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Houshi Ryokan – One of the World’s Oldest Family Run Hotels

The Houshi Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) can trace its history back to an astonishing period of 1,300 years. Since opening its doors for business in 718, the Houshi Ryokan has been passed down over 46 generations of the Houshi family, and was awarded the Guinness World Record in 1994 for being the oldest inn in the world.

Legend has it that the great Buddhist teacher, Taicho Daishi saw a vision while traveling in the local area. In his vision, a great deity made it known to him that nearby was a hot spring flowing with marvellous waters that had the power to heal the souls of all who bathed in it. The spring was hidden underground and, under Taicho’s guidance, local villagers dug up the spring to take advantage of its warm waters. Taicho instructed his disciple to build a ‘Ryokan’ (traditional Japanese boarding house) by the spring so many people could come and take benefit from the special waters.

Houshi had a humble beginning as a sanitarium lodge, but the 1st generation owner Zengoro believed that Houshi should become a proper hot spring inn to soothe both body and mind. The family has continued this tradition for posterity with a commitment to offer proper ancient method of 'taking the waters' with their guests so they can fully enjoy the healing properties of natural hot springs.

Since then, Houshi has been loved by many generations, and continues to maintain precious tradition in modern times. Houshi is proud to bear witness to centuries of history and tradition, and was recognized as one of the oldest operating hot spring hotels in the world, officially verified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Houshi Ryokan’s longevity as a family owned business is due to the sheer dedication of the Houshi family. It serves as an example that any company with a vision can be a timeless establishment to serve the community with high quality products and goodwill for generations.

The current Zengoro (current owner) is Hajime Hoshi, of the 46th generation. He starts the day at 6:45 a.m. with a talk to hotel staff and customers about its history and culture. He and his wife are actively involved in the daily operations of the hotel. They bring a unique experience to their customers, building on the hotel's long history and continuously making improvements to service quality.

The hotel was devastated during World War II and for five years, it had no customer but continued to pay the salaries of its employees. The owner treated his employees as family, a trait that is deeply embedded in the business culture. Through all these changes, the hotel has preserved its history. For example, the old garden and teahouse are still there.

A strict set of rules and ethics for succession

The Hoshi family credits the longevity of its business to sheer adherence of clear cut succession rules with each passing generation, as well as instilling the simple business motto in each new generation of, “study the water running down a small current”. Zengoro explains that this refers to the ideology of being like that small but powerful stream of water that focuses on removing each small obstacle out of its path as it moves along to improve the stream in the end.

It is this practice of focusing on the present, which to Hoshi is an important task of affording hospitality to every guest, as well as preserving a successful business to bestow onto the next generation, that has allowed the Hoshi Ryokan to pass so seamlessly between so many generations.

Having the family’s, as well as the business’, core values well-stipulated, allows for the Hoshi(s) to ensure that the inn continues to be run along the same successful guidelines, while still allowing each generation to adapt the business model to what attracts the current market.

The Hoshi Name: Succession Protocol

The succession of the family business is taken very seriously within the Hoshi family, which is why the Hoshi name, along with the family wealth, is only given to the family member inheriting the family business. In order to minimize any conflicts or confusions that could arise from the family growing larger and more diverse with every generation, the Hoshis have instated the strict rule that the family business is to be passed onto the eldest son of each generation (primogeniture succession model). This ensures that every member knows, long before succession needs to happen, who the next owner of the inn is to be.

If there is no eldest son, then a son-in-law is chosen to take the helm, who is then adopted into the family so that the family name is still preserved. This practice also allows the family to bring in new talented blood to the equation through arranged marriages.

This strict protocol has ensured the success of the business for over 1300 years. The strong set of values, as well as the evaluation of the business assets before each succession, has allowed the Hoshi family to achieve what many families cannot. Each new generation tends to come along with their own set of ideas, which can soon crumble down the businesses very existence. But the Hoshis have ensured that each heir is fully invested in the success of the business and keeping its legacy going.

Zengoro’s eldest son, who had been working at the ryokan and preparing to succeed his father, passed away unexpectedly in 2013. His death deeply impacted the career path of his youngest daughter, Hisae, a university graduate who had been working in a doctor’s office. Following the death of her brother, Hisae gradually took over many of the management responsibilities at the hotel. Hisae has not yet married, but when and if she does her husband could become the 47th Zengoro. Her parents would like her to continue the 1,300-year-old family tradition of running the Hoshi Ryokan. Perhaps Hisae will become its first female Zengoro.

Official Website of Hoshi Ryokan (www.ho-shi.co.jp/en)
Enduring Firms Transfer Assets and Knowledge Effectively, Morten Bennedsen, INSEAD Professor of Economics and Political Science, 2016
How to create a family business that lasts a thousand years, EJ Insight, 2015
Documentary Film on Hoshi Ryokan (vimeo.com/114879061)

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