Japan launches Airbnb for Temples

Cultural heritage meets the tourism industry, en force.

Terahaku is a new Japanese site dedicated to hotel and overnight offers hosted at Japanese temples. The platform will help to provide access to temple sites and to encourage tourism and cultural visits to more rural areas. As reported by TrendWatch, the service will be rolled out in partnership with AirBnb and Booking.com, coming as part of a change in local laws enabling short-term rentals.

Whilst it’s not the first of its kind, this type of bespoke offer focused on cultural heritage sites, places, and the surrounding experiences, is just one more piece of evidence of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and how it is quickly changing the cultural tourism sector. Here’s a quick look at the “trend”, the appeal of authentic experience, and what it all means.

The “authentic” escape

Providing an authentic visitor experience through a stay in heritage homes is certainly not a new service. Indeed it can already be seen on AirBnb in Japan already for  lodgings in temples, across Italy and Europe, from Tuscan visits in renovated churches to family heritage castles in France, to traditional homes and home-stays all over the world for a so-called authentic traveler immersion. Large palaces, mansions, castles, churches, and temples have a long history in the tourism industry as wedding and event venues, exotic luxury and retreat hotels, spa locations, and much more.

But whats slightly new is the dominant focus on experience that defines the more recent offers. It’s not just a castle or a temple visit, its part of a whole experiential cultural visit.

Just taking Japan as an example, current hosts on AirBnb already offer a range of visitor experiences to discover  Japanese culture and heritage, ranging from spirituality and mindfulness zen-and-bed escapes, to city tours, gastro-tourism detoxes and traditional tea ceremonies, yoga hosted in temples, or brunch and meditation. Take your pick.

Choosing between temples?

From a visitor perspective, here’s where it gets tricky – how do you decide?

Likewise, from a management planning perspective, there is an important competitive dynamic that comes into play on this type of bespoke platform.

How will one temple distinguish itself from another on a platform that’s dedicated completely to temples?

It is one thing to offer a unique temple location and associated experience services on a more heterogeneous platform like AirBnB. It’s a completely different thing when your site is devoted completely to temple and heritage lodgings, as being done on Terahaku.

It is in this type of platform that heritage competition really comes to play as a service in and of itself.

How will each lodging create a differentiated offer, and what is at risk?

Geographic location will of course be a key element for any visitors. And many of these temples will be building their stories and identities, constructing a narrative of authenticity tied to the histories of the temples and their ancestry. Service differentiation will also be key. Is this a mindfulness escape from the modern world, or is it a luxury temple retreat, or a yoga class with a difference?

Embracing new innovation

What is at risk? On one hand temples sites, especially in rural areas, may have an unprecedented opportunity to be recognised and to gain valuable resources. On the other hand, there is a risk of a marginalization of the temple and associated temple culture and spirituality as just one more checklist on the travelers “to do” list?

Regardless, I do think it’s a step in the right direction towards preservation and safeguarding, where cultural heritage sites and associated experience surrounding them become integrated as part of the cultural commons.

Despite the many threats of tourism, it’s a step towards innovation and new platforms which is the right direction. Even if this is part of the “experience economy”, it will nonetheless impart some degree of cultural education, tolerance, diversity, and cross-cultural understanding for visitors, whether local or foreign. Our cultural understanding can only live in our shared imagining, connections, and experiences.

Can’t wait ?

Check out the Terahaku experience in full here.  Or try  via AirBnb with Japan Zazen

Terahaku 1Image source: Terahaku welcoming page, accessed 14.06.2018