In Conversation with Maki Ueta, owner of a Kyoto Guesthouse

Maki and I met in April 2015 when my kids and I stayed in her exceptional guesthouse in Higashiyama in Kyoto. I had a feeling while I was booking Guesthouse Soi and reading reviews that something very special was going to eventuate. I was right. We stayed four nights in Kyoto and I made a lifelong friend. Maki is an amazing person. She is compassionate, considerate and generous. She is an astute business woman. She is perceptive and intelligent and she has an innate ability to make connections. Staying at her guesthouse is like coming home and the guesthouse and Maki are the single most things I miss in Japan.

I started by asking Maki how long she has owned her guesthouse.

Maki: Since 2014, so it’s seven years. In Chengdu, it was 2004, so a long time, 17 years.

Maki owned a guesthouse in Chengdu, China, previous to moving back to Japan. Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse was very successful and both Maki’s daughters were born in China.

My next question was what Maki enjoys about owning a guesthouse.

Maki: “Meeting people, I get to know the people from all over the world. Like you, I met you and we are still in such a good relationship. We care for each other. Even our daughters are very good friends, so I am very happy about this. The reason I wanted to start  the guesthouse is because I met many people when I was travelling and I really enjoyed it.

After running the guesthouse for so many years, it still doesn’t change. I think this is the job for me”.

Japan’s borders have been closed since the beginning of COVID and internal travel has also slowed. I asked Maki if she misses having guests at the guesthouse.

Maki: “I still have some guests, but they are long stayers. One of them has stayed more than one year. Most, at least half a year…they stay a long time. So now we live together with them. So I still have many friends to talk to.

So it’s different from travellers, stay here for a few days and leave. They live here”.

I went on to ask Maki what the impact of COVID had been on her business.

Maki: “So it’s changed my everyday life, like completely changed, because I suddenly lost all of my reservations. It was February when it started in Japan, and in the beginning, I thought, oh, it’s good. Because if this finishes before the sakura cherry blossom season, I still don’t have to worry about the missed income for the high season.

But in the end it spread to Europe and all over the world. So all of the reservation I had for sakura high season, and also Golden Week, all the reservations were cancelled. That was around $47,000 AUD. (Just in the reservations). I lost that much and if I could continue the business I would have had more (income).

Suddenly in April (it’s a very busy season) no one got out to see the cherry blossom. I have had this job for many years, and it’s the first time to experience this. Tourism completely stopped, the business stopped”.  

I commented that it most have been quite scary and there must have been many things to worry about.

Maki: “The problem is we never know when this will finish. In the beginning we thought, like in the February, it would be okay in sakura season, but it’s just continued. And then even now we don’t have guests.

Also because most of the guests who stay in our guest house are from other countries, from foreign countries. So even when some travellers come back to Japan, a guesthouse like mine takes a long time to go back to the life before”.

I asked Maki if she thought many guesthouses in Kyoto would close because of the pandemic.

Maki: “Yes. I don’t have the actual number…many closed, but still many continue business. Most of the guest house that closed are not our style (of guesthouse). There are many guesthouse owners who really love travelling and get to know their guests. They like to take care of the guests and we are not doing this only to earn money. But those who just invest money, they think this is not a good chance to earn money, so they just close”.

My next question was what Maki had noticed and how COVID has changed Kyoto.

Maki: “Kyoto became really quiet. I think I have never, ever seen Kyoto so quiet like this. Especially the sakura cherry blossom season. Last year, we didn’t have lockdown, but we had the first emergency announcement and people are very scared about the new situation. So they really stayed at home. The sakura, cherry blossoms were so beautiful (like you have seen it) but no one goes out to see it. So it was really strange. Very nice weather, so beautiful, but very quiet streets.

Not only are there tourists in Kyoto (usually), we have many university students. Like 10% of the population. There are many universities in Kyoto City. I think many students went back to their hometowns, because there’s no classes at the university. Only online classes. So, because of this, it feels like a very small population”.

I asked Maki what she was hoping for tourism in Kyoto and Japan in the future.

Maki: “I think I have told you before they built too many hotels. I was happy to keep my (guesthouse) because I have a very good business…but after people realise it’s a big chance to earn money, they built too many hotels and accommodation. The city mayor wanted to get prepared for the Olympic Games.

We used to have 30,000 rooms in the city and he wanted to add 10,000 more. So he wanted to have 40,000 rooms to accommodate enough people for the Olympic Games, but actually it’s much more than that. Now I think it’s 56,000.

That’s double compared with 2016. That’s really too many. And before COVID…even I feel it’s too crowded. Once it gets so crowded like that, people can’t really enjoy the trip. From our place to, for example, Arashiyama (we are in the east end of the city, Arashiyama is in the west side of the city) to get there, people take two hours. On the crowded bus…and two hours back. So that means you have to take four hours for that transportation.

In some very popular areas, Kiyomizudera area or Arashiyama area, the public streets are packed full of people. And you can’t even walk… So you can’t walk to the shop to buy stuff, you can just move forward, very slowly.

It was crowded like that in 2019. And I think the Kyoto city local people who don’t work for tourism, they don’t like it at all. I think it’s too many people, too crowded and too sudden to have the number of tourists increase so fast.

So, now, because of COVID there are zero guests. But I hope we have enough guests and keep the good quality. I don’t know how to control it, but I think Kyoto City can have a better number of travellers visit. Too crowded is not good.

I think because of COVID some guesthouses closed and the guesthouse owners used to use the machiya, old Kyoto style buildings, to run the guest houses. But, because Kyoto has our own special culture, I think building too many hotels is not very good and better to keep those old buildings.

So I hope after COVID, in the future, in Kyoto, we keep our own original, special things to attract people to visit”.

My next question to Maki was asking what recommendations she would make to people when they’re traveling to Kyoto and Japan.

Maki: “This one I thought about Japan…and it’s very difficult because Japan is too big. In Kyoto, the essential experience is relaxed walking along the Kamo River. It is, I think, very essential. We have done this with Mya”.

(Mya is my daughter, who is great friends with Maki’s girls, Senki and Lancy).

I think we went out by bicycle. We went out a few times, but one time we stopped the bicycles along the river. And jumped these river stones. The stones are turtle shaped stones and you hop to the other side. I remember that was a very good time. And we took many good photos.

Even now, Kamo River, for us is…when it was lockdown and we had four of us in the apartment, with nothing to do and it was too boring. We just walked to the Kamo River, walked around and had a nice talk. This is a something I really enjoy. I think when travellers come here, they should not rush and enjoy relaxed walking along the Kamo River.

You can see the people’s life, local people’s life. Some people sitting and chatting and some practicing their instruments”.

Next I asked Maki her recommended places to visit .

Maki: “I think Fushimi Inari Shrine is something you can’t miss if you visit Kyoto. Because there are many temples in Japan, and also in Kyoto, but, shrines are special in Japan. Buddhism came from India and China. Shinto shrines are Japanese. That atmosphere…you can feel it. Fushimi Inari Shrine is also one of the best shrines in all Japan. I think it’s very beautiful”.

Next I asked what kind of eating experience Maki would recommend? What kind of food to eat?

Maki: “In Kyoto? I thought about it and I think tofu. Tofu is (if you visit Kyoto) a Kyoto specialty. There are a few special things, but yudōfu (simmered tofu), because Kyoto has a better tofu product…and they have a technique to make nice tofu from good material (produce). Water, of course, is important. There are many good yudōfu restaurants in Kyoto.

If you go to visit a supermarket, you can tell how much the local people love to eat tofu because the tofu section is normally this much (she held up her hands to indicate a small section) and in Kyoto it’s this much (she held her arms very wide, indicating the tofu section in Kyoto supermarkets is very large)”.

Maki recommended a tofu restaurant in Kyoto. You can find the link here.

Quick Questions:

  • Favourite Japanese Food: Somen
  • Favourite Sake: Josen Mizuno Gotoshi
  • Favourite Kombini: Lawson
  • Favourite anime or manga: Miyazaki Hayao and Hosoda Mamoru
  • Favourite Japanese movie: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Rurouni Kenshin

On food: “I have so many favourite foods, but when I think about when I go to another country, the thing I really miss will be somen. It’s very thin noodles. It’s similar to udon and made with flour. And I don’t think you can eat this in restaurants in other countries. I just like it very much. We eat this mainly in summer, cold somen.

This summer we had a lot. Many children like it and I liked it since I was child. Lancy (Maki’s eldest daughter) tells me they also love it”.

On kombini: “This is just because it is the closest”.

(I told Maki the Lawson at the end of her street is also my favourite kombini).

On anime: “My favorite for all of my life is Miyazaki Hayao. Then after I saw the movie, Yuki and Ame, Wolf Children, I shifted (a little bit) to Hosoda Mamoru. I watched Belle, the new movie. It’s very good, don’t miss it. The story is in Kochi. (Kochi is in Shikoku and is where Maki grew up. We went there together for New Year in 2015/2016)

Because the scenery in the movie is from where I lived (it’s set on the West side and I’m from the East side)…but it feels very familiar”.

{When I met Maki she suggested I see Wolf Children. We had only just met and she sent me the most beautiful message. It is a movie I now love and always associate with our friendship}.

“I recently watched the movie again. Now the feeling is a little bit different because now the children are grown up and they are almost about to leave home. So please watch it again, it has a different feel. Because when the children were small I really had the same feeling as the mother. She is young, the children are small, and there’s a very busy feeling. But now I watched again, at the end Ame will leave, and now we are facing the same situation. So I cried, again”.

(I always cry at this movie!!)

On movies: “Nausicaa, I watched it when I was around 10 years old. Even now, it’s my best movie. So I think this lasts forever.

I recently watched Rurouni Kenshin. I love it. Action and swords. They made these movies for 10 years and just finished the last two movies this year. It’s very good sword action”.

If you are travelling to Kyoto I highly, highly recommend staying at Guesthouse Soi. It will enhance your stay in my favourite city in the world. Maki will make you feel at home (I call it my home away from home) and is a wealth of local knowledge. When we met she answered many questions I had accumulated while travelling and always gives excellent advice about what to see based on your time, interests and travelling companions.

The link to Guesthouse Soi’s website to book directly is here.

Maki also shared some information about how Kyoto is trying to manage the amount of people and the lodging tax they put in place. Of course, the revenue they hoped to raise did not eventuate, as everything closed down with the pandemic. Here is a link to the article. All photos featured are Maki’s photos.

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