WHAT A WORLD
Battle of the World’s Oldest Hotels
For 17 years, the Houshi Ryokan enjoyed its standing as the oldest hotel in the world, but in 2011, their title was swept out from under them.
In 718 a Buddhist monk had a vision of opening a spa.
As legend has it, a monk named Taicho Daishi had hiked up a sacred mountain and dreamt that he was told of an underground hot spring nearby.
“With the people of the village unearth the hot spring,” he was ordered. “It will serve them forever.”
So he traveled to the Japanese town called Awazu and uncovered the hidden mineral spring. Then he requested that his disciple, Garyo Houshi, help him operate it as a place where the sick could use its restorative powers.
Now, 46 generations and nearly 1,300 years later, the lush gardens—they are said to be designed by a legendary tea ceremony master—and outdoor springs of Houshi Ryokan continue to be run by the Houshi family.
The origin story, the website says, is “truly divine.” Located on the coastal prefecture of Ishikawa, the hot springs are claimed to be good for healing rheumatism, skin diseases, trauma, and “chronic women’s diseases.”
“That’s a lot of pleasurable bathing and relaxed minds and bodies,” says the website.
The healing follows a style they called Garyoism, in honor of their founding ancestor, but today it’s no longer just a place for the sick. The look is still traditionally simplistic, the building’s façades are white stucco and brown wood.
But there are modern flourishes to satiate their guests like a bar, “featuring cocktails from around the world,” a pottery studio, a fortune teller, and an annual theater festival.
For 17 years, the Houshi Ryokan enjoyed its standing as the oldest hotel in the world, but in 2011, their title was swept out from under them by another multi-generational Japanese hot spring hotel.
Nestled at the base of the Japanese Alps, the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan opened in 705, just a few short years before Houshi Ryokan.
For 52 generations, the family has passed down ownership of the spa and entertained guests like Japanese emperors and famous samurais. The multi-story compound with 35 rooms looks out over a forest of green.
The spring flows out boiling hot at a rate of 1,630 liters per minute, and is divided into six pools where guests can soak with a view of the surroundings and then retire to the banquet.
“Keiunkan, to this day, still embodies the unchanging hospitality of the heart of Japanese harmony for all of our guests,” the website boasts.
Across the island, at Houshi Ryokan, not everything can stay frozen in 718. For centuries, the ancient inn was passed down for to the eldest son in the same family, but the traditional ownership lineage broke down when, in 2013, the family’s eldest son passed away, leaving the Houshi’s apprehensive daughter to take control.
“To keep this ryokah in an ever changing world, that’s our priority,” her father told the Atlantic this year.