Small but perfectly formed

New hotels in Japan are meeting the demanding expectations of the moderntraveller by taking a cue from the country’s traditional ‘ryokan’, says Junko Fuwa

Imagine a hectic working day in Tokyo. From the moment you step out of your door, you are surrounded by millions of people, the noise of the city and heavy traffic. At the end of a long shift, you are squashed with fellow commuters once more on to a packed train. Then, at last, you arrive home to a tiny space, where you have just about enough room to lie down and stare at the ceiling. You realise it’s time to take a short break.

Japan has, over the past few years, been catering to more and more people in search of a hideaway of tranquillity and relaxation, and the standard of accommodation has risen significantly because of the pressure of public demand. Although the country has always had a number of traditional inns, or ‘ryokan’, many of these properties tend to be big and impersonal, and their communal space can be overrun
with groups of strangers. Nowadays, newer hotels are concentrating on creating a special environment for a smaller number of customers, and each has its own way of supplying high-quality service and settings. To meet the demands of their well-travelled potential guests, excellent design and architecture are essential.

Designed specifically to cater for small groups, just an hour’s drive from Tokyo, Scapes opened in July this year. The hotel is equipped with a wedding banquet facility, a French-influenced gourmet restaurant and a library, and its four suites have state-of-the-art technology and high-end design furnishings. Each room has a different colour scheme reflecting the natural beauty of the surrounding area, and the sea view can be enjoyed from the bathrooms. The hotel also provides jacuzzis for its residents to hire privately. Scapes is keen to promote the concept of an intimate and luxurious setting according to clients’ needs and is offering a special package where groups of up to ten guests can hire the entire hotel.

Another place that deserves a mention is Hikari no Yakata (House of Light) in Niigata prefecture, north Japan. The US artist James Turrell
has sculpted this hotel into a self-contained ‘artwork’ full of natural and artificial light. Groups of up to 12 guests can relax in accommodation filled with light from retractable ceilings, or meditate in an almost pitch-black communal bathroom.

There has been a tendency to reassess indigenous traditions and culture in Japan recently. Building design is no exception and a number of traditional hotels have undergone renovation projects. In order to be successful, architects and designers have to incorporate
modern comforts into the existing structures of Japanese-style accommodation. Ginzan Onsen Fujiya hotel is perhaps one of the finest examples of combining old and new Japan, and the 90-year-old inn has been transformed under the supervision of Kengo Kuma and Associates. Instead of demolishing the original building, Kuma has respected the continuity of the fabled ryokan’s history and its prime location by painstakingly renovating it with a great attention to detail.

One feature, particularly noticeable as you enter the hotel, is a screen made with 1.2 million pieces of thinly sliced bamboo. A similar attention to detail was observed with each room’s design, and the result is eight private spaces, providing a fusion of traditional and contemporary comfort.

Project: Ginzan Onsen Fujiya
Interview with Makoto Shirahama, Head of planning and design room, Kengo Kuma and Associates

Q: When was Ginzan Onsen Fujiya opened?
A: July 2006.
Q: Did the client have any specific requests with regard to the renovation project, and did you make specific suggestions on the overall redesign?
A: The Ginzan Onsen area has been associated with the romantic notion of old Japan, particularly that of the Taisho era (1912-1926). When the client approached us, the first criteria was for Fujiya to be the ultimate inn people would remember in the future. The hotel should be talked about as the representative in design of the Heisei era (from 1989 onwards).
Q: What kind of materials did you use for the interior of Fujiya?
A: Various things, such as bamboo, stones, Japanese papers, woods and hand-blown glasses were used, and they are all natural materials. We believe that the Japanese-style hotel is the best example of a building that has direct contact with the human body. Guests usually get changed into ‘yukata’ (a Japanese pyjama-like kimono) straight after check-in, and then spend most of their time in it. It is made of a simple piece of fabric. Therefore we thought it would be more suitable to use natural materials, rather than artificial ones, throughout the walls, floors and ceilings. And, of course, we paid a lot of attention to the detail of each material so that the finish of the design gives a gentle and calming feeling to residents.
Q: What about the overall design planning? Are there any notable aspects you can mention?
A: Fujiya is designed so that guests will be largely unaware of the presence of other guests, even in its limited space, unlike other hotels, inns or apartments in Japan. A number of strategies were used – one was to hide the doors, doorknobs and locks. Air-conditioners and light fittings were also concealed, so they did not interrupt the design of the interior and its natural materials. To reduce the noise normally associated with wooden architecture, we used glass wool inbetween the walls, as well as rubber underneath the floors.
Q: Is the small number of rooms (a total of eight) important? Also, why are some rooms designed in a Japanese style and some in a combination of Japanese and western styles?
A: Previously, Fujiya had 12 separate suites and some of them lacked a good view. By merging those rooms into one larger space, we managed to create eight new rooms that all face the Ginzan river. For the two larger suites, we designed Western-style bedrooms, to meet requests from Western guests and some domestic customers who prefer sleeping in beds.
Q: Can you tell us about the design of the individual bathrooms, as well as the communal bathrooms in the hotel?
A: Three out of eight suites have their own bathrooms. We chose a bathtub range called Woodline by the Italian manufacturer Agape and placed it with washing basins so these units work together as part of the interior elements, rather than separating them (it is usual to have a bathtub in its own enclosure in Japan). As for the communal baths, the client requested them in different designs and we have come up with several variations – wood, stone, an underground bath and an outdoor one.
Q: Do you think there will be more of this kind of small hotel opening in the future? Is this the current trend in Japanese hotel design?
A: There has been an increase in small premises with strong design concepts in recent years in Japan, and I think this trend will continue. Fujiya has eight rooms and is definitely on a small scale, but there are even smaller places, which take just one couple per day.

No hotel can be regarded as satisfactory in Japan that does not boast first-rate Japanese-style bathing facilities. The old tradition of relaxing and healing in the bathtub is still widely practised in contemporary Japan, and even in the most modern ryokan, guests will expect to find a deep bathtub and washing area, so that they can splash and soak themselves. This custom is sometimes enjoyed in communal ‘roten buro’ (open-air baths), and bathers can admire the surrounding nature at any time of the day. Mukayu hotel in Ishikawa prefecture has taken the tradition one step further and included a roten buro in each guest room. Designed by Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama and his team, the 17 individual rooms come with different styles (pure Japanese, Western or a Japanese/Western combination). The use of space is decidedly Minimalist, allowing residents to feel calmer and instantly cut off from their hectic everyday reality. The tranquil atmosphere is enhanced even more with Takeyama’s clever usage of natural materials throughout the hotel.

Project: Kaga Yamashiro Onsen Beniya Mukayu
Interview with Tomoki Odani, Amorphe Takeyama & Associates

Q: When was Mukayu completed?
A: We have been working on the renovation and extension of the inn up to September 2006, in four phases.
Q: Did the client have any specific requests with regard to the renovation project, and did you make specific suggestions on the overall redesign?
A: The client did not say anything to us other than that it wanted a totally new kind of inn. It already had an existing building that surrounds a Japanese-style garden. Our intention then was to create a Minimalist surrounding so that the beauty of the garden could be enhanced and become a ocal point of Mukayu.
Q: What kind of materials did you use for the interior of Mukayu?
A: The interior mainly consists of white walls, as well as ‘keisoudo’ (diatomaceous earth), ‘sugiita’ (Japanese cedar) and black-painted plywood. The use of these materials is appropriate because they are tactile and give comfort to guests. They also change the impression of the interior, depending on how natural light enters the building and helps to present the subtlety of nature we normally tend not to recognise. Keisoudo, in particular, is local soil and it has the function of eliminating odours and humidity. It is an ideal material to be used in the accommodation as it gets rid of food smells.
Q: There are only 17 rooms in Mukayu and it is a great place to stay for those who seek a calm and quiet environment. How did aspects of your design contribute to guests’ privacy during their stay?
A: The most significant feature in each room is a private outdoor bath, so guests can stay in their rooms instead of using the main communal bathroom. The outdoor area in each room has wooden louvres as partitions, and the guests will not be seen from outside, although they can see the garden while they use the bath. For the inn’s public areas, we allocated a large amount of space so that the guests would hardly ever bump into each other.

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