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Having grown up glued to Grand Designs and studied urban design at university, Claire has long been fascinated by the contemporary architecture of the big cities.
Architecture in Japan
When it comes to style and design, you don’t have to look much further than Japan. Traditionally characterised by clean lines and a Zen inspired aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism, architects and designers have long sought inspiration in Japanese culture. What’s more, Japan can lay claim to a pretty impressive shortlist of architectural masterminds – Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma to name just a few. It’s of little surprise that Tokyo is home to some of the most iconic buildings in the world.
But if you’re a true design aficionado, you’ll have just one thing on your mind – bagging a stay in one of these magnificent buildings. As luck would have it, a number of Japan’s most applauded architects have specialised in hotel design and consequently, Japan boasts a collection of the most unique hotels in the world – many with a fascinating back story.
If you’re looking for somewhere truly unique to rest your head on your next trip to Japan, here are our pick of the best:
1. Benesse House, Naoshima
Probably the most well-known of Japan’s design hotels, Benesse House is a hotel come art museum located on Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island. Designed by world-renowned Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, the fundamental concept behind the design was ‘the coexistence of nature, art and architecture’.
Whilst I hesitate from classifying this as a luxury option, from the perspective of sheer aesthetics, it ticks every box. Strategically positioned on a hill to offer a clear vista of the Seto Inland Sea, whilst at the same time, carefully sunken into the ground to ensure the building doesn’t become an eyesore in itself.
At every turn, the building has been designed to showcase the wonderful art housed within the beautiful white-washed walls. With floor-to-ceiling windows and large atriums, there is plenty of natural light and interior and exterior seamlessly blend into one.
Whilst the Benesse House site has been extended over time, the original accommodation is located in the museum itself and there are reminders of this at every turn. The front desk doubles up as a ticket sales desk, and every room features an original work of art. So far, so… museum! There is something undeniably cool about staying in a world class art museum, especially if you are creatively inclined. Where else can you wander around a gallery in your pyjamas in the middle of the night!?
Without doubt, this will be one of the most unique hotel experiences you will have anywhere in Japan – and indeed the world.
2. Hotel Keyforest Hokuto, Kobuchizawa
You don’t have to be a design expert to see that this particular hotel is something a little bit special. Nestled amidst forest in sleepy Kobuchizawa, the imposing modernist, concrete façade offers a sharp (pun intended) contrast to the serene surroundings, making it quite the local landmark.
And yet there is a closer connection to the history of the local area than you might first imagine. Designed by eminent Japanese architect Atsushi Kitagawara, the concept was inspired by the region’s prehistoric Jomon history, using geometric shapes and natural materials.
The jagged exterior isn’t the only surprise. Here you’ll also discover a world-class private art gallery, home to the work of renowned New York street artist Keith Haring. Again, seemingly incongruous, but the bright cartoon stick figures of Haring’s work bear a startling resemblance to ancient Jomon pottery and sculptures, hence why the artwork is housed here rather than in Tokyo. Kobuchizawa is certainly full of surprises!
With just six guest rooms, the hotel itself is modest in size, but what it lacks in scale it certainly makes up for in style. The best way to describe it is ‘superior boutique’. All of the rooms here are individually designed, with the internal design features painstakingly mirroring the external facade and showcasing the natural beauty of Yamanashi.
3. Kumo-no-Ue Hotel/Yusuhara Marche, Yusuhara, Shikoku
On a trip to Shikoku last autumn, I chanced upon Yusuhara; a small, seemingly inconspicuous town nestled in the mountains in Kochi Prefecture. However, first impressions can be deceptive. The first sign that isn’t your average Japanese mountain town is the Town Hall; ‘Yusuhara Marche’.
Designed by internationally renowned Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma (the brains behind the 2020 Olympic Stadium) this striking wooden building is totally trademark of his style; a modern design yet somehow perfectly in harmony with the beauty of the natural surroundings. Three sides wood and one side thatch, there is something beautifully structured and simple about this building that prompts you to look upon it with curiosity rather than distaste.
It’s no accident that this building is located here. Yusuhara has a deep-rooted history in the forestry industry, so this building is a homage to the local cultural heritage. And that’s not all. Yusuhara was recently proclaimed the most ‘forward-thinking town in Japan’, leading the way in renewable energy and sustainable building design. Approximately 30% of the town is currently completely self-sustainable, with ambitious plans in place to become 100% self-sustainable by 2050.
This isn’t the only surprise to be found in Yusuhara. Travel a little further up the hillside and you’ll find the main hotel in the town, also designed by Kengo Kuma. Translating literally as ‘hotel above the clouds’, every aspect of this concept has been woven into the design. Enjoying an elevated position and glorious views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, the hotel has been constructed to look like an airplane’s wing.
The smooth lines and aerodynamic nature of the roof blends into the surroundings and can be seen to represent a cloud. The main atrium is light, airy and spacious with floor to ceiling glass drawing in the natural landscape beyond and lending a sense of connection and continuity with nature.
4. Garden Terrace, Nagasaki
Regularly referred to as a ‘state-of-the-art design hotel’, and winner of the 2010 Kyushu Prize General Architecture award, this is another Kengo Kuma creation and a Dezeen favourite. Once again, the hotel boasts all the hallmarks of Kuma’s signature style – a visually striking building constructed from light natural materials, lending a certain softness to an otherwise angular and imposing structure.
The primary design concept was born from an interest in the concept of volume. The main building is essentially a series of boxes mounted on top of each other – a big box, a small box and defined linear elements connecting the entire structure together. From the front, you might question how much natural light flows into the space as the windows are small and few and far between. Yet the building has been designed to channel natural light from the outside in and beam out into a wide-reaching vista overlooking the bay at the back.
In 2015, Kuma returned to the Garden Terrace to add an extension; the Royal Terrace building. This building has a very deliberately asymmetrical triangular roof, which at first glance, may seem a surprising departure from the original concept. The original building is all about the quadrilaterals. Or is it? Upon closer inspection, you start to make out triangles; a triangular impression in the roof where the building caves inwards, a triangular form from the balcony at the front. To me, this building sums up all that is beautiful about architecture and design; something superficially simple that builds in intricacy the closer you look.
And what’s it like to stay here? As you might expect, the rooms are super modern in style, light and bright with balconies to make the most of the enviable view. Shape and form is a recurring theme, with rooms in the main building kitted out with cuboid furniture and rooms in the extension bedecked in triangular furniture; neat touches representative of the deluxe grade.
5. Cycle U2, Onomichi
For anyone interested in design and cycling, surely there can’t be a better hotel than the Onomichi U2; a boutique ‘cycle hotel’ located at the start of the Shimanami Kaido cycle route. With the opening of this revolutionary cycling complex, this sleepy seaside town has instantly reinvented itself as a mecca for design and architecture enthusiasts the world over.
Unlike the other hotels in this list, this isn’t a building that has been designed and created from scratch. Instead, it is a reincarnation of a former maritime warehouse. A remarkable contrast from the traditional machiya properties characteristic of this area, the warehouse has an undeniably expansive, industrial feel, with wide walkways and functional, no-fuss materials like concrete, wood and steel.
This is so much more than a hotel. Yes, there are rooms here. 28 to be precise. But there’s also a shop where you can kit yourself out in all the latest cycle gear and cafes and restaurants where you can grab a quick bite to eat on the go. It is instantly clear that cycling is at the heart and soul of this place and its influences run deep – from the layout and quirky interior design features to the internal energy supply (you quite literally have to peddle for your supper!)
Above all, this is a space that has been designed to be practical; one of the most unique aspects of this hotel is the ‘cycle through’ check-in facility. All of the bedrooms come complete with hooks to hang bikes when not in use. The bathrooms all line the external walls, acting as a barrier between the natural light source and the bedroom space – far from conducive for business travellers, but perfect for energy-sapped cyclists in need of a good night’s sleep.
6. Hoshinoya, Tokyo
I couldn’t finish this piece without mentioning at least one Tokyo-based hotel. After all, Tokyo is arguably the global epicentre of architectural cool. Whilst there are many hotels that could have made it onto this list, the one that’s been making headlines recently is the Hoshinoya, which was proclaimed Tokyo’s first ever ‘luxury high-rise ryokan hotel’ when it opened its doors in 2016.
Rie Azuma (of Azuma Architects), the mastermind behind the Hoshinoya certainly saw a gap in the market with this design and her vision appears to have paid off. The hotel was awarded New Concept of the Year and AHEAD Asia Hotel of the Year in 2017 and chosen for the Conde Nast 2018 Gold Awards ‘Favourite Hotels in the World’. This, it would seem, is the place to stay in Tokyo.
A stand-alone skyscraper, the Hoshinoya fits seamlessly into its surroundings. On the one hand, it has been designed to sympathetically conform to the same upscale look of the office buildings all around, whilst at the same time retaining an assured confidence and identity of its very own.
The external façade of intricate black lattice metalwork, designed to resemble traditional kimono patterning, is particularly interesting; offering a subtle hint to the quintessentially traditional elements of Japanese culture concealed within the modern exterior. It also serves a practical purpose, acting as a screen between the rooms and the offices directly opposite.
As you would expect from a Hoshinoya hotel, the overall look and feel is overwhelmingly upscale with impeccable attention to detail. Despite the urban location and sheer scale of the building, the traditional concept has been retained throughout. Each floor has been designed to look like a mini ryokan, with tatami mats and exposed woodwork, giving guests all the comforting elements of a ryokan on a prime piece of real estate. And the crowning glory? A state-of-the-art top floor onsen with genuine hot spring water, pumped up from 1000m beneath the hotel. This is perhaps the most impressive of the Hoshinoya’s many design features; the bath opens to the sky with super high walls so the other buildings can’t look in.
Feeling inspired to take on an architectural voyage of discovery for yourself? We can arrange stays at any of these hotels as part of any InsideJapan Tours Self-Guided Adventure.