures, and sometimes are referred to as geothermal or thermal springs.
So, even when it's snowing outside, a hot spring will always remain warm enough to sit peacefully in.
The water is heated by intrusions of magma near the surface, which heats groundwater. Some thermal springs are heated by convective circulation, where groundwater percolates down to reach depths of a 0.6 miles (or a kilometer) or more, where the temperature of rocks is high.
There are a number of health benefits that comes with enjoying hot springs, which explains why people the world over regularly make their way to hot mineral water sources. In Japan, even animals enjoy hot springs. Japanese macaques living in the Jigokudani monkey park, are famous for bathing year-round in the nearby hot springs.
As water heated underground percolates back up through the layers of rock on its way to the surface, it can accumulate many different minerals, which dissolve in the waters. From calcium and magnesium to sodium and sulfate, these mineral springs have long been thought to offer curative properties.
Not only does sitting in or drinking these waters offer relaxation, they are also said to help bathers sleep better, clear your skin, destroy harmful germs, increase blood circulation, minimize pain, and boost the immune system, among other purported benefits.
At the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan's hot spring baths, over 265 gallons (1,000 liters) of water is pumped into private baths per minute.
It's easy to see how a traditional inn like the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan has kept its healing doors open for such a long time. We only hope the family tradition of running the onsen carries on for years to come, and that travelers keep visiting this healing spot.