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Hot spring inn sees spike in foreign visitors after hiring French staff member

Sebastien Etievant, right, speaks with a customer in English at Choeikan hot springs lodge in the town of Shizukuishi, Iwate Prefecture, on Dec. 12, 2017. (Mainichi)

SHIZUKUISHI, Iwate -- In response to the highest number of inbound foreign tourists visiting Iwate Prefecture ever in 2016, hot spring lodge "Choeikan" here hired quadrilingual Frenchman Sebastien Etievant to raving reviews.

The 36-year-old was hired in April 2017, and his excellent ability to provide hospitality to guests in French and three other languages quickly spread over rating websites online, attracting more foreign tourists to the accommodations.

According to statistics from the Iwate Prefectural Government, the number of foreign tourists making the journey there has been steadily rising since the 2011 earthquake and related disasters, and reached a record-breaking 163,230 people in 2016, up 41,739 people the previous year. With 2019 seeing the Iwate city of Kamaishi hosting Rugby World Cup matches, the prefecture is expecting the number of guests to grow even further. That's where accommodations like Choeikan come in.

Choeikan is located roughly 20 minutes west by car from Tsunagi Hot Spring, located in the western part of Iwate's capital of Morioka. In a hot spring town with 19 facilities ranging from small to large lining both banks of the Oshuku River, a six-story building in the uppermost stream area stands out among them. That is Choeikan.

"Welcome to Choeikan," Etievant greeted the Mainichi Shimbun with his fluent Japanese in mid-December 2017. Etievant was born in Versailles, France. With an interest in Japanese literature such as the works of Yukio Mishima, he began teaching himself Japanese, and in 2015, he received a visa to continue his studies of the language at a vocational school in Morioka.

Wanting to make the most use of his Japanese as possible, he looked for a way to stay in Japan, which required receiving a working visa. The person who reached out to Etievant as he searched for a job was the 31-year-old president of Choeikan, Takahiro Terui.

Choeikan was seeking to hire foreign nationals in full-time regular staff positions in order to handle the increasing number of foreign tourists that came to use the hot spring accommodation. With a group or package tour, there is usually a guide that accompanies the party, but there was reportedly a limit to the service the Japanese staff alone could provide individual customers from abroad.

"To what degree can we meet the needs of a single customer? With his willingness to take on a challenge, Sebastian was a perfect fit for the job," Terui recalled.

After roughly a month of training, Etievant began his work as one of the members of the management planning department in April 2017. He worked to create a website and travel plans for foreign tourists. Along with French and Japanese, he used his skills in English and German as well, taking inquiries from foreign customers almost completely by himself.

Many wrote on the world's largest travel booking site booking.com that they enjoyed themselves because Sebastian was there, and as the ratings for Choeikan grew, so did the number of reservations from outside of Japan. In a period between March 2017 and February 2018, the number of individual foreign travelers came to 908 people as of November 2017 -- up 538 compared to the same period the year before -- a new record for Choeikan.

Tokuhisa Momoto, the head of the management planning department, was shocked by the impact that Etievant's hiring has made on the business. A 20-year-old traveler from Australia even commented that he chose the location exclusively because he read about Etievant online, saying he felt a sense of comfort because he knew he could ask the Frenchman about anything he needed. Looking forward, Choeikan plans to hire more foreign nationals, aiming to have them fill up 20 percent of the staff.

"There are many customers who feel uncertain when they are in a foreign country. I want to alleviate those worries even a little bit by creating an environment where having foreign staff is a given," said Terui. As for Etievant, he said, "I want to convey to my fellow foreign nationals who stay at the accommodations the splendid culture, history and natural wonders of Iwate."

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