S'porean wife & Japanese husband used life savings to open bed & breakfast in Hokkaido right before Covid-19

A bold move from two people who had no experience in the tourism and hospitality industry.

Fasiha Nazren | April 24, 2021, 08:25 PM

The island of Hokkaido, Japan is a popular tourist destination for Singaporeans to escape the sweltering heat of the little red dot we call home.

But for 34-year-old Singaporean Marilyn Ichihashi, the city of Furano in Hokkaido is not just a vacation destination — it is home.

Marilyn lives there with her husband Kanji Ichihashi, 43, and their adorable Singapore-born ragdoll cat named Mountain.

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Ichihashi.

Moving to Japan's lavender town

If you've never heard of Furano, you might have at least seen photos of it online.

It is known as Japan's lavender town (not to be confused with the haunted Lavender Town in the Pokémon game series) for its ethereal lavender fields.

Photo from @jakkrapat_l101 on Instagram.

Photo from @jakkrapat_l101 on Instagram.

And all it took for them to move to the countryside in Japan was a holiday trip to Furano back in 2017.

Speaking to Mothership, Marilyn said that visiting the serene city of Furano made her crave a non-urban lifestyle which is quite the opposite of the fast-paced rat race that we've grown to get used to in Singapore.

"This place felt amazingly peaceful and the view of Mount Tokachidake was so scenic. It triggered my desire to lead a non-urban lifestyle."

With her husband, then-kitten and beginner-level Japanese in tow, Marilyn made the move from Singapore to Japan in 2019.

Nearest supermarket is 8km away

If you're wondering what it's like to live in the countryside, it's not all peaches and cream.

For most of the year, the temperature ranges from 10°C to 20°C (which might be a boon for some, actually). 

From November to late March, however, the temperature can drop to a chilly -25°C.

To start off the day, they would have to shovel through the snow from their doorstep all the way to the driveway, or the snow would pile up and the couple would have trouble opening their doors.

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Ichihashi.

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A post shared by B&B+ Shooting Star 新スタイルの宿 (@shootingstar.hokkaido)

Staying warm in the winter isn't as easy as pressing a button on a heater. No, they have to do it old school.

Marilyn told us that they would have to drive to the nearby timber collection point, lug it back home, chop the timbers into firewood and put them on a rack to dry.

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Ichihashi.

Also, expect to do the laundry often.

For a household of two, Marilyn finds herself doing the laundry every other day.

"It piles up quickly since you need to wear more pieces and it also takes longer to dry indoors since hanging outdoors is not a choice. Of course, running the dryer is an alternative but Uniqlo's Heattech wear is not suitable for tumble dry."

Despite all these, she still loves the winter season — though the locals did warn her that she would probably not say the same in a few years' time.

There are also no shopping malls, and the nearest supermarket from their home is a good 8km away, which is like driving from Jurong East to Buona Vista just to buy groceries.

In terms of transportation, bus and train services also do not come as frequently as it does in Singapore, Marilyn added.

Instead, the more common mode of travel is by car or bicycle.

Beautiful views

Arguably the best part about living in the countryside? The breathtaking views.

"In Singapore, you get a city view filled with lights. Here, we get to enjoy the quiet, scenic view of the farmlands and the mountains. In the night, stargazing can be enjoyed just right outside or doorstep."

Their place, for example, has an amazing view of Mount Tokachidake.

Photo from B&B Plus+ Shooting Star.

Photo from B&B Plus+ Shooting Star.

Photo from B&B Plus+ Shooting Star.

And while they don't have a lavender field in their front yard, they do have a patch of sunflowers.

Photo from B&B Plus+ Shooting Star.

Beautiful town aside, Marilyn also shared with us that she's grateful to be surrounded by "kind, helpful, and warmhearted neighbours".

Opened bed and breakfast in Feb. 2020

After seeing the photos above, you're probably in awe of the Ichihashi's spacious house.

The property, however, also doubles up as a bed and breakfast that they run together.

They opened B&B Plus+ Shooting Star in Feb. 2020.

This was a bold move for both Marilyn and Kanji, given that they both didn't have any prior experience in the hospitality industry.

And it is certainly not easy to run a bed-and-breakfast in the countryside.

"From front desk, housekeeping, gardening, cooking, marketing, website making and the list goes on. These skills are acquired through reading, research, and on-the-job training since we are both not from the tourism industry."

The B&B has four en-suites and is known for its various homely themes and facilities, including a yoga studio.

But part of B&B Plus+ Shooting Star's charm is Mountain the resident cat.

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A post shared by Boss Mountain (@mountain_ichihashi)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Boss Mountain (@mountain_ichihashi)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Boss Mountain (@mountain_ichihashi)

Surviving on zero revenue

Barely two months after their opening, however, the Japanese government and the authority of Hokkaido declared a state of emergency due to the developing Covid-19 pandemic.

This meant that they had to temporarily close their accommodation, which translates to no income.

Calling it "totally bad timing", the Covid-19 pandemic been one of the biggest hurdles they've had to face since they moved to Japan.

She said: "It was very challenging and tough for a new start-up to endure zero revenue."

While they had to put a halt to their accommodation business, the couple found other avenues to keep their business going, like offering take-away for curry rice bentos.

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A post shared by B&B+ Shooting Star 新スタイルの宿 (@shootingstar.hokkaido)

As a certified yoga instructor, Marilyn has also been holding yoga classes for the local community.

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A post shared by B&B+ Shooting Star 新スタイルの宿 (@shootingstar.hokkaido)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by B&B+ Shooting Star 新スタイルの宿 (@shootingstar.hokkaido)

As international tourists still can't travel to Hokkaido due to the closed borders, the Ichihashis recently started an online store selling exclusive local treats that they personally recommend.

Shipping is also free to Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan for purchases over 4,000 yen (S$49.30).

Serving Singaporean food

Although Marilyn hasn't been able to return to Singapore for a while, she doesn't get especially homesick as she gets to video call her family and friends back from back home.

Something she especially misses, however, is the local food.

"I miss Singapore food! Claypot rice, chilli crab, salted egg dishes, nasi lemak, and the list goes on. When there is a chance to return, I think my stomach will explode."

Thankfully for her, however, she's skilled enough to whip up Singaporean food and even has a Singapore menu at her bed-and-breakfast.

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A post shared by B&B+ Shooting Star 新スタイルの宿 (@shootingstar.hokkaido)

And the response has been pretty good, it seems.

"The top ala carte orders are laksa and Singapore bee hoon, while our pre-booked menu is bak kut the and chicken rice. So far the dishes served have come back empty and all our guests look satisfied!"

No way they're gonna give up

While life has thrown many curveballs at the Ichihashis in the past year, it looks like they have been and will continue to take it in their stride.

"We saw the smiles and enjoyment of our guests during their stay here and we certainly hope to be able to continue creating unforgettable memories for them.

My husband and I put all of our life savings to make this happen. There is no way we are going to be giving up yet."

Top image from B&B Plus+ Shooting Star.