top of page
  • Writer's picturekimiryokan


Kimi Ryokan was founded in 1953. "Shortly after World War II" explains Minato Kisaburo, the owner of Kimi Ryokan,

" my father and mother moved to Shinjuku where they opened up a Tobacco shop next to the Honazo Temple. The local government wanted this land to expand their offices and offered them a decent settlement. They moved to Ikebukuro, with the intention of using the money to open a 'Geshuku' or private dormitory for college students. However, almost from the start, it ended up being a ryokan, which is has remained to this day".

In those days, hotels were entirely unknown, except for one or two exclusive locations in Tokyo and Yokohama that catered to Japan's tiny trickle of foreign visitors. If Japanese traveled, they stayed at a ryokan, a Japanese style Inn.

Ikebukuro was famous for its' inexpensive ryokans. Prior to WWII, Ikebukuro was the Tokyo base of the Japanese Imperial Army. Ikebukuro was ringed by ryokans for families visiting their sons stationed at the base. Thanks to the base, Ikebukuro also had became one of the main entertainment spots in Tokyo as every amusement soldiers could desire sprung up around the base. When Seibu and Tobu railroad made Ikebukuro their terminus, and the JR Yamanote line was extended there, a vigorous market sprung up beside the station, drawing merchants from all over Japan.

"Traders would come up from Osaka carrying their goods on their back and stay at the ryokan" remembers Kisaburo "they would go out every day to sell and come back to the ryokan at night. My mother did all the cooking , cleaning and running errands for them while my father chopped the wood to heat the ofuro (Japanese bath) for our guests".

"Traders would come up from Osaka carrying their goods on their back and stay at the ryokan" remembers Kisaburo "they would go out every day to sell and come back to the ryokan at night. My mother did all the cooking , cleaning and running errands for them while my father chopped the wood to heat the ofuro (Japanese bath) for our guests".

"Ikebukuro was a wonderful place to grow up in. It was vital and bustling. Something was going on every minute. There was trading and business everywhere and with all the shops, bars restaurants and traders crammed into the narrow winding streets it was like the Kasbah. It was also unique in being the only place in Tokyo with a large international element, real people, not diplomats, Chinese and Koreans that had come over during the war. Maybe nowhere else in Tokyo could you hear foreign languages spoken on the streets"

The Kimi Ryokan grew and flourished with Ikebukuro, but by the early 1970s, it was clear that change had begun to set in. Urban development driven by Japan's growing prosperity was now altering the face of Ikebukuro and taking its' toll, for better or worse. With it, the spirit that made Ikebukuro a post war boom town was going too. Many ryokan were beginning to shut down. Others were transforming themselves into hotels. Competition was intensifying, and new and unforeseen challenges were emerging. Within the Minato family, there was debate on how to proceed. Perhaps at least partially prompted by the changes taking place around them, Hiroshi, the oldest son, departed for the University of British Columbia to study tourism and hotel management. It was from Hiroshi that the radical suggestion first came: start accepting foreign guests.

A new era was beginning, that of the back packer, of the Love Bus that ran from Amsterdam to New Delhi, and economy travelers flying "cattle class" from continent to continent. A whole new type of traveler had begun to emerge, who wanted inexpensive accommodations and a chance to experience the local culture. And Japan was not exempt, as more and more budget travelers came to Japan.

"At first my mother and father totally dismissed the idea. They thought that foreigners would never sleep in futon on tatami and the whole idea was impossible. Then I left by ship for Russia and worked my way around the world, working as a bus boy in South Kensington and hitch hiking across America, and finally returning to Japan eight months later. I returned a totally different person than when I set out. My younger bother Toru also traveled around the world on his own. We talked about it often, but still my mother and father strongly resisted our suggestions"

But the seeds had been planted. Strangely enough, it was a television show that was the catalyst. "My mother watched a TV show on an English house in Tokyo, and it made a strong impression on her. It was probably the first English house ever, and it attracted so much attention, that TV stations came out to film it. That's how rare foreigners were in Japan at that time. My mother thought, 'Why can't we do this too?'"

Hiroshi, who was working at a travel company in Vancouver while continuing to study hotel management at the UBC had some folders printed up and distributed them around campus. To everyone's surprise, a couple and their baby from Canada, Mr. and Mrs. Cameron turned up at the Ryokan, and became the first foreign guests to ever stay at the Kimi Ryokan.

"It was something. Nobody had ever seen a foreigner before in Ikebukuro. Children would follow them down the street to stare at them. It was quite an adventure for them. Still, it was wonderful, and we really enjoyed having them stay with us. They must have liked it too, because word began to spread quickly, and soon we had a steady stream of foreign guests".

Japan National Travel Bureau heard about the Kimi and sent personnel to take a look at it. They liked what they saw. "They had been getting many inquires from tourists about a ryokan like ours, that would accept foreign guests, and was not too expensive, but they didn't know who to recommend. Once they saw we were interested in having foreign guests, they began to frequently recommend us. I think we were the first ryokan in Japan that ever specifically catered to foreign guests. Maybe some very expensive ryokan in Kyoto had foreign guests occasionally, but we were the very first regular ryokan in Japan to accept foreign guests".

Lonely Planet, the Bible of backpackers and economy travelers enthusiastically pushed Kimi Ryokan too. Chris Taylor, writing about Japan called it "The best place to stay in Tokyo for budget travelers". Other magazines and newspapers were not slow to follow up. The Kimi was featured in the Tokyo Journal, who called it "Japan's Ellis Island", the Japan Times, the Ashai Shinbun and in numerous air line and travel magazines.

About this time, what would become the best known tavern and hang out for foreigners in Ikebukuro, the "One Lucky" opened up near the Kimi.

"It became a non stop party. Between the lounge at the Kimi and One Lucky, everybody was going back and forth all the time. People of all nations got to know each other, meet and become friends. It was really a Golden Age. Many of the people who stayed at Kimi then have become life long friends and I stay in contact with them to this day".

Foreign guests now became a frequent sight in Ikebukuro as the Kimi's reputation spread by word of mouth as being the place to stay in Tokyo. Many visitors used it as their base to look for jobs to replenish their funds as they planned further excursions across Asia. The ryokan vibrated with life day and night and always seemed full. People were always coming and going. There always seemed to be a party or gathering or trip in the works. To the thousands of visitors that passed through or stayed there, the Kimi was Ikebukuro itself.

The ryokan operated out of a wooden main building and another rented building across the street, in the narrow and twisting streets and lanes that were then Ikebukuro, some so narrow that two bicycle riders couldn't pass through them at the same time. But, urban renewal was relentlessly moving in on the Kimi too as more and more of the old Ikebukuro went under the blades of the bull dozers and wrecking cranes and was replaced with the new. By 1984, urban renewal finally reached the Kimi. It was time for the Ryokan to be torn down and for a new era to begin.

"My father wanted to turn the Ryokan into a hotel, but my brothers and I opposed it along with my mother. We said everybody was building hotels, but we should stay a ryokan like we always had been. We felt that at a ryokan, a foreigner would experience Japan in a way that was impossible in a hotel. We thought that a ryokan was more than just a place to stay, but part of the actual experience of Japan itself. Staying in a ryokan is like opening a door into Japanese life. If foreigners were going to stay at a hotel, it was as if they never left home. What was the point of even coming to Japan? But in a ryokan, sleeping on tatami , sitting on zabuton and walking down the halls in a yukata, in some ways, they would see Japan as a Japanese would . This is what we felt the Kimi was all about. "

" My father eventually gave in and we decided to rebuild as a ryokan. The result is that we are now one of the very few ryokan left in Ikebukuro and the only one that is fully modern with completely modern facilities ."

Once the decision had been made to rebuild as a ryokan, the search started for an architect to design the new ryokan. Once again, the influence of the "Kamisama" the female boss of the ryokan was decisive.

"It was my mother who finally decided on the architect to design the new ryokan. She had been impressed by the workman like attitude of a plumbing contractor who had done some work for us and she asked him to introduce a good architect".

The architect he introduced was an old classmate of his from college days, who was now running his own architecture firm, Yamaguchi Shogo. In Yamaguchi San, the Minato family knew they had found the architect who could help them create the new Kimi Ryokan of their imagination. Nor did they leave anything to chance . They sat down and together with Yamaguchi San listed up over 100 essential points that any design must achieve before they would sign off on it.

" Our list of requirements was very detailed. To start with, we asked Yamaguchi San to bear in mind that the ryokan had to be designed to the scale of foreign guests. That meant, for example, that all doorways had to be at least two meters in height, and also that the building has extra wide corridors. There was also a stress on simplicity, ease of access, ease of maintenance and ease of cleaning."

The plan called for a five story pre stressed concrete building. " I think five stories is the optimal height for maximum earthquake and fire resistance. This was very important to our thinking."

The bulldozers came in, and the old Kimi Ryokan came down. "I stood there and watched it come down with very mixed feelings."

The new building was a year and a half in construction, and opened to guests in 1986.

" Yamaguchi San was originally from the Aizu Wakamatsu, which is famous for its' "kura", or Japanese style stone warehouses. The design of the Kimi is imbued with the spirit of this traditional architecture. We often get asked by guests with an architectural background who designed the building."

In 1987, the Kimi Ryokan was the subject of a long article in the January 26th issue of Nikkei Architecture, Japan's leading architecture magazine, and has received recognition for its' design from numerous Japan architecture reviews.

"The design of the building was also made with an eye on evolving technology, so we could continue to up date it. Among some of our recent additions been to install a coin laundry, and wire the entire building for Wi-fi".

2003 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Kimi Ryokan. It is now looking forward to 2053 and its' 100th anniversary.

"My two young children are now being raised like I was, in and around the Ryokan" says Kisaburo, "We'll see someday what happens next".


bottom of page