November 29, 2009

JAPAN: Yoneko, 65 and Isao Sawa, 72 Have Helped 142,000's Dreams Come True

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life Style / November 29, 2009


By Judit Kawaguchi

Yoneko, 65, and Isao, 72, Sawa are the owners of Sawanoya, a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Tokyo's scenic Yanaka area. It was in 1949 that Yoneko's mother, Yoshi, and her sister, Nami, first opened eight small rooms to traveling salesmen and to groups of children on school trips. Although very successful for decades, by the early 1980s, due to the construction of inexpensive Western-style business hotels, Sawanoya's tatami-mat rooms were empty on most nights. Isao and Yoneko saved their ryokan by welcoming foreign travelers and offering them a truly Japanese hotel experience. Since 1982, they have laid out futons for more than 140,000 tourists from around 100 countries. They have helped make the dream of every traveler come true: a comfy, clean and friendly place to stay — at rock-bottom prices. There is no place like home, but Sawanoya comes pretty close.

It's easy to fall in love with someone your whole family despises. Yoneko: Why did we fall in love? Because our families didn't want us to! Isao: We met through an omiai (arranged marriage) date. She was 16 and I was 22. The carpenter who worked on her mother's ryokan was my acquaintance and he introduced us. I immediately felt that we were connected by a red ribbon and that we would be together for sure and forever. Yoneko: He had great credentials and worked as a banker but that left me cold. I only became interested in him when my mom said: "He drinks too much! He's no good!" Suddenly I had to see him again! For five years we lied to everyone and met in secret. When our three children were dating, we stayed silent.

Yoneko and Isao Sawa Judit Kawaguchi Photo

A mom-and-pop business should always stay in the family. Isao: Our guests love our inn because it's small and family-run. They all ask us not to change a thing. For more than 25 years we have been blessed with over 90 percent occupancy every month, which makes some people wonder why we don't add more rooms. But if we did, our guests would be sad to lose the cozy atmosphere. Also, I know many families who tried to turn their small successes into major businesses and failed. It is hard to grow without overextending.

Every business has a perfect size: find it and stick with it. Yoneko: It's like knowing just how much food is good for your health. We want to keep things as they are because they are perfect. We don't need to make a lot of money: just a little is more than enough.

Be brave: What you are most afraid of does not always turn out to be a handicap. Isao: For years our biggest fear was that our poor English skills would prevent us from providing good service. That's why we were reluctant to open our inn to non-Japanese speakers. Every month hundreds of ryokan go bankrupt rather than advertise to foreigners. The elderly owners are scared because they don't speak fluent English. They also worry that non-Japanese can't sleep on a futon. I reassure them that there is no need to renovate their places, they just need to change their way of thinking. As for language skills, it's a no-brainer: When the phone rings, I smile and say, "Hello. Yes, we have a room," and then "OK. Your name, please?" That's pretty much all there is to it. If you give a warm welcome, all is understood.

When traveling, you don't need to speak the local language — just copy the locals. Yoneko: Most of our guests don't speak Japanese, yet they travel all over Japan without problems. We have been abroad 19 times and, so far, not only has no one spoken to us in Japanese but we also didn't use the local language. Yet we could still get around and have fun.

If you want to be a great communicator, copy small children and anyone over 70. Isao: They communicate with smiles, gestures and an open heart. They don't need to speak the language. They are like dogs: If you love dogs, dogs will love you.

The average person is great, everywhere you go. Yoneko: One might hate politicians and greedy businesspeople, but no matter where you are on earth, the average person is kind.

Elderly people speak the truth but it often hurts to hear it. Isao: When Yoneko's mom and aunt ran the ryokan, they bossed me around. I loved Yoneko so I just listened. And they were often right. I would come home drunk at 3 a.m. and her mom would scold me. Strangely enough, the day that Yoneko's mom died was the day my heavy partying ended. I had to fill her shoes and be the owner. My workload increased and so did my sense of responsibility. I hope she can see us and feels relaxed.

If you live in a fun neighborhood, your success is almost guaranteed. Yoneko: Yanaka is the type of place that tourists in Japan like to visit: lots of old houses, narrow alleys and small family businesses where locals shop, eat and live. It is not a tourist trap and that is why it is so perfect for travelers.

You are either born with business sense or you will die without it. Isao: When our ryokan fell on hard times in the '70s, I started a donburi (rice-bowl-dish) restaurant. I didn't make any money. I tried other ventures but I always failed. I realized that I was just bad at business. If you are honest, you sleep well. Yoneko: We don't have any stress. Once we hit the pillows, we're out in minutes.

The secret to a happy marriage is to think of your partner as the only one for you. Yoneko: From day one we thought that we'd be together till death do us apart. It feels nice. Isao: Dec. 17 will be our 45th wedding anniversary. We have made it so far because we are together day and night. I feel so sad that one day one of us will die. I hope we die together somehow. [rc]

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK's "Out & About." Learn more at:

This feature was published in The Japan Times on November 12, 2009

(C) The Japan Times