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‘Playful Ants’ that Change the World

(Owner & Landlady of Sally Garden Inn: Touji Yanagiya)

‘Transforming Hot Spring culture’

Yasuhiro Karakawa, leader of the "Playful Ants Incubator” introduces people in Japan who are creating new values in the world via their unique lifestyles and work styles.


Playful Ant 02 – EIKO HASHIMOTO (Owner & Landlady of Sally Garden Inn: Touji Yanagiya)

What comes to your mind when you hear the words “a steaming hot spring?” Is it a stone-paved path? A cat lying down to keep warm? Steam rising from an entire town? A hot spring resort with a picturesque appearance—welcome to the steaming “Kannawa Onsen” in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, which was once ranked second to Mt. Fuji amongst “Japanese Landscapes to Preserve in the 21st Century.”

“Touji” is a Japanese annual custom that has been passed down through the generations in which people stay in hot spring inns for several weeks to relieve physical and mental fatigue. Kannawa Onsen is a town with its roots in this hot spring cure culture. In the 1270’s of the Kamakura period, Ippen Shonin, the founder of the Jishu sect of Buddhism, stopped by to open a hot spring spa during his missionary journey. In the 1950’s, when the number of tourists peaked, the narrow streets were crowded with people who arrived at Beppu Port by ferries, and the sound of geta — a type of Japanese wooden footwear —against the cobblestone pavement could be heard until the sun rose in the mornings.

The ryokan “Sally Garden Inn: Touji Yanagiya” opened in January 2014 in this town where the atmosphere of old school hot-spring culture still remains. The current owner of Yanagiya, is Eiko Hashimoto. She is a mature woman with a calm and quiet atmosphere, whose eyes occasionally sparkle like those of a youthful girl.

Crossing the Border from Music to Cake Making

Eiko: Originally, I was a music teacher at a high school in Oita Prefecture. One day, I became interested in urban planning and started living in Yufuin Onsen (a popular local hot spring resort). During that time, I learned about a ryokan called “Sanso (mountain lodge)Murata” and fell in love with its aesthetic sense…”.

Wanting to know more about the source of the ryokan’s beauty, she took a year off from her music career and underwent hands-on training while living there. This was more than ten years ago. At the time, she never thought that she herself would become the owner of an inn in the future.

Eiko: “Mr. Fujibayashi, the owner of Sanso Murata, took care of me well. One day, when he learned that my hobby was baking cakes, he said, “I’d like to try a chiffon cake.” When I tried making it for the first time, he said, “It’s delicious!” I felt overjoyed. Because of this one compliment, I began to immerse myself in the joy of baking chiffon cakes. I continued to bake cakes as a hobby while teaching music, then about three years later, I brought a few cakes when making a visit to Sanso Murata. Mr. Fujibayashi after eating my cake again after several years once again became excited and suggested, “You can sell these—let’s sell these!”

Eiko’s days as a music teacher were very enjoyable and fulfilling. However, it seemed to her that it was a good idea to embark on a new path—a path that interested her. One day, Mr. Fujibayashi asked her again if she would like to try selling cakes at the Beppu parking area on the expressway, and was able to get some space for her. Eiko’s cake shop began in a small space of about three tatami mats.

Eiko: “I was an amateur cake baker, so of course I was a bit confused. But then I realized that what I wanted to do was not to sell cakes, but to express my own view of the world.”

A word that navigated her life again

Eiko’s simple but beautiful chiffon cakes gradually gained a good reputation, and after several years, she finally decided to open a cafe called “Sally Garden” in the middle of the countryside in Oita. One day, she went to visit Mr. Fujibayashi, who was fighting an illness at the time. It was there that she heard something that would change the course of her life.

Eiko: “There were a few people who were visiting Mr. Fujibayashi in the hospital. I was waiting in the back of the room for a chance to speak with him. Then, I happened to overhear Mr. Fujibayashi talking with the landlady of an inn called Sakaeya in Kannawa Onsen.”

The landlady of the inn, which was established in Meiji 38(1905), consulted with Mr. Fujibayashi about the lack of a successor. Mr. Fujibayashi replied, “I know one woman who has the talent and passion for the role.” Hearing her mentor praise another woman made Eiko feel slightly jealous. Finally, it was Eiko’s turn to talk with Fujibayashi, she and her mentor were able to make some small talk and then towards the end of their conversation Mr. Fujibayashi said to Eiko, “You should visit the landlady of Sakaeya.”

Eiko: “That was unexpected and unbelievable. When it came to customer service, I only knew how to work in a cafe. Moreover, working in the inn business meant working around the clock. I thought I could never do it.”

However, the mentor refused to budge, saying “Working at an inn is very worthwhile” and “All you have to do is say hello just once.” Thus, later, Eiko visited the landlady of Sakaeya, expecting that they would get along, but that wasn’t the case at all.

Eiko: “I sensed that the landlady had no intention of giving up the inn. Moreover, I thought that she didn’t like me.”

Eiko told her mentor that the meeting was not fruitful. He said, “If you’ve met and exchanged greetings, there’s no need to worry. You’ll become connected in the future.” That was his last remark to her, as he passed away shortly after. Eiko was left with the task to get involved with the inn.

Eiko with the landlady of Sakaeya.

Learning from wandering and detours

While managing “Sally Garden”, at the bottom of her heart, Eiko must have felt that she would need to complete her task one day. The feeling gradually became bigger and bigger, and Eiko started looking for a place for her inn. However, it wasn’t easy to find an ideal location. One day, after three years of searching had passed, she was introduced to a property by a local bank. The place she was introduced to was none other than Sakaeya.

Without expecting anything, Eiko visited Sakaeya one again. But this time, things worked out differently. The moment she stepped into the building, warm air flowed over her, as if it was saying, “We’ve been waiting for you for a long time!” The landlady’s reaction was also completely different. What was the difference from three years ago?

Eiko: “If I had taken over the inn the first time I visited, I would have stubbornly tried to do only what I envisioned. But now that I’ve taken a detour, I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ve learned to be flexible and accept everything as ‘It’s okay to go forward slowly while making use of what’s already there’.”

From teaching music, to owning a cake shop, and finally to running an inn. I wondered if she was worried about possible resistance by local people—after all, she was a newcomer to this historic Kannawa Onsen.

Eiko: “Perhaps my bluntness is my strength. I also believe that if I continue to do things that I believe are good, there might be a few people who’d eventually understand. Maybe it’s just my optimistic way of thinking.”

Eiko smiled briskly.

Continue to create new values as an outsider

Since its opening, “Touji Yanagiya” has slowly and steadily gained more and more “fans”, thanks to Eiko’s experience and passion cultivated through her detours. The secret to this is that using her senses as an “outsider”, she uncovers the hidden potentials of Kannawa Onsen, and creates new values one by one.

For instance, the “Jigoku-mushi,” a specialty of Kannawa Onsen since the Edo period. This is a traditional cooking method in which ingredients such as meat, seafood, and vegetables are placed on a bamboo basket and cooked at nearly 100 degrees Celsius by steam that spouts from the hot spring. Cooking the food in this hot, salty steam, brings out the flavor of the food, and as a result, no extra seasoning is needed. People staying at Kannawa Onsen for long periods thanks for Eiko’s interest in bringing this traditional method back to life can enjoy steaming their meals during their stay.  

Eiko invited “Otto e Sette Oita,” a restaurant where people can enjoy innovative Italian cuisine with a modern twist on traditional cooking culture, to the premises at the opening of the inn. She also persuaded the former head chef of “Sanso Murata” to join as the restaurant’s chef. And of course she didn’t forget about her signature chiffon cake? No way! She opened a cafe called “Artenoie” next to Yanagiya. In addition to serving chiffon cake steamed in Jigoku-mushi, Artenoie is a relaxed atmosphere with daily necessities, art works, and old books selected with Eiko’s keen sense of aesthetics. She was also one of the first people to realize that “Touji not only refreshes the body, but the mind and spirit as well.” That’s how last year she opened “Nest” – a concept building for “Workationers” who enjoy both working and vacationing during their stay.

As an outsider, Eiko has been working steadily in harmony with the local community. In order to get closer to the ideal form of aesthetics and hospitality that she is aiming for, Eiko keeps experimenting new ideas one step at a time. That’s why people who visit “Touji Yanagiya” want to come back every time.

Through the process of trial and error, Eiko has made companions who she can trust. One of them is Ms. Haruko Yasunami—the owner of Fujiya Gallery “Hanaya Momo.” “Hanaya Momo” is a gallery cafe utilizing the building of Fujiya Ryokan, which was once known as the most prestigious inn in Kannawa Onsen and is now a national Registered Tangible Cultural Property. Born and raised in the owner family of Fujiya Ryokan in Kannawa Onsen, Haruko has been active in reenergizing the area through unique activities such as naming June 4th as “Steam Day” and organizing “Steam Street Tourism”, which is an event to experience Touji and steamed food. Eiko says she has always been inspired by Haruko’s ability to envision and persevere.

Playful ants bringing in the next playful ants

In recent years, “new outsiders” with interesting experiences, skills and networks have begun to gather in Kannawa Onsen one by one. They are young people who are starting up new businesses such as shared houses, shared offices, and experiential tourism to realize new ways of living and working by utilizing the potential of Touji. As a pioneer, Eiko has become an inspirational role model for such people. As they join Kannawa Onsen and become catalysts, new values will be created one after another in the future. It is like the contínuos and endless spouting of hot steam.

Eiko: “I think Kannawa is already moving forward. I would like to leave the new things to the young people and focus myself on building closer relationships with people and accomplishing other small things. I’ve recently been thinking that creating a small authentic Japanese restaurant could be an exciting project.”

Eiko shared her vision for the future. The world is currently being shaken by COVID-19—and so is our sense of values. Many people are trapped with thinking about “how to return to what is/was normal,” but it is precisely because of this situation that Eiko feels the importance of “returning back to one’s true self”. This attitude will lead to the discovery of new values that will be required in the years to come. This attitude was also what motivated her to intentionally start creating and enjoying “playing” (as an adult), such as farming and training in Japanese cuisine.

Eiko: “I wish to continue doing what I’m interested in—what I’m playful about—while also being guided by it.”

Post-Interview Reflection

When Eiko changed her career from a music teacher to a cake baker, she felt that she had begun walking down a very different path. Soon, however, she realized that “playing music and baking cakes were the same”. She discovered that “the essence of both was to pursue something beautiful. She also came to believe that teaching and baking cakes were all connected in the sense of conveying her message for the people in front of her while thinking of their happiness and making them feel happy.

Steve Jobs, during his famous commencement speech at Stanford University shared his message of “Connecting the dots.” We don’t know what we are doing now (dots) will lead to in the future. However, as we get absorbed in our work, there will come a time when we realize that everything we do is connected to the future (connecting the dots) when we look back. Therefore, we should believe in ourselves and move forward with courage to do what we are passionate about.

Listening to Eiko’s journey reminded me of connecting the dots. A playful ant never moves in a straight line. At first glance, they are inefficient. However, when they are attracted to something and their instincts lead them to wander around, they discover new values. It’s the same with humans. The future is not a mere extension of the past and present. Sometimes it seems as if we are jumping into a crazy place. It takes courage for anyone to step into an inexperienced and new field. But if you are always dedicated to “the essence of the values you want to realize,” as Eiko was, you will be able to cross borders freely in various fields and worlds, and the dots you connect will eventually emerge as a “unique life story” that no one else can imitate. I can’t see it now. Though we can’t see it right now, let’s believe in ourselves, let’s wander around, and let’s move forward. Stay Playful.

『The Playful Ants that change the world』

In an ant society, you can easily identify the herd of “Worker Ants”—the textbook definition of ants, the ones who continuously carry the food. If you take a closer look, you may notice that there’s a different group of ants walking about playfully in their own world. These are “Playful Ants”—ants and thanks to their curiosity, they at times stumble across an unexpected feeding ground or detect sudden threats in advance allowing them to warn the colony of danger in advance.

In this interview series, I introduce interesting lifestyles and work styles of different Playful Ants”, in order to help incubate them into this world.

Each human being is as small as an ant. However, if each ant pursues his or her own path purposefully and playfully, that path can connect to an opportunity to explore and create something new. That can turn into the power to change the world in its own way. I’ve come to believe so after spending many years on designing and leading practical innovation projects, and working with many global and Japanese corporations as a consultant.

Yasuhiro Karakawa (Playful Ants Incubator)
With a purpose of “incubating Playful Ants both in the corporations and the society” Yasu has been leading practical innovation projects with global corporations in more than 10 countries while also serving as a strategy advisor and a guest lecturer.