Travel

More zany than Zen: Kyoto hotels paving the way to 2020

Cool and kooky lodgings carve out the contemporary in the old capital

by Jessica Kozuka

Contributing Writer

With record-breaking tourist numbers and the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, new hotels have been popping up in Kyoto faster than joss sticks at a temple.

The prevailing design philosophy of these establishments is overwhelmingly based on some flavor of Zen minimalism, resulting in an elegant if monotonous buffet of subdued washi paper lighting, sparsely furnished tatami and plain white linens.

However, a few new digs stand out from the pack with looks that are more in your face than inner peace. From steely new hotels that feel more like modernist galleries than lodgings, to accommodations in repurposed buildings that preserve Japan’s postwar heritage along the way, these hotels are storming the hospitality scene with iconoclastic flair.

Starchitect power: Node Hotel was designed by Seiichiro Takeuchi, who worked under Tadao Ando. | COURTESY OF NODE HOTEL
Starchitect power: Node Hotel was designed by Seiichiro Takeuchi, who worked under Tadao Ando. | COURTESY OF NODE HOTEL

Node Hotel

In July, the chic, monochrome boutique Node Hotel opened its doors just west of Nishiki Market — a residential neighborhood dotted with hip, pocket-sized bars and restaurants. Seiichiro Takeuchi, formerly of Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, provided the modern minimalist design, with glossy exposed concrete showing his mentor’s influence, and a sloped roof and concealed climbing ivy “garden” nodding obliquely to the Kyoto machiya (traditional wooden townhouse).

Grayscale interiors accentuate the color pops of its contemporary art collection, which features works by artists such as Barry McGee and Bernard Frize, not just in the first-floor restaurant and gallery space but in the rooms themselves. Hand-woven rugs from India, crackle-glazed stoneware from Portugal and touches of white marble and bronze bring the experience together into a tactile melange of artisanship.

Toroyamacho 461, Nakagyo-ku, nodehotel.com; from ¥13,000 per night for a single room

A bedroom at BnA Alter Museum, Kyoto | TOMOOKI KENGAKU
A bedroom at BnA Alter Museum, Kyoto | TOMOOKI KENGAKU

BnA Alter Museum

After the success of similar properties in Koenji and Akihabara, BnA brought its live-in-art approach to Kyoto in May. Across the Kamo River from Gion and Higashiyama, each of the hotel’s 31 rooms has been designed by a contemporary Japanese artist. The creators have complete control over the spaces, crafting immersive experiences that incorporate the furnishings, lighting and sound.

In Mon Koutaro Ooyama’s Nextefx room, for example, 12 preset lighting programs turn the angular protrusions and bold colors of the stylized dragon mural into a psychedelic 3D experience, alternatively soothing as a deep-sea dive or frenetic as a techno club.

The brand’s emphasis on community engagement — with a portion of the price of each stay going to the artists themselves — is evident in the lobby bar, where reasonably priced cocktails and regular events attract a savvy young crowd, and in the exterior stairwell, which has been turned into a 10-story public gallery.

Tenmacho 1-267, Shimogyo-ku; bnaaltermuseum.com; from ¥9,350 per night for one person in a double room

The luxe life: Glossy surfaces and mid-century minimalism at The Root2 Hotel. | COURTESY OF THE ROOT2 HOTEL
The luxe life: Glossy surfaces and mid-century minimalism at The Root2 Hotel. | COURTESY OF THE ROOT2 HOTEL

The Root2 Hotel

Wee boutique The Root2 Hotel opened in July across from historical Toji Pagoda, about a 10-minute walk from Kyoto Station. Cheerfully simulating a luxe tropical resort, it boasts a pastel color palette, faux antique gold fixtures and over-the-top pieces: think claw-foot tubs and glass-topped, pineapple-shaped tables. All eight rooms have a lounge area, kitchen, laundry facilities and sprawling bathrooms, making them popular with staycationing Japanese couples.

While the small number of rooms ensures highly personalized service, Root2 trades the formalness of a ryokan okami (hotel manager) for an in-room tablet to casually text staff with requests. There are other tech-savvy amenities such as a touchpad security code instead of door keys, TVs with built-in streaming services, pricey Dyson electronics and dedicated Wi-Fi for each room.

At the cozy first-floor restaurant, an international menu that meanders from local yuba (tofu skin) to French fish meuniere and Italian gnocchi means guests needn’t even venture out to eat.

Tojihigashimonzencho 49−1, Minami-ku; theroot2hotel.com; from ¥20,000 per night for a junior suite

Are you afraid of the dark?: In Fushigi na Yado's Scary Room, a dial allows you to adjust the intensity of your experience. | COURTESY OF FUSHIGI NA YADO
Are you afraid of the dark?: In Fushigi na Yado’s Scary Room, a dial allows you to adjust the intensity of your experience. | COURTESY OF FUSHIGI NA YADO

Fushigi na Yado

Opened September, the simple wood-slatted exterior and noren-draped entrance of Fushigi na Yado blend in among the neighboring Japanese-style hotels. But the traditional facade conceals 11 highly unusual interactive rooms within. Some are straightforward, such as the exercise-focused Active Room, where multi-colored bouldering grips stud the walls. Others are more outlandish.

The Breeding Room, for example, is covered with simple white switches that produce a variety of sounds, turning the entire room into a creative soundboard. For the very brave, there’s the Scary Room, where a dial on the wall adjusts the intensity of things that go bump in the night. Aptly enough, the name of this guesthouse translates to “strange lodging.”

Hashizumecho 128, Shimogyo-ku; fushiginayado.com; from ¥6,650 per room per night

From apartment to avant-garde: RC Hotel's stripped-back design showcases the building's past. | COURTESY OF RC HOTEL
From apartment to avant-garde: RC Hotel’s stripped-back design showcases the building’s past. | COURTESY OF RC HOTEL

RC Hotel

RC Hotel occupies some prime real estate among the cobblestone streets of Yasaka, just across from the ancient pagoda of Hokanji temple. Escaping the Japanese trend of raze and rebuild — protected by the 1975 Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings — this 50-year-old apartment block today features minimalist hotel rooms instead of residential units, with exposed walls now showcasing a selection of folk handicrafts or local art.

The starkness of the structure is balanced by light wood furniture, new bronze fixtures and the whitened texture of the aged concrete for an overall feeling of domestic warmth, while the original metal doors have been repainted for a lick of Showa-Era (1926-89) chic. Outside, the courtyard now hosts pop-up events and coffee trucks that draw daytime crowds.

Yasaka 370, Kamimachi, Higashiyama-ku; rchotelkyoto.com; from ¥16,000 per night per room