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Tomoko Miyajima - A creative look at "stay"

In March, I met a woman with a wonderful smile at a meeting.She seemed to be running a hotel in Osaka, Hotel Noum OSAKA. She is Tomoko Miyajima, the CEO of Hotel Noum OSAKA. She seemed to be running a hotel in Osaka, Hotel Noum OSAKA.I liked the coffee and sweets there and often visited the cafe. I also found out that we lived in the same area, and our friendship quickly grew. And that’s how this interview came about.

You might not know that Osaka is an water metropolis, where culture, commerce, and finance flourished along with the river. Even today, there are 33 rivers, large and small, in Osaka City, and for the past 10 years, the government has been actively promoting waterfront life and people’s livelihood under the concept of “Water Metropolis Osaka. In particular, Nakanoshima, also known as the “City Island of Osaka,” has played a major role in the development of Osaka. In the Edo period (1603-1868), the area was 135 warehouses of various clans, and in the modern era (1868-1912), securities, finance and social circles flourished in the Nakanoshima area, which still retains a unique, mature and cultural flavor. On the east side of the Nakanoshima neighborhood, in a corner where the old Yodo River, the Okawa River, flows in front of you and a lush green park spreads out, is Noum, where you can feel a fresh, foreign atmosphere.

Tomoko Miyajima was born in Yamagata Prefecture. While studying at Fukushima University, she met Takahiro Homma (later the founder of Backpackers’ Japan), who would have a great impact on her life. In this interview, we talked a lot about her life from that time to the present when she is running Noum.

 

Interview by Junko Sasanuki (chignitta)
Photographs: Hotel Noum OSAKA、Yoshihiro Taniguchi (chignitta)

Tomoko Miyajima

As a founding member of Backpackers’ Japan, she started her business with Mr. Homma, the CEO, and two other members. She was the proprietress of their first guesthouse, toco. in Iriya, Tokyo. After the opening of his second guesthouse, Nui. (Kuramae, Tokyo), she was responsible for all on-site operations, including hiring, building evaluation systems, and handling various problems as the on-site supervisor in charge of the operations of all the guesthouses. In 2018, she launched Noum Inc. as a subsidiary of Backpackers’ Japan and opened Hotel Noum OSAKA in July 2019.

https://www.no-um.jp/

https://www.instagram.com/hotelnoum/

– 10 years of running together with friends from her school days –

 

■You stepped into the lodging industry together with friends from your student days, which has led you to your current career. Did you already have a vision of working in this industry when you were a student?

 

No. I was doing event planning for students when I was in college, so after graduating, I joined an event-related company and worked in sales. About half a year after I joined the company, Honma, a friend from my college days, asked me to join him because he was starting a business. We knew each other wel through event activities in the university. Four of my classmates got together and that’s when it all started.

■What did he, Honma san want to do with you at that time?

 

Actually, when we first got together, we were planning to start a business in the travel industry to create a company that conveys the values of travel. After a lot of discussions between us, we decided to run a guesthouse for backpackers and established Backpackers’ Japan. It was early 2000, a time when guesthouses had not yet penetrated Japan. However, we didn’t have any money at all,” he said. So for the first year, the four of us lived under the same roof while running a taiyaki ( a fish-shaped cake with custard cream inside) shop as a way to save money for opening the inn. It was like a student training camp. When I had saved up some money at the Taiyaki restaurant, I realized that I myself had never been on a backpacking trip, nor had I ever stayed in a guesthouse. Oh no! I thought, ” This is not good!”, so I went on a trip around the world to learn and experience how to run a guesthouse.

 

At a cafe on the ground floor of Noum.  Comfortable space.

■How was your first backpacking trip?

 

I traveled 20 some countries in 3 months from Japan to Thai, India, European countries, Mexico, Cuba, South America, and Oceania regions.  Culture is different, languages are different, so it is really hard to describe what I learnt in one word though, I was really questioning myself to look for a comfortable place to stay as I’m a guesthouse beginner.  While I was travelling, other teammates were looking for real estate to open our guesthouse.  We got an old wooden house in Iriya, Tokyo and opened our first guesthouse “toco.” soon after I returned to Japan.  It was a tiny house, so we did everything to create.  I valued the memory of the guesthouse that made such an impression on me during my first backpacking trip and made it a place where the staff would naturally say “welcome back” to travellers.

 

■ Backpackers’ Japan’s business was growing up, wasn’t it?

 

Yes, but we were not really conscious of growing the scale of the business. We felt that we were all here to support the CEO, Mr. Homma, in achieving what he wanted to do. I was in charge of the day-to-day operations and management of events and planning and gained experience as COO. The company’s philosophy was “to create a place where people can gather, transcending all boundaries,” so our goal was to create a space that was not only for overnight guests but also for local residents and people from various backgrounds.

 

– Japan’s Standards Are Not the World’s Standards –

 

■You eventually moved on from Backpackers’ Japan to the next stage, Hotel Noum, didn’t you?

It was a little before I turned 30 when Honma said, “It’s time for each of the executives to start earning your own money”. However, I was working every day with my colleagues to achieve our dreams, and I had never really thought about starting a business on my own, so the members of the company and I started brainstorming about 100 ideas for what kind of work we thought would be interesting for Miyajima to do. About 100 ideas came up, from “a cafeteria that serves lunch,” “developing a small guesthouse,” “consulting,” “doing something in the countryside,” “human resource development,” and so on. Then I questioned myself once again. I realized that I love the lodging business even without Backpackers’ Japan, but I also realized that I am not satisfied with staying at hotels. The idea of creating a hotel started with the focus on “Yes, I want to stay in a hotel that I can like. After that, I stayed at hotels in Japan and abroad to experience what I liked, what I could relate to, and what my strengths were. What I found was that many hotels in Japan have a packaged concept of “must-have” such as “must-have TV” or “must-have refrigerator”. I even got the impression that “we have everything here, so the guests won’t complain. This was not the case overseas. For example, the hotel I stayed at in LA didn’t have any of the things we take for granted in Japan, but it had large windows, light, and art in the room. It’s okay. It’s attractive to have this. I decided to build a medium-sized hotel with this mindset. The standard in Japan is not the standard in the world, and just as there are many different ways to live, there are many different hotels. There are many different hotels, just as there are many different ways of living, and I realized, “Oh, this is fine. That was the original experience that led me to create Hotel Noum.

 

■Noum has a nice building and facade, but it is located in a symbolic and wonderful place in Osaka, a water city. Did you open your business in Osaka with this in mind?

 

No, that’s not it. I was born in Yamagata, went to college in Fukushima, and started working in Tokyo, so I have lived in eastern Japan all my life, so I was thinking to open a business in the Kanto area.

I was told by a company that researches properties all over Japan that they had a great deal on a property that rarely comes up. And it was in Osaka. I thought, “Osaka? But Osaka is the second-largest city after Tokyo, and I already had the keywords “city and nature” in my mind, so when I saw the location of the property, I thought, “This is it! When I saw the location of the property, I thought, “This is it! I decided to go ahead with the plan immediately. In the end, I think it was a good thing that we found our first store in Osaka. What’s more, when I came to Osaka, I found out that there are good restaurants and nice stores around Noum, and the people in the neighborhood are all very nice. I think it was a really good encounter.

 

An organic feeling welcomes guests.

cafe

– Creating a wilderness and enjoying the “openness” – 

 

■Please tell us about the concept of the hotel, “Creating a wilderness in the city.

 

When I was thinking about naming the hotel, I came across the English word “norm”. It means social discipline and norms, and I was attracted to the sound of “norm. When I was searching for the sound of the word, the word-sound playing of “No-wo-umu “ which sounds like “norm” and also means to create a wilderness” in Japanese came to mind. Then I changed the spelling and named it “Noum”. I wanted the hotel to be a place where people could feel a sense of openness, relaxation, and freedom as if they were in a field or a park while staying in a hotel in the city.

 

The rooftop with its wooden deck is an oasis in the city (at the time of the photo, there was an installation of sculptures as an art exhibition was underway).

The view from the rooftop is of the lush green waterfront and the Tenma Bashi Bridge stretching across the Okawa River.

■ Noum has been having good reputations tourists inside/outside Japan.  The appearance is also awesome.

 

I was honestly happy to see that many of the foreign guests were of our generation. Comparatively speaking, many guests of our generation tend to spend their time at their own pace while traveling, rather than joining so-called sightseeing tours. In addition to touring tourist spots, our guests like to enjoy their trip as an extension of their normal lifestyle with sensitivity, such as running or cycling along the riverside or promenade in front of the hotel. We are honored to be a hotel where people can enjoy such “emptiness or openness”. In addition, as I keenly felt when I went backpacking for the first time, it is very comfortable to stay in a hotel where the staff says, “Welcome home. When you are traveling, you don’t know many people, so it is comforting to have someone say “Welcome home. This is something I inherited from my days at Backpackers’ Japan, and I still cherish it today.

 

Cruising by bicycle in neighbors is one of ways to enjoy your travel

Guests feel comfy to communicate with hotel staff

– Continuing to Think and To Understand Each Other –

 

■I am very interested in the root of your thinking, or what kind of ingenuity you use. Please share with us some of your skills and tips.

 

Once you have decided on “this,” the first thing you should do is to go to various places to get to know them thoroughly. Especially when I was in my twenties, I went to all kinds of places, both domestic and international, to see different spaces. The lodging business is also about creating spaces, so I would go to not only hotels but also cafes, restaurants, galleries, etc., and make sketches of them. I wrote down in my notebooks why I felt comfortable and why I felt uncomfortable. Not just the things I could see, but all the things I could feel. I have many of these notebooks, and they were very useful when I created Noum, and I still look back at them now and then and think, “I see. Thinking can be trained, so I’m constantly training myself to keep thinking.

 

 

King Room on the top floor

■I see. How do you materialize and share what you have learned from your experiences and thoughts with your staff?

 

We often eat a meal together at Noum, so I value the communication we have while eating. Eating together is very important to deepen mutual understanding. Also, in order to create an environment of mutual understanding and smooth communication among the staff, we regularly have ice-breakers and opportunities to get to know each other better. The staff in the field think about how to embody the concept of “creating fields in the city” and keep moving through trial and error. As a manager, I have to make a lot of top-down decisions, but once I’ve made a decision, I work as a team. The important thing is to have staff who can think and act, and to nurture such staff.

 

After the interview : 

 

“I love Osaka. People around me say that Osaka suits me well,” smiles Miyajima san. She is currently living the Osaka, and she knows more stores, restaurants than I do. She says, “I’m from Yamagata Prefecture, so I’m supposed to be shy, but…,” but it is only with the pioneering spirit of a backpacker that she dives into Osaka. She says, “Keep thinking.” I would like to have a drink with you at Hotel Noum in the near future when things turn to better. Noum’s cafe is also very recommendable!

 

Special thanks to

Hotel Noum OSAKA
Backpackers’ Japan

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