I met Vince through a mutual friend when he first came to Kobe. I then went back to college for my masters, and when I moved back afterwards, I swear he was friends with every single person in the entire city of Kobe – being the sociable guy that he is. By the time he lived a few years in Japan, his Japanese was much better than mine, despite me living here a good 15 years (damnit Vince).
Vince is one of those guys that make you wonder, how the hell does he find the time to do all that he does? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. A world traveller in the true sense of the word, Vince has quite the story to tell. Now part owner of multiple hostels in Kyoto, he found the place where he truly thrives.
Where were you born?
I was born in Hong Kong in 1986 and my family moved to Canada when I was 1 year old. So I spent my childhood in Toronto. Later on I moved to Vancouver for most of my life. I went to school at University of British Columbia. After I graduated I ended up in Japan.
I remember you told me your ethnicity was aboriginal Hong Kongese?
Haha Yeah that’s a very minor detail. Only a small percent of people in Hong Kong are considered what you could say are aboriginals. So our family used to be the fisherman in Hong Kong prior to the British arrival. We kind of have this unique status. Our village is inside this huge urban area right now. Most people in Hong Kong they live in high rises or tower mansions. That is also the image people have of Hong Kong. However, when I go back to Hong Kong I go back to the village actually.
When you say status, do you mean you are looked up to or down upon or something like that?
I don’t think there is any of that type of discrimination in Hong Kong. First of all, ethnically speaking, Hong Kong aborigines are basically Han Chinese. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The only thing that is different is certain legal aspects. For example we are entitled to claim land from the government. We can apply for land and get the land within our village which most regular Hong Kong people cannot do. Also another random thing is burial. Burials in Hong Kong is very expensive, and most people get cremated. Even with that there is a several year wait list. But for us, we get full burial, not just cremation. We can get buried in our ancestral burial area in the mountain side.
When you pass away, do you want to get buried in your ancestral area?
Haha I haven’t thought about it. Whatever is easiest and cheapest for my dependents. You know if I have kids, I don’t want to burden them with too much expenses and stuff dealing with me. I guess yeah, I wouldn’t mind being placed with the rest of my family members.
What did you study and what were you into during school?
My major was Asian studies focusing on international relations of East Asia – so specifically China, Japan, and Korea’s international relations from the Meiji Restoration until the end of WWII. Pretty much the most transformative period of Japanese and East Asian history – when everything became industrialized.
Would you say you already had a drive to be entrepreneurial at that time?
Not at all. Zero haha.
What were you thinking at that time?
You know, my early 20s – even up until recently I wasn’t really sure about what I was wanting to do. I think I spent a lot of time travelling and discovering myself. I’ve changed careers multiple times as well. Entrepreneurship just kind of ended up happening.
Did you study abroad?
During university I studied abroad in Shanghai for a summer program, and then for my final year also studied in Kyoto – right here actually – for another summer program.
After you finished college, step by step what happened till now?
I came on this special program run by Ritsumeikan as part of my major. It’s a peace program with the specific focus on atomic bomb history – which was actually the very end part of my studies. We came to Kyoto and we met various hibakusha – atomic bomb survivors. We listened to various lectures from specialists in this field, both from the US and from Japan. Then we went on a tour to the sites – both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was during the memorial period. We were able to join the memorial services. We also were able to meet the mayors of both cities and interview various survivors that were still alive and living in those cities. That program got me hooked onto Japan.
Since I already been to China, and I can already speak Chinese, I wanted to try living somewhere in Asia that was a bit different. I’ve been to China multiple times so I thought Japan would be a good place. I had a lot of friends from university in Japan so I decided to come here. That was my first step into Japan.
I started off as a teacher and did that for 2 years. Mainly I was doing eikaiwa teaching and later moved on into corporate English teaching. Most foreigners start off with that in Japan. Unlike a lot of people I actually found it quite rewarding and lucrative, but I didn’t want to do it forever. After a couple years, I decided to make a change and get out of Japan to see more of Asia. Through someone very infuential in my life who I met during the Ritsumeikan program, I ended up joining a medical based NGO. I was sent to a very remote hospital in Western Nepal with a team of different international doctors and nurses. My position was mainly administrative and Public Relations, writing reports for various donor agencies about the progress of various programs (TB, Leoparsey, malnutrition, etc.). Due to the remoteness, I ended up having to help in the ER and Operation Theatre on a daily basis. Ended up spending almost half a year there. That is a different story, though.
What was the driving factor to get you into that?
I’d always been volunteering throughout my whole life, even when I was living in Canada. Just any kind of volunteer services, I would join. You know, soup kitchens kind of thing. At university we did a lot of fundraising for other NGOs – World Mission, 30 hour famines, orphanages, old folks homes. We would go to old folks homes and spend time with them. Just doing this type of thing was always part of my extracurricular so it was very natural. Doing it long term as a full time thing, that was the first time obviously. It was very rewarding and life changing. I had never felt so happy in my life as then. I had no possessions except whatever was in my 70L backpack. I was fit, healthy and feeling very spiritual after witnessing the daily struggle for life and death.
Things took a U-turn after that. As we all know, the triple disaster hit the Tohoku area on March 11th, 2011 killing almost 20,000 people in Japan and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Our team was sent back to Japan and I went together with them (Actually I was so remote that it took 4 more days before that information trickled to our hospital and my team in Kathmandu had already left immediately). Although I wasn’t intending to come back to Japan, I ended up back in Japan based on circumstances that were beyond my control. I guess that was kind of like fate.
You can’t really plan against these things, you just kind of follow the flow and see where it takes you. I came back to Japan and spent about a couple months in the disaster zone. I was based mainly in Kamaishi City and Otsuchi, both heavily damaged by the tsunami. Otsuchi is almost in the harbor area and almost 90% of the buildings were wiped out when the gas tanks caught on fire and floated on top of the waves into the city. Kamaishi City was a very major city to be hit as well. We had set up tent hospitals and were going on daily rounds in the gymnasium that acted as the shelters for the displaced. Seeing so much destruction – it’s hard to comprehend that if you are living a normal lifestyle anymore. I felt like I had spent quite a long time living in these kind of disaster or very rural places of poverty that I felt mentally and physically drained.
I was able to get a job trading company in Osaka next. That was the typical salary man type of work. It was a Japanese company but it was a trading company so it was very foreign influenced. Since I had spent some time in Nepal, I could speak a bit of Nepalese which is not too different from Hindi. I was able to get into this trading company because it dealt heavily with Indian and Japanese trade. From there my main work was shinkikaihatsu which is new business development. I was focused specifically on renewable energy products and the renewable energy industry between those two countries. At that time the company was trying to set up an office in Delhi so I was also assisting with that as well. I had to go to India quite often for a lot of trade shows, a lot of visiting factories, a lot of Japanese factories as well, which was very eye opening. I did that for another couple years. Everything seems to be a couple years haha.
After getting into the business world and seeing how the Japanese system worked, I thought I had new ideas. I thought that, okay, Japan has this system. Me coming from abroad with various experience, I could add onto that system. Maybe I would be able to find a niche within that and develop my own ideas and my own business. I think the real reason for me getting into entrepreneurship is actually just trying to do things the way I wanted to do it instead of following the system. After doing the salaryman lifestyle, there’s no way I could continue that for the rest of my life so I wanted to kind of avoid that as well.
I ended up quitting the trading company and setting up kind of a partnership company with a friend. We were trying to explore different options and what type of businesses we could do. We did various things. We were doing internet retail, we were doing consulting work. Through that process, not being on a regular salary and living kind of project to project was quite hard, and obviously I failed haha. I failed a few times – almost every business venture I tried didn’t work out during that period of initial entrepreneurship. I burned through my entire savings and resorted to eating just rice and fermented soybeans called natto almost everyday for a year. It wasn’t really a smart idea, but I guess when you are in you early 20s, you don’t really think about those things. You think you are invincible and don’t listen to the opinions of those wiser. So it didn’t work out but it was part of the learning process.
But through my regular attendance of entrepreneurial circles I was introduced to a lot of other people trying to startup their own projects. I did meet one guy who was interested in setting up the hospitality business and he had funding from an angel investor. He was interested in working with me because I had all these various types of life experiences, and also myself being a backpacker too and always staying at hostels. I seemed like someone that would be able to bring everything in and setup the business and be the face of the company. So I was invited to join his project. We started up what was at that time the largest hostel in Osaka, and we tried to make it a lot different from other hostels at that time, from what I’ve seen. It was a lot more, I guess you can say westernized compared to other local hostels. That went quite successfully, but I only did that for one year. Through various complications through bureaucracy and politics between the angel investor, the project leader and me myself as the manager. It’s natural for these things to not always work out. So we decided to go our separate ways. I was thankful for the opportunity to get my foot in the door with a startup hostel company and see how the process went.
Just as I was planning on not continuing my contract I was able to by chance meet another angel investor in Kyoto who wanted to set up a hostel who had heard about my project in Osaka. Not just one hostel, but a hostel company which in the future would make basically a chain company and possibly expand not just in Kyoto but other cities in Japan, and hopefully in the far future oversees.
Our company, COTO, started with our office in the spare room of my house. I had 4 staff come in to my house everyday for half a year. There was a total lack of privacy but it was fun in a way. Everyone would cook their own food in my kitchen and sometimes some of them would crash in my living room. We set up renovating an apartment complex in Gion, then renovated a traditional machiya into a guesthouse, finished up the hostel project within one and a half years. And that’s where I am here today.
The guesthouse in Kamishichiken is the first one?
Actually this (Edit: the hostel located near Kyoto Station) is the first one here, but the project got delayed by a year. The guesthouse in Kamishichiken is also very unique and I’d like to get into it if there were more time. Being located in the oldest Geisha district of Japan, there was a lot of culture and hidden rules with setting up a new business there. We had to do it the old school Kyoto way and visit all the teahouses, spend millions of yen just getting our faces out there so the neighborhood would support us. We joined the local business association of the street and were expected to clean the neighborhood Geisha dance hall regularly, take part in events/festivals as volunteers and attend all the monthly meetings. But by doing that, we were entrenched in the neighborhood and had support from the neighbors who had been there for hundreds of years before us.
Back to the main hostel, with these type of large scale project and this kind of capital involved – problems only ever increase. Schedule and timeline always gets later, they never get earlier. What we thought would be delayed by one or two months, ended up being delayed three or four months, ended up being delayed by half a year, ended up being delayed by a year. But by that time I had already been preparing to set up this hostel so I already had my staff. Some of them came with me from my previous hostel. We had recruited new staff as well. We already had the staff. I was ready to go. But the building was not ready, construction was not ready. At that time the team, there was nothing for them to do. So we setup some smaller guesthouses along the way. We thought of it as investment in the staff, and have them get involved with the building process – the startup process – so they could see and learn about how to startup a hospitality business. That’s a wide range of skills involved from working with architects, interior designers, construction companies. That’s the hardware aspect. Then setting up all the software aspects. Software would be working with partner companies to list and sell the rooms, working with all our suppliers, making signs, training staff. There are so many suppliers we work with – from food and drink suppliers, cleaning companies, alcohol distributors, our sales partners are online travel agencies, even all our doormats are done by one company.. Just talking one on one with these companies, talking about prices and setting up schedules and so on – that was a very good learning experience for our first opening team staff. Eventually we got to opening up this main place now. Now we just passed our first year mark last week.
Did you have a lot of support doing these things for the first time?
I think everything’s always a learning process. Although I’ve done it once in Osaka, coming to Kyoto is obviously very different. The city is very different, the culture is different, the business culture is different, the type of customers that come here are also very different too. I had the basics, the general steps for what should be done first and what should be done second and so on. But adapting that to here was a very large learning curve. I was lucky that my angel investor was able to help guide me through and get me situated in Kyoto quite quickly and get me adapted to the Kyoto culture. But in terms of agencies, government or foundations – no support from them.
Did your successes and failures in your life lead you to where you are now?
Without failures there wouldn’t be success. And what others define as success may not be success for you as well, just less of a failure. It hurts when you fail but you will always look back in hindsight and laugh on it. Like, “I can’t believe at one point in my life I was eating fermented beans everyday for a year”, or “I can’t believe I was 50 kilograms because I was malnourished when working in the remote hospital”. But I think that the harder you work, the more calculated risks you take and the more you put yourself out there, the luckier you do get.
What are the advantages and disadvantages doing this business in Japan?
That’s a very big question haha. After starting up this business, I had already been in Japan for quite some time, like 6 or 7 years. All I know about working is totally based in Japan. My adult life is totally based in Japan. So I can’t really say about other countries.
In terms of hospitality specifically, I think Japan is one of the best countries at the moment. The tourism industry if you read the stats, it’s only increasing every year. Japan has been in recession a very long time. If you look at other major industries like manufacturing and so on, everything’s been going down. The only thing going up is hospitality and tourism. There is a wave that’s happening and I think this industry will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. I think the real attraction with Japan is in the value of its traditional culture. Japan has done a superb job of preserving that traditional-ness. Within Japan, Kyoto is the hub for seeing traditional Japan. After being the imperial capital for almost a millennia, it’s got all that time to absorb all this tradition and culture. People from all over the world come just to see that. That’s not something that is really affected by changes in the economy, or high yen or low yen. I think people will come regardless because they are searching for something missing in their cultures or cities through globalization, something that Japan and Kyoto have done a good job of preserving. A sense of nostalgia when spirituality, traditions, trust, honor, rules, dedication and community were part of our daily lives.
Do you see a lot of tourism coming to Kyoto, not just Tokyo?
Well of course with the Olympics in Tokyo, that has increased their tourism a lot and the government there has more incentive to invest in tourism. That has trickled down to Kyoto as well, but Kyoto has always been a tourist city. It’s not just foreign tourism, it’s also domestic tourism. Actually domestic tourism, traditionally speaking, has always been the main industry in Kyoto. But it’s slowly changing recently. There’s more emphasis on inbound tourism from other countries. The Kyoto local city and prefectural government has put a lot of effort into making Kyoto more accessible to foreign travelers. Without that we wouldn’t be here as well. But the cool thing about Kyoto is that you can come every season to the exact same places, be it temples, restaurants or streets, and find something different based on season.
Do you see Japanese guests coming to this hostel?
We have different types of properties. For this particular hostel, most of our guests are actually foreigners. I would say mostly Europeans or commonwealth countries. Next I would say East Asian tiger economies. Recently there’s an increase in South American or Spanish speaking travelers. With Europeans and South Americans there’s a strong hosteling culture so they know what it’s about. A lot of them have stayed at hostels before so it’s easy for them to choose hostels. With East Asian cultures, some of them might not be so accustomed to hosteling, but based on just the cheap prices and the easy access between the countries, many of them ended up at a hostel. Maybe they never thought of going to hostels specifically, but after coming here once for the first time – a lot of them tell us that this is the first hostel they ever stayed at and they quite enjoy it. I think that’s part of our mission – to open up hosteling culture to new clients. I think once most people stay at a hostel, they end up wanting to stay at another hostel in another country.
Even though tourism is increasing in Kyoto, that means a large number of hostels are being built as well. Unlike hotels, I don’t see other hostels as being direct competition. I see them as potential partners. I want to increase more communication between hostels. I think if the hosteling culture expands, the number of people that choose hostels will increase which will benefit everybody here. Hosteling is just a tiny market share of the entire hospitality industry. First of all, for all hostels to make more money, we need to just increase our market share of the hospitality industry. That means introducing our unique type of accommodation and culture to people that are accustomed to staying at hotels basically.
That being said, I would most definitely like to expose more regular Japanese to hostel culture and have them think of it as their local community center. I think it will break down the language barrier and give them more confidence to try using English. Also most communication is non-verbal. With a few drinks and lots of gestures anyone can feel like a backpacker traveling around the world and meeting people of different backgrounds.
Is the hostel industry relatively new in Japan?
Well it’s always been here.. There have always been hostels, but not on the scale of say Europe. Not wide spread, not mainstream. I think hostels in Europe play a large role in their communities. They are also places to go hang out regularly. I think uniquely about Europe specifically, there are so many small countries so close to each other. A lot of people like to jump around easily. With Asia they are more spread out. But I think the hostel culture fits well with Japan. Japan in Asia is one of the most expensive countries to travel around. A lot of backpackers they want to come to Japan but for them the accommodation is a little unaffordable. The more hostels that are built, the more choices for people. As you know domestic travel in Japan is almost as expensive as travelling to a Southeast Asian country or other parts of Asia.
This hostel, correct me if I’m wrong, is a merging of capsule hotels and your traditional hostel. What was the concept when building this hostel?
I guess when you think about old school hostels in Japan – I would say Youth Hostel network, and some older hostel chains that have been around for a very long time. Youth Hostels, it’s an international network. There’s a lot of specific rules to them – there’s usually curfews and girls and boys are separated. The general concept of hostels is to reduce the cost to the guest by having everyone share everything, including sharing rooms and sharing common facilities. It has this image of being cheap. The reason why you are paying this is you are sharing everything. What we are trying to do here is change that concept and make hostels appealing. Adding on extra value for pretty much the same price. Capsule hotels are different in a sense in that they are MORE expensive than hostels and there is no interaction between the staff and the other guests. Hence they still call it a hotel. In Tokyo you can find some Capsule Hotels for almost $90 a night. It is a way to squeeze as many people in as possible and is a phenomenon that has interested foreign travellers as a novelty.
Most traditional hostels will just have big rooms with 5 or 6 big bunk beds. 12 people per room kind of thing. There’s very little privacy. They spend very minimal amount of investment on design and comforts and just making it look good in general. We’re different in we actually spend a lot of investment in design. All our capsules are well designed. They all have a lot of privacy. We use very high quality futons. You can charge your phones in them. You have your own lights. You have your own locker. You have a separate space where you can hang your towel. One thing that actually gets me the most is that whenever you go to a regular hostel, there’s nowhere to hang your towel. You have like 10 people staying in one room and all their towels are wet so it stinks up the place haha. Everything that I learned from travelling in hostels, I want to make an improvement. I want to keep the price similar, but add on a lot of extra value.
I think customers are not just looking for cheap prices. They are also looking mainly for a good experience. So our hostel invests heavily on events and experiences and making sure everyone has met someone at least. At least they are able to talk to the staff. All our staff are very well travelled, international, all speak multiple languages. People remember their experiences not by the prices, they remember it by who they meet. If they know the staff, they’ll want to come again. They won’t be like “I want to stay at Mosaic Hostel because they have electric outlets in their capsules”. They want to go meet this person who’s at the front desk and so on.
It’s become the norm now, but a bit earlier very few places were making capsules. Our basic unit is not a bunk bed – our basic unit is a capsule. That basically is a higher version of a bunk bed where there is very little privacy. You have to respect their privacy and give them comfort and keep the prices low, but you have to add on extra stuff, which is what we focus on such as events.
I chose the name ‘Mosaic Hostel’ because I grew up in Canada, a country known for being a ‘Cultural Mosaic’ as opposed to a melting pot. I think each individual piece is unique and contributes to the overall picture. I want our hostel to be the canvas where this beautiful art takes shape. I want someone from Saudi Arabia meeting someone from Paraguay in our lounge and becoming friends, traveling together in Japan, and bringing the story back to their countries. This is how world peace starts. One connection at a time.
So our motto is “Bringing Together People of Different Shapes and Colors”.
What kind of events do you do?
We have both maiko and geisha come by. We have shamisen music nights. We’ve also invited a biwa player to come play. All sorts of events – we always try to explore new things that other people are not doing. Both properties have very different types of clients, so we adjust the events to the clients.
For large scale events, we might let the general public know about it, for example the craft beer tap take overwith a local brewery or collaboration with local restaurants to do a food workshop in our lounge. Locals who know this beer will come to the hostel. We also welcome locals to join our events so they get a chance to meet travellers and vice versa.
How do you see your relationship with Kyoto? I hear some locals see the travelers as meiwaku.
I think you have to divide hospitality into different sections. You have the hotel industry. You have the hostel slash guest house industry. You have the minpaku industry, which is private homes being sold on the internet. I think the first two, the hotel industry and hostel industry – they’re both legally run. There’s very stringent rules on setting a type of business like this. For example, we would have to notify all our neighbors around the area that this business is being set up. We spent months applying and following the different guidelines of the city. We have very stringent rules on the architectural designs so it has to fit the fire safety inspection. We serve food and drink as well, so we have to follow basically the same rules as any restaurant follows. We have to have someone who has fire safety training in case there is a fire or natural disaster like how to get the guests out safely. We have to train the staff on what to do as well. We have all the appropriate fire safety equipment installed. We have an escape ladder from the 5th floor. We have fire extinguishers, we have alarms, we have detectors. All that expense cost a lot to setup.
It is a big challenge. It’s the most difficult part of running a hostel business initially. That’s all extra cost. You don’t really think about until, you realize oh you have to add this and add this. That costs millions and millions of yen, just to install all of this extra stuff that you usually don’t consider in the beginning. If you fail the inspection which sometimes it happens, you have to redo it again and that just pushes back your schedule that much more.
Basically follow the rules and respect the culture.
Where do people normally look to find information on hostels?
How most travelers choose their accomodations is through OTA’s – online travel agencies. These are usually the big companies you might have seen their names somewhere, like Booking.com, Expedia, Agoda, Hostel World, in Japan there’s Rakuten, Jalan.net, Yahoo Travel, and a plethora of reservation websites. I think these have the strongest web presence as well, so when you search “hotel in Kyoto”, you’re not going to get the actual website. You’re going to get all the big companies representing them, because they spend hundreds of millions on SEO and web promotion. That’s the most natural way for guests. At this moment, the majority of our customers do come from these booking websites. The eventual goal is for them to come book via our personal website, but that’s not something that’s easily done. They would have to know our name first. They have to find us specifically. Then we don’t have to find commission fees to other companies. The best way is if they reserve directly through us. Phone us, email us. Although we get a lot of customers via OTA’s, once they do come they want to extend their stay. So that’s also a good thing for us too.
Has Kyoto been supportive in relation to your entrepreneurial venture?
Kyoto or Japan in general is not that supportive I would say. There’s not many resources available for entrepreneurs. For example big cities like Hong Kong and Singapore and so on, they really support entrepreneurship. They give you big tax cuts. They give you access to funding, resources, and advising as well. I think Kyoto and Japan, they just kind of have the rules here and you do it in your own power. That’s also another reason why it’s quite hard to setup a business in Japan. That’s why entrepreneur culture is so nascent. There’s not enough resources for entrepreneurs. I think the government needs to see more value in entrepreneurial ventures. It’s not just a government thing, it’s not just an economical thing – it’s a cultural thing. If you ask any regular Japanese person, what do you want to do in the future, what’s your goal, they say “I want to work in a big company. One of the top 10 companies”, and that’s it. Everyone’s end goal is to be a salary man. No one really says that they want to setup their own company and do this and that. There’s too much uncertainty involved. Japanese are very sensitive about uncertainty – they like everything to be very clear and measured. I think that needs to be changed. I think entrepreneurial spirit is needed to revive this economy with the current recession. All these major manufacturing industries and banking and so on, have been going downhill recently. Hospitality and tourism for people to get involved in small business, and it’s the one major industry that is still growing, so there is opportunity there.
Because there’s the lack of entrepreneurial experience and culture in Japan, those that are able to actually get their foot in the door have a big advantage. You have to go through a lot of red tape and a lot of Japanese annoying business culture to get there. But once you are in, you have this very open world with very little competition. Because there’s so many barriers to get in, those that are in kind of have easier access to their markets. If you are able to do the work and get through, then there are a lot of interesting possibilities there.
When you choose to be an entrepreneur, and I’m not the first person to say this, you got to really like what you do. For me, when I started on this path, I never thought of becoming an entrepreneur. But running a business my way and living the lifestyle that I wanted to and doing things that I liked were always things that I’ve valued. As I said I failed various careers and gave up on various careers because I realized that that’s not what I wanted to do. Once you know that ok, I don’t want to become a teacher, check that off the list. I’m not going to be a teacher. NGO, work at the hospital, ok check that off the list – I can’t do that forever. Salary man – can’t do that forever. It kind of narrows your field down. Through that process I was able to find out that building a hostel in the hospitality industry, who knows maybe I’ll do a hotel in the future as well. It was a culmination of all these positive skills that I had. I like talking to people. I like Japanese history and culture. I like backpacking and travelling myself. I like dealing with business and seeing something grow from nothing. I ended up doing something that I fit most at this moment. And who knows, maybe in the future I might do another thing that is totally unrelated to this. But that’s life I guess.
Vince found a niche that fits him perfectly. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t a little jealous. Of course that jealousy is really a reflection of my own personal discontent. You cannot deny Vince the hustle he puts out. He threw himself into the unknown multiple times, and faced the adversity he needed to face to get to where he is today. When I see that, I feel ready to take on the world myself.