Man at His Best

The Making Of A Tokyo Ryokan

Hot springs in the capital? Donít mind if I do. HOSHINOYA Tokyo is a countryside retreat among skyscrapers.

BY Nicholas Ng | Nov 6, 2017 | Travel

Mister Yoshiharu Hoshino did not know what to do with Tokyo. Capital cities fall into one of two categories: they’re either microcosms of a country’s best and worst, or they can be utterly unrecognisable from the country that surrounds it. The idyllic pastoral landscape of Japan, and the cultivated composure evident in her art, cuisine, and etiquette—all these seem remote and alien amidst the stroboscopic skyscrapers and unceasingly frenzied pace.

In the mind of the man in charge of 35 hotels all over Japan, including four HOSHINOYA flagship resorts specifically built to introduce its patrons to the locales’ particular charms, Hoshino had trouble offering something novel about an oft-written- about Tokyo. Everyone, even people who’ve never actually been in Tokyo, have a set idea of what the capital city looks like, and what it’s about. In secluded Karuizawa, Hoshino Resort offers visitors a mountainside retreat that exploits the surrounding natural hot springs. In historic Kyoto, one can see a picturesque nobles’ haven, much like the ones seen during Japan’s feudal era or in Okinawa, a village, true to the Ryukyu culture, stands in contrast with the mainland; and in Fuji a “glamping" chalet with open fires under starlight; amidst towering highland pines. But what of Tokyo? Shall it be a concrete jungle where multi-storey concrete structures, clad in fantastic electronic marquees and tinted glass windows? No. This requires an alternate tack.

Instead of offering Tokyo to the guests, how about building something for Tokyo? And so the vision began to crystalise: amidst the hubbub of Tokyo’s Otemachi financial district—a ryokan that has not been seen since the Edo period. Within this traditional inn, guests pad about barefoot on tatami floors and enjoy tea infused with seasonal blooms. You’re safe in this cocoon of a small town hospitality; a sanctuary that’s born of the wonder and beauty of its location, a treasure chest of its best kept secrets, blending perfectly with its environs.

HOSHINOYA Tokyo looks nothing like a tile-roofed, temple-style inn found in Nara or Wakayama. This is Tokyo, and a ryokan in Tokyo should look like it had always been there. So it is, then, that Hoshino’s fellow Cornell alumni, Rie Azuma, designed a building that borrows its outlines from the familiar edifices of Otemachi and yet affords the seductive serenity of a ryokan.

It’s not easy to spot the entrance immediately. All you see behind screening trees is a small illuminated sign set against a wide grey wall. To the left are the glass doors, situated in even further. It all feels rather exclusive, like a club for a select few. From afar, it’s hardly imposing—a mere 17 floors. A shroud, not unlike chainmail, hangs suspended just outside the glassy building, wrapping it all around. Upon closer scrutiny, it reveals itself as an intricate lattice of classical komon patterns: infinite tessellations of six-sided corollas, accented with starbursts. At night, soft warm lights make up the exterior glow in alternate bands, such that an observer on the ground floor looking up perceives the eaves of an ancient pagoda. It’s an ingenious marriage of old and new architectural modes.

Inside, every walkable surface is covered in tatami matting. Furniture is low, as in traditional Japanese
homes. As is tradition in homes and ryokan, shoes must come off before entry, and a host leads the guests to their rooms. It’s an invitation to treat the resort as their own home, but also an assertion of the exclusivity of the inn: no entry without invitation. And rightly so—the inn sits on land once owned by the heirs of Sakai Tadatsugu, right-hand man to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Exclusive as it was 600-odd years ago, so it is today.

The 84 rooms are adorned similarly: shoji paper sliding doors, tatami floors, intricate bamboo designs, fully modern bathroom. Walking down a corridor, you’re flanked by a smooth concrete wall the shade of pale river stone, and a floor-to-ceiling grid of woven bamboo. The floral arrangements change with the seasons, but ever elegantly ikebana. Bathed in soft, caressing light, it’s hard not to wonder: How can so much detail look so simple, so ethereal? To think the hustle and bustle of Tokyo is right outside.

Such a feeling of transportation only grows as you descend to the basement, and the elevator doors open to the HOSHINOYA Tokyo restaurant. In the middle of the room is a triad of irregular boulders, sitting on a cleanly delineated bed of fine white pebbles reminiscent of karesansui sand gardens. Against plastered walls designed with wavy sedimentary layers, the effect is dramatic and ultimately symbolic—the inn is a gem excavated from Tokyo’s urban topography, a fine essence whittled down from its neon-lighted modernity.

The restaurant is quiet, like it would be in a secluded ryokan. On the menu, fashioned by Executive Chef Noriyuki Hamada, is a selection of what he coins “Nippon cuisine”. The dishes look haute-French—spare architectural presentation, bite-sized portions, a drizzle rounding it off. The ingredients and seasonings are decidedly Japanese, however, with an emphasis on local fish that are hard to prepare, and rarely featured in French cuisine. Apropos, since Chef Hamada won first place in the fish category during the prestigious gastronomy competition Bocuse d’Or in 2013, while also bringing Japan its very first Bronze prize.

Sporting a trendy faux-hawk haircut, Hamada resembles a bird of prey as he hunches over the counter. His gaze is trained on a delicate sculpture, which he carefully adjusts on a wooden pedestal to catch the right amount of light. In the shape of an oak tree in the wind, it’s a charred tuille of tiny little fish, magically and painstakingly pieced together. It looks like a fossil, petrified in time – like the Tadatsugu feudal mansion that was excavated right under the restaurant. The heart of the pedestal the tuille sits upon is fossilized wood, repurposed from the mansion’s pillars; the slender pick that holds up the tuille was reforged from the spikes that held the pillars together. Mr. Hamada is as much chef de cuisine as he is storyteller.

He also tells of Nature’s tales. A pair of little ayu sweetfish, deep-fried golden, is draped in seaweed. They seem frozen mid-motion, their bodies undulating, unobtrusively occupying corners of a slate board—a scene taken right out of countryside brooks, where ayu hide behind rocks and seaweed for safety. Tokyo may be a jungle of iron and concrete, but in this inn you may very well be sitting by a stream on a pasture. Or, a hot spring. On the opposite end of the inn, is the spa. What is a ryokan without hot spring baths?

Tall, gently backlit panels surround a stunningly modern open bath filled with salubrious spring water, taking your eyes skyward. Yes, skyward, because the roof above is open, flooding the top-floor spa in diffused natural light. On a clear night you may see stars, just as if you’re out in the mountains. We may still be in Tokyo’s beating heart, but we’re also in Hoshino’s careful curation of the country’s best facets: a showpiece worthy of a capital city. It is a gem hidden in plain sight of the thousands who zip past in Otemachi everyday, who perhaps desire the reprieve of Nature’s embrace and the slow pace of a ryokan. It’s a surreal treasure, a secret is slowly made public as the weeks go by.

HOSHINOYA Tokyo is located at 1-9-2, Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo