HIGH-RISE RYOKAN

A clever Tokyo ho­tel stacks tra­di­tional inns one on top of the other

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | JAPAN - CHRIS PRITCHARD

Could this re­ally be the weird­est ho­tel in Ja­pan? Ex­ter­nally it’s noth­ing spe­cial – just an­other stylish high-rise re­minder of why Aus­tralians visit a metropo­lis con­sid­er­ing it­self the most hi-tech cap­i­tal city on earth.

Dar­ing ar­chi­tec­ture – such as reach-for-the-sky build­ings that seem about to top­ple but don’t – is it­self a Tokyo at­trac­tion. Add to the mix food, shop­ping, night life, his­toric tem­ples and palaces, cul­tural icons and quirk­i­ness – all of this makes Tokyo so dis­tinc­tively Ja­panese.

Ja­pan is “hot”. Nearly 450,000 Aus­tralians vis­ited last year, up a whop­ping 47.1 per cent from two years ear­lier. And many of them con­sider stay­ing in a ryokan (tra­di­tional inn). The ryokan – the clos­est western equiv­a­lent is a B&B – orig­i­nated more than 300 years ago, serv­ing trav­ellers along then-bumpy high­ways. They typ­i­cally fea­ture rooms with tatami mats and rice-pa­per walls. Of­ten fam­ily-run, they en­cour­age guests to wan­der through pub­lic areas in yukatas (light­weight cot­ton ki­monos worn as bathrobes). Some have on­site com­mu­nal on­sen baths (for soak­ing not wash­ing). They’re mostly small, oc­cu­py­ing Ja­panese-style lowrises (of­ten houses).

But high prices some­times force would-be Tokyo ryokan guests to dump the idea. De­mand is such that some room rates even ex­ceed those at five-star ho­tels. Mind you, al­though prices are high so are stan­dards.

But one Tokyo prop­erty owner had a brain­wave: a high-rise up-mar­ket ho­tel styled as a ryokan. The re­sult is

ar­guably one of Ja­pan’s odd­est ho­tels – but one of its best. It’s a splurge, but it’s a worth­while one. With high oc­cu­pancy lev­els, many a bud­get­con­scious vis­i­tor spends only one or two nights there, trans­fer­ring to or from more con­ven­tional ho­tels.

Tokyo’s largest ryokan oc­cu­pies a pur­pose-built 18-floor build­ing. And since not every level is used for ac­com­mo­da­tion, Hoshi­noya Tokyo has only 84 rooms, and they’re big.

A few blocks’ walk from his­toric Tokyo Sta­tion, it’s in a fash­ion­able area of of­fice tow­ers, shops and eater­ies rang­ing from fast-food outlets to mid-mar­ket and up­scale.

When I reach the ho­tel the main door is closed, yield­ing only when I push. Sud­denly I’m in an old-Ja­pan time warp, a world away from con­tem­po­rary bus­tle out­side. Aro­mas of in­cense and flow­ers waft through an outer lobby. Tatami (straw mat­ting) cov­ers the floor. Ja­panese decor in­cludes a wall of num­bered ch­est­nut-and-bam­boo lock­ers.

A ki­mono-clad staffer greets me, asks my name and of­fers to take my shoes, plac­ing them in a locker with the same num­ber as my room. The staff mem­ber, like her mostly young and cheer­ily ef­fi­cient col­leagues, speaks English. She es­corts me through an­other door to a lift. Even it is car­peted in tatami.

My room is large, par­tic­u­larly so in city known for com­pact­ness. Win­dows over­look­ing Tokyo sky­scrapers are cov­ered by rice pa­per screens. Fur­ni­ture is five-star stan­dard but low, as if the legs have been short­ened. A comfy fu­ton-style bed is at one end of the room.

A quick check re­veals plenty of sock­ets for charg­ing elec­tronic gad­getry. Mind you, I’m un­able to find a light in the en suite toi­let but a sen­sor en­sures the small­est room is quickly bathed in light, en­abling me to watch an au­to­mated toi­let seat lift in wel­come all on its own. Toi­le­t­op­er­at­ing in­struc­tions, in Ja­panese and English, are eas­ily fol­lowed.

Back in the bed­room I no­tice some­thing miss­ing – a tele­vi­sion set. “Peo­ple don’t come here to watch TV,” the staff mem­ber says, laugh­ing. But she opens a drawer to re­veal a dis­creetly hid­den re­mote. “Point it at the mir­ror,” she in­structs. I do so and half the look­ing-glass trans­forms into a king­size TV.

Don­ning a yukata and slip­pers from a bam­boo-cov­ered closet, I wan­der down the hall­way to the lounge. A cou­ple of guests are sim­i­larly dressed.

The lounge, one on each floor, is where guests go to read, sip from a large se­lec­tion of the on-the-house sakes or im­ported wines and sam­ple del­i­cate Ja­panese snacks. A se­lec­tion of lit­tle-known Ja­panese teas is also avail­able.

Lounges are each staffed by two ki­mono-wear­ing young women. I lis­ten as they ad­vise an Aus­tralian cou­ple about nearby restau­rants.

The ho­tel, which opened last year, has no bar and only a small 10-ta­ble res­tau­rant, presided over by Tokyo celebrity chef Noriyuki Ha­mada. Western fare is served on de­mand but chef Ha­mada is best-known for his take on Ja­panese dishes fea­tur­ing clams, oc­to­pus and salmon.

In most ho­tels only a mi­nor­ity of meals are de­liv­ered by room ser­vice. Here most are dis­patched from Ha­mada’s kitchen to guest rooms or lounges. House guests get pref­er­ence for res­tau­rant reser­va­tions.

Close to the re­cep­tion desk is an area used for cook­ing classes, ki­mono-wear­ing lessons, tea cer­e­monies and in­cense cer­e­monies.

But the ho­tel’s pride and joy is its 17th-floor on­sen (tra­di­tional com­mu­nal bath­house). Sep­a­rate fa­cil­i­ties cater to men and women.

Dur­ing ex­ca­va­tions a hot spring was dis­cov­ered 1.5km be­low ground. It was then de­cided to in­clude an on­sen, with min­eral-rich wa­ter piped up the build­ing. A leisurely night­time soak in al­most-too-hot-to­tol­er­ate wa­ter while gaz­ing out at the lights of high-rise Tokyo proves the most mem­o­rable fea­ture of a stay.

THE AU­THOR WAS A GUEST OF THE TOKYO CON­VEN­TION AND VIS­I­TORS BUREAU.

TRA­DI­TIONAL DECOR

PIC­TURE: SUP­PLIED

Hoshi­noya Ho­tel (above) is quirky and tra­di­tional; large rooms (left) are com­fort­able.

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