Tatami and hints of sea on the tongue

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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