Tatami and hints of sea on the tongue
My eyes are following the fingers of a Japanese sweet master as they dance across a wooden counter with the dexterity of a concert pianist – brushing, scooping, pressing and tapping a cloud-like puff of peach powder. The faster his fingers move, the more time seems to slow… until, with a polite dip of the head, his work is done.
I am sitting, shoeless, on a bamboo stool which the maestro now approaches – placing before me a cup of green tea and a diminutive wagashi (a traditional sweet), which dissolves on my tongue in a fleetingly light fuzz of sweetness.
The presentation of handmade sweets with tea may sound like the kind of centuries-old ritual that unfolds inside a Kyoto tea house or remote mountain ryokan inn. But the slide of a nearby paper screen reveals not the tree-filled or rock garden tableau one might expect, but a sun-flecked expanse of deep, blue water. My floating tea ceremony has taken place on board guntû, one of the most exquisitely crafted – and luxurious – ships ever to set sail in Japan.
There’s just under one year to go until Japan, home of the Brave Blossoms team, hosts the Rugby World Cup 2019. With the countdown now under way for both the World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan is preparing to take centre stage. A flurry of new flights and hotel openings is the tip of the iceberg: the dispersion of matches across 12 cities – most linked by shinkansen (bullet trains) – means that experiences won’t be confined to the tourist trails of Tokyo and Kyoto, but will be found in even the most hidden corners of the archipelago.
And so it was that I found myself in a floating tatami mat room on the Seto Inland Sea watching the nimble fingers of a sweet maker. With its clean lines and minimalist design and a philosophy deeply rooted in the traditional art of Japanese hospitality, guntû (pronounced “gan-su” and inspired by a small local crab) is rewriting the rules of luxury cruising. Catching sight of the boat for the first time, the simplicity of its smooth wooden facade and single peaked roof brought to mind an oversized Noah’s Ark children’s toy.
Biblical references soon faded as my eyes took in the cool whiteness of its modern lobby. Staff greeted me with a flurry of bows and chilled white towels as I craned my neck to take in the high ceiling, a scene-stealing ribbon-style staircase in the centre and the sole decoration – a single vase of flowers on an organic twist of tree trunk.
The brainchild of a wealthy local shipbuilding family and masterminded by Tokyo architect Yasushi Horibe, guntû is an unadulterated showcase of contemporary Japanese craftsmanship, from the gently tilted roof in smooth woods (11 different types were used on board) and bamboo stools to the tatami cushions lining one side of the boat that brings to mind the serene outer corridor of a traditional Japanese house.
Guntû is as diminutive as it is stylish, with 38 guests accommodated in 19 cabins (comfortably outnumbered by 46 staff). The three decks accommodate a restaurant, onsen-style wooden baths and a sushi counter. Away from the ship there are fishing trips and excursions to islands. Competing for attention with the design is the setting: we sail across the Seto Inland Sea, a green-blue expanse of water speckled with thousands of tiny islands.
The Japanese art of omotenashi (the translation to “hospitality” barely scratches the surface) is embodied by unwaveringly intuitive staff in minimal taupe uniforms. Staff member Yoko-san showed me to my secondfloor room, where I swapped shoes for slippers before entering a modern take on a cruise cabin. Swathes of warm chestnut wood walls and ceilings cocooned me as I took in the decked balcony and white bathroom with plants, organic toiletries and a deep bathtub with a sea view.
Yoko san produced a tablet showing