Modern design aesthetics enhance traditional Kyoto

by Danielle Demetriou

Gray corridors, strip lighting, scratched desks and bland canteens: Schools are not generally renowned for the finesse of their decor.

With a universal motto of “function over design” classrooms have never been renowned for their beauty and style. So it is perhaps a surprise to learn of a new venture in Kyoto — a boutique hotel that fuses high-quality design with an education theme.

Claiming to be the nation’s first “edutainment” establishment, Hotel Kanra aims to “educate” visitors about Kyoto in a setting that showcases the best of contemporary Japanese design.

Housed in a former cramming school on a quiet Kyoto backstreet, the owners of the previously nondescript 1980s building-turned-design-hotel are Takamiya Gakuen, the educational foundation.

And it is thanks to their astute appointment of the Tokyo-based design company Urban Design System (UDS) and its parent company Kokuyo Furniture Co. that the hotel is as stylish as it is un-school-like.

Both companies are perfectly qualified to straddle the gap between education and design: UDS was formerly housed in offices converted from an old Tokyo school owned by the same foundation, while Kokuyo is a well-known supplier of school furniture.

Furthermore, UDS — which is now managing the new Hotel Kanra — was also involved in the design and former management of Claska, Tokyo’s most famous boutique design hotel.

“We were asked to do something with this building that would remain connected to education,” says Norito Nakahara, the architect and designer from UDS behind the project. “We decided eventually that a hotel would be the best way to combine education with design. Thinking about the needs of Kyoto, we realized that there is always demand for places to stay among visitors.”

T he end result is more modern Kyoto than classroom, with, thankfully, not a blackboard, textbook or school bell in sight.

Instead, inspired by the traditional machiya town houses for which the city is famed, many of the 29 guest rooms are long and narrow in shape.

The palette is also Kyoto inspired: volcanic stone floors, raised tatami areas, angular black-slate sinks, traditional bathtubs made from hiba wood and walls painted a deep matcha tea green.

And there are countless modern touches — from the sliding screens of gently frosted glass around the bathtub to the cut-out square of lighting in the matte black ceiling that creates the sense of an imaginary skylight.

Another highlight are the unusual lamps consisting of a rectangular tangle of fine white threads that, it transpires, originated from the stuffing of cushions — and which complement perfectly the tiny lines of the traditional white washi paperhanging on the wall nearby.

On a tour of the hotel, Nakahara says: “The design is rooted in Kyoto. We wanted to bring an element of wa (harmony) into the interior in a subtle way. Even with more modern objects, we approached the design in a very natural way to evoke Kyoto.”

In another clever stroke, UDS and Kokuyo collaborated with a string of talented artists and creators. And so there are the white fabric lamps, created by light designer Chiaki Murazumi, that appear to float in the stone entryways of each room. Colorful abstract arrangements of Kyoto flowers were pressed, photographed, transferred to canvas and hung on the guest room walls by flower artist Michiko, who was also behind the modern ikebana creations dramatically illuminated in the bathrooms. And on the first floor, delicate, unique ceramics created by three local artists — Kazumi Kinoshita, Kazuhito Azuma and Junji Setsu — are being used in the Italian-Kyoto-style cuisine restaurant Kitchen Kanra.

Among the most eye-catching of creations are the angular and unashamedly modern interactive panels that span the walls and ceilings of the first floor lobby and restaurant.

Created by American Tokyo-based artist Alexander Reeder, the sea of panels are programmed to respond to light, sound and temperature via 15 discrete sensors. Depending on the time of day, the sound made by the people in the space surrounding them and even the season, the panels emit abstract swathes of constantly changing patterns, movements and colors. In springtime, for example, a palette of white-pinks is the base for the images, while during autumn, they become a fusion of rich auburns and greens.

“Buildings are normally completely static but this gives the space movement,” says Reeder, who monitors the ever-moving installation in real time from his computers in Tokyo. “It’s always changing, depending on what is happening. It’s as though the building is breathing.

“My goal was the same as for the rest of the hotel — to bring the concept of machiya into the building, focusing on how the abstract elements of nature can be brought into the space.”

T he creation of the hotel was not without its obstacles. “The identity of Kyoto is easy to grasp but it can be sensitive among Kyoto people,” says codesigner Hisashi Kano of Kokuyo. “Coming from outside Kyoto, we had to be extremely careful and respectful of our surroundings.

“Building regulations are also very strict in Kyoto. The authorities make sure that in a place that calls itself ‘Kyotan,’ every single detail conforms to the city’s design roots.

“So you will never find glass screens between bathrooms and bedrooms in Kyoto hotels as it’s just not allowed.”

Those seeking a postmodern Kyoto education without bringing back old-school memories will be relieved to discover that the only relic of its former incarnation as a cram school is the original concrete staircase at the back of the building.

Meanwhile, the hotel can organize an array of individual classes focusing on Kyoto culture, including learning how to make chopsticks from Kitayama-sugi cedar.

Alternatively, staff can provide DIY education kits in subjects such as calligraphy and ikebana for private use in the guest rooms, each of which is also home to a quirkily designed booklet offering educational tips ranging from Kyoto dialect to furoshiki cloth wrapping.

The hotel is also aiming to attract as many as 60 school-group trips a year, with teachers booking out the entire hotel to enable students to take part in Kyoto-themed culture classes — as well as enjoy a taste of modern design.

“No other hotel has tried to mix education and design like this before,” says Nakahara. “It is unique in atmosphere and concept.”

And its students past, present and future are likely to agree on one thing — going back to school has never been more stylish.

Hotel Kanra is at 185 Kitamachi Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8176, (075) 344 3815. For more information, visit www.hotelkanra.jp

Other stylish stays in the Old Capital

9h: Minimalist capsule hotel with small but perfectly formed sleeping spaces created by Fumie Shibata of design studio S.

Hoshinoya Kyoto: Modern architecture and contemporary design mixed with traditional ryokan inn accommodation in a riverside setting of Arashiyama district.

The Screen Hotel, Kyoto: Thirteen guestrooms created by different designers or artists in the city’s first boutique design hotel.

Hyatt Regency Kyoto: Sleek modern design with echoes of traditional Kyoto in the city’s top international luxury hotel, designed by Super Potato.