Style & Design

New inn style: Tokyo's first luxury ryokan

by Danielle Demetriou

Special To The Japan Times

There are seasonal ikebana arrangements, tatami-mat flooring, kimono-style outfits for guests and a steaming hot onsen spring water bath.

So far, so ryokan, the traditional-style Japanese inns that dot the country. Until a screen slides open in one of the guestrooms, and 11th-floor views of office towers come into focus, confirming we are in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district.

These days, “Tokyo” and “ryokan” are words that don’t often appear in the same sentence, with the capital more famous for its five-star skyscraper hotels than traditional inns. One establishment, however, is determined to change this: Hoshinoya Tokyo, which recently opened its doors as the city’s first “luxury high-rise ryokan hotel.”

Hoshinoya — operated by Hoshino Resorts — is famed for fusing contemporary design with top-quality service in beautiful natural surroundings, from a far-flung Okinawan island to Karuizawa’s green mountains.

Hoshinoya Tokyo — the fifth and newest in the group — however, is a little different. Not only is it the biggest Hoshinoya (it has 84 rooms), it is the first to open in a metropolis — more precisely, between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace.

Its urban location has not diluted the traditional concept. Guests still slip shoes off in the genkan (entrance), the decor comprises tatami, washi paper and aromatic Japanese woods and — perhaps best of all — guests can relax in a top-floor hot onsen, complete with a modern skylight for star gazing.

As Rie Azuma, of Azuma Architect & Associates, who is behind the design of all five Hoshinoya properties, explains from her Tokyo office on a quiet Jingumae street: “In Tokyo, we have many five-star hotels but not five-star ryokan. Ryokan (however) are very popular in Japan, there may even be more ryokan than hotels across Japan.

“In Kyoto, probably the best places to stay are ryokan. But the capital of Japan doesn’t have five-star ryokan. We wanted to create a ryokan for Tokyo in a modern way, covering 17 floors of a tower.”

The standalone skyscraper — Hoshinoya occupies the entire building, unlike many other five-star hotels — stands out among office towers. Its facade is entirely covered in a soft-cornered black metal lattice work using a traditional Edo Komon motif.

Inspired by the concept of a “treasure box,” the design was conceived by Azuma and transformed into reality by Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei (the company behind the architectural design of the hotel tower) and NTT Facilities.

“Edo Komon is an old kimono textile, which from far away looks just like (it is) a simple color,” says Azuma. “But if you look up close, you can see delicate patterns and details on the fine material.

“We wanted to do the same thing with this building. From a distance, it just looks black — but the shape is not like a conventional office building, it doesn’t have corners. It feels a bit different. Then, when you are up close, you can clearly see the Edo Komon pattern.”

Upon entering, a solid door made of natural hiba wood (Japanese conifer) swings open to reveal a genkan space covering the entire first floor, where the “o-genkan-san” greets guests as they remove their shoes.

A clean, contemporary edge is created by the 5.5-meter height of the long, narrow entrance, with one wall lined with shoe boxes made from Japanese chestnut and bamboo, and an opposite wall of light indigo clay and sand.

“The first floor is normally the best place for commercial functions in a hotel,” Azuma says. “But we are using it just for the entrance. The entrance space is very, very important in Japan. It’s a place to welcome guests. We wanted to focus on the welcoming spirit when guests arrive.”

To balance the skyscraper size of the hotel with its traditional concept, each level of the 14 floors is designed to replicate a single ryokan, complete with its own o-chanoma lounge area, where staff (in Sou Sou designed uniforms) serve onigiri rice balls, tea and sample seasonal sake.

The six rooms on each floor display a contemporary take on the traditional: Beds and furniture (custom-crafted by the Hinoki Kogei woodwork factory) sit at a low level to ensure comfort for both Western and Japanese visitors, and there is an atmospheric mix of spotlights, under lighting and lanterns created by Masanobu Takeishi. Swathes of washi paper screens diffuse window lighting, walls are painted in colorfully-rich adzuki-bean purples or matcha-tea greens, and baths are square and deep, fashioned from distinctly modern black resin and surrounded by glass walls that can be frosted at the flick of a switch.

Meanwhile, the basement of Hoshinoya Tokyo is home to a 10-table restaurant. Here, dramatic rock formations and clay walls complement the nature-inspired cuisine of French-Japanese chef Noriyuki Hamada, served on conceptual ceramics by Ryota Aoki.

This idea of an up-scale urban ryokan is the brainchild of Yoshiharu Hoshino, the fourth-generation owner of Hoshino Resorts, whose ambitious goal is to export the luxury ryokan concept overseas.

Highlighting the soaring global popularity of sushi and Japanese cars, he says: “This is our first city hotel. It’s a traditional ryokan with many changes so that modern travelers can stay here comfortably.

“In the future, we want to categorize this kind of Japanese ryokan as a hotel style, so they can be located in London, San Francisco and New York.”