The oldest still-operating business in the United States, the Shirley Plantation, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2013. But when Shirley Plantation opened in 1613, the Nishiyama Onsen, Hayakawa, Japan, had already been operating for nearly 1,000 years. Founded in 705CE, the Nishiyama Onsen, or hot spring bathing house and hotel, has been going for more than 1300 years, with fifty-two generations of the same family running the inn. And it’s not just the owners who have been working there for generations - there are even some members of the staff whose families have been working in the same post for centuries. There are, in Japan, a number of ryokans (traditional inns) that are more than 1,000 years old, with the Hoshi Ryokan, in Komatsu, Ishikawa, recorded as being founding in 718, a mere thirteen years after the Nisiyama Onsen. The Hoshi Ryokan has also been operated by the same family since its inception, with forty-six generations working and running the inn.
Hōshi Ryokan in winter (photo by Akiyoshi’s Room/Wikipedia).
“Dōgo Onsen” Hot Springs (photo by Japanexperterna.se/Wikipedia
Japan has a huge number of ancient companies: Of the fifty companies worldwide founded before the year 1300 that are still operating, 24 are Japanese. Most are ryokans or onsen, but others include Genda Shigyo, manufacturers of paper bags (founded in 771); as well as three different confectionary companies: Ichimonjiya Wasuke (founded 1000 CE), Gorobee Ame (1177), and Fujito (1184). Nishimaya Onsen is not even the oldest business in Japan: Kongo Gumi, a construction company, and the world’s oldest, still-trading company, was founded in 578, though it was absorbed into a larger conglomerate in 2006. In fact, as of 2008, the world has 5,586 companies more than 200 years old, of which 3,146 were in Japan. As for companies that are more than 100 years old, a survey discovered that there are more than 21,000 such companies in Japan.
There are ancient businesses in Europe, too: the Stiftskeller St. Peter, in Salzburg, Austria, for instance. Alcuin of York, a British scholar and abbot who was invited into the court of Charlemagne, first mentioned this ancient restaurant in 803 CE. There are also dozens of pubs throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland with centuries worth of trade beneath their belts. During renovations of Sean’s Bar, in Athlone, Ireland. in the 1970s, workmen found that the walls were constructed of wattle and wicker, and were dated back to the 10th century. The Bingley Arms, in Leeds, was recorded in the famous Domesday Book of William the Conqueror, and is believed to date from sometime between 905 and 953 CE.
The Bingley Arms, Bardsey, West Yorkshire, perhaps the oldest pub in the UK (photo by Mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons)
Wall remains dating from the 9th century at Sean’s Bar, Athlone (photo by Serge Ottoviani/Wikipedia)
European antique companies tend to be concerns like restaurants, bars, breweries, or vineyards, with the occasional mill or foundry thrown in. What are the most famous old businesses that you’ve probably heard of? The Italian gun manufacturer Beretta has been family-owned since 1526, when the city of Gardone required 185 arquebuses. Stella Artois has been brewing in Belgium since 1366, and Lowenbrau has been going since 1383. Cambridge University Press has been printing “all manner of books” since Henry VIII used those words in its charter, and the Zildjian cymbal company, which most people consider to be American, was founded in Istanbul in 1623.
The Löwenbräukeller in Munich (photo by Rufus46/Wikipedia)
Your cup of tea may well have been produced by a company that has been trading since 1706. Twinings Tea has not only been selling tea for more than 300 years, it’s also been in the same location since its founding.
These companies have managed to stay in business mostly because of their reliance on tradition and their brand recognition. There’s something to be said for buying a brand of cymbals that have been in constant manufacture for almost 400 years. There’s a quality in age.
Banks are also among the oldest businesses still in operation. The Berenberg Bank, from Germany, has been in operation since 1590, and Barclays, Coutts, and the Banks of England and of Scotland were all founded in the 1690s. The oldest American banks, such as the Bank of New York, were founded in the 18th century.
Not every old company is bound by tradition. Perhaps the most famous examples of ancient innovative companies are Japanese. Mitsubishi, which most people know of as an auto manufacturer, started in 1870, with shipping as its primary interest. The conglomerate also trades in shipbuilding, banking (the largest bank in Japan), insurance, nuclear power, chemicals, and cameras. In 1887, Yamaha, well-known as manufacturers of motorbikes, began as a piano maker. They now make everything from semi-conductors and sporting goods to industrial robots. Nintendo was also founded in the 1880s, with the company first started making hanafuda playing cards, and has, in the past, invested in businesses ranging from love hotels to taxi services.
Former headquarters plate, from when Nintendo was solely a playing card company (photo by Eckhard Pecher/Wikipedia)