Yakumo Saryo – in cloud eight

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My taxi keeps going deeper into nondescript residential neighbourhood.  We pass by some interesting modernist gymnasiums of 1960 Tokyo Olympics era … and then it keeps going again. Finally I’m dropped off  curb side in front of a gated residence (again non-descript) and I wonder “is this going to be another sit and eat what I’ll give you” in an underwhelmingly minimalist restaurant. I walk up the steps through a small courtyard and am greeted by Sugimoto-san, in perfectly bleached robe with a pleasant, yet forced smile.

I’m here on a field trip of sorts to prepare for our upcoming Asia Pacific Owners Retreat. I’m getting together a dozen or so hotel owners in Tokyo for two days of camaraderie and discussions. I want to treat them to some high quality restaurants which are not overly exposed and Yakumo Saryo was referred to me by my friend Masa.  Masa and Sugimoto-san exchange quick, polite pleasantries and then we’re whisked around the tea room, through the corridors and the two small dining spaces. Along the way we are introduced design elements from flooring to traditional hanging ornaments to custom built case goods.  Main reason we are here is because Yakumo Saryo is owned by Shinichiro Ogata, creator of Simplicity – a minimalist objects brand – and better known abroad for his Aesop retail shops and Andaz Tokyo design.  His proportioned layout, attention to detail and natural texture and tones are evident in all corners we pass.  We are then seated in the communal dining table close to the kitchen across from the sunlit, sunken dining area with smaller tables.  As I slide into my seat gently pushed in place by Sugimoto-san I notice that our extra long table is a giant slab of Japanese cypress wood, the ones usually seen in upscale sushi counters – just larger.  I brush my palm against the wood to feel the warmth of the surface and smooth yet impeccably tactile wood grain.  Impossible lighteness sets in. I feel at home.

I look around and observe. And observe you must… nothing jumps out but everything seems to be subtly in perfect place.  A staff at far end of our table is shaving off slices of sashimi and rolling them into three equidistant placements.  He is also in pearly white uniform, almost looks like freshly laundered high school baseball kit (his head is shaved).  Behind him on the minimalist kitchen counter is a singular pot, something gently simmering and steaming.  Toward the end of the meal my rice come from that pot.

I can’t remember the exact contents of our course lunch.  I was distracted. Sufficiently distracted by the entire experience which all fell into place in perfect harmony. Quality of the ingredients of course, accompanying plates and glassware (our meal was pared by teas) and attentive and friendly service.  I just remember it was beautiful.

It’s Tuesday lunch hour and the dining room is surprisingly sparse for such an amazing establishment.  Sugimoto explains they manage reservations so not to fill the restaurant. I tell him I thought I’m reasonably well-informed of good restaurants in Tokyo but I’m  surprised that I’ve never heard of Yakumo Saryo.  He replies with a polite and awkward smile – ‘we don’t invite journalists… and we never advertised’.

After lunch we are escorted across the hallway back to the team room (called Sabo Tea House).  An extra large square table with a view out to the Japanese garden dominates the sparse room. On the opposite side are counter seats separating the room from a small kitchen where tea is prepared.  Earthy and darker hues permeate throughout this room. Flooring is tar grey concrete, imprinted with tatami patterns.  We watch the tea ceremony in silence and are each served frothy matcha.  I pick up the bowl in my palms and take a sip. It’s delicious so I unconsciously blurt out some exclamation.  Staff’s face lightens up and says something in Japanese. Masa smiling, translates “it is proper manners to complement the person who created tea”. I’ve done something right today.

Ever since Kevin Coster recited that harrowing call, I have been a faithful believer of ‘If you build it, They will come’.  Visionaries don’t create to please customers, much less to make profit. True makers make because they… well, know what they want to create. Occasionally I see testament of those places where it is borne out of singular philosophy, not of our own to comprehend but for the proprietor to profess. A place so beautiful because the creator is faithful to what he believe in.  It is steadfast yet not stubborn. Yakumo Saryo is that place of singular vision and I daresay perfection.

Yakumo Saryo, 3-chōme-4-7 Yakumo, Meguro City, Tōkyō-to 152-0023, Japan

https://yakumosaryo.jp/e/

Breakfast – starts 9am, traditional Japanese breakfast Y3,200

Lunch – starts 12pm, course lunch Y8,000, Y12,000

Dinner – starts 7pm, course menu Y25,000

Sabo Tea House – 9am to 5pm

 

Hotel KOO – collection of seven rehabilitated machiya’s in Ootsu

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Hotel KOO is a collection of seven rehabilitated machiya’s (traditional Japanese townhouses) refurbished with modern furnishings, some as private villas and others with two or three separate guest bedrooms creating 13 units in total. Japanese machiya’s are small – typically around 1,000 sq. ft – and split into two levels.  Adherence to key features such as entrance foyer (remove shoes please) and miniature interior garden make it exceedingly challenging to create space so naturally design ingenuity tends to focus on details like materials selection and construction quality often using traditional methods and uniquely Japanese aesthetics. KOO is indeed a masterclass on exceptionally high quality traditional construction and meticulous variation of Japanese-Nordic furnishings in which no two units are alike in their layout and FF&E.

 

 

As you walk up to each machiya, what  greets you is just picture perfect, overly flawless perhaps, facade. Contrasted colors of Japanese cypress doors and shutters layered against slate wall and roof tiles, perfectly situated waif tree to one side nestled on stone and pebble garden.  As you enter, the tyranny of confined space is undone by impossibly light Japanese construction at its finest. Washi-paper sliding doors gently glide at the flick of fingertips and occasional hand-made glass doors clink and clank from its delicately thin construction.

 

As I entered Chaya (a split-level private villa configuration), there it was Finn Juhl Pelican Chair, arguably the most avant garde product of the designer perching on the living room tatami floor. Genuinely surprising was how the elaborate and voluminous Pelican chair harmoniously exists in this confined and delicate setting. It wasn’t the contrast that was strangely pleasing, indeed it was how the Japanese and Finnish dimensions naturally fit.

 

These scattered accommodation style takes its cue from ‘Albergo Diffuso’ in Italy. Albergo Diffuso originates from Italy where visionary hoteliers with strong sense of adventure and passion for history returned to hollowing out historic towns to develop unusual hotels. Albergo Diffuso as the name literally suggest are ‘diffused, scattered hotel rooms’ throughout a small town. Central functions and facilities like reception and F&B are housed in one of the larger units. Some of the most recognised Albergo Diffusos are Sextantio in Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo and Sextantio le Grotte Della Civita in Matera.

Ootsu is the seat of Shiga Prefecture – not in Kyoto Prefecture but stones throw from it across the administrative border and one can be carried swiftly in a local train from Kyoto Station in less than ten minutes.  It’s a small and ageing city (population is still respectable 340k) hollowed out by younger generation seeking careers elsewhere. It is also a bedroom community of sorts serving the economy of Kyoto.  KOO is roughly ten minute walk from Ootsu Station.

 

Hotel KOO Ootsu

1 Chome-2-6 Central, Otsu, Shiga 520-0043, Japan

http://hotel-koo.com/rooms/

Per-person rate at Ohmiya (Main townhouse containing three-units) starts Y20,000

Human scale of Sydney Opera House

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The first time I saw Sydney Opera House was in 2000 during my first visit to Sydney and the obligatory walk down to the rocks.  I still remember my first reaction at the time – ‘it’s not as a big as I imagined…’ but no less awe inspiring’.  Many times had I seen the images of the UNESCO World Heritage Site which to most people around the world is the icon of Sydney.  It was wildly modern – curvature of the shells floating on linear platform like large white sails contrast to deep blue waters it stood upon.  So many unusual details in its construction strangely coming together, so beautifully.  I didn’t know how to quite make of it other than to snap a lot of photos.  Remember, this is before panorama, and way before iPhone.  I was armed with an early version of Sony compact digital (RX something) and the only way to take in all the details was to snap a series of photos and stitch multiple prints side-to-side to pin them up on a cork-board.

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Since then I’ve been exposed to a lot more buildings and become a student of built structures. Revisiting it now, I actually feel it to be even more awesome.  What has changed?  I frequently encounter immensely grandiose and outrageously unworldly buildings in my travels.  So what is it about Sydney Opera House that is refreshingly awe-worthy?
For one, it is elegance of the curves.  Considering this was built in the time of mid-century modernism which was all straight lines, Sydney Opera House set itself apart by its undulating curves.  Curvatures constantly changing height contrasted to linear platform.
Second, the shells rise and fall, meaning the inflections have inherent end points which moderate its scale … to human scale.  You approach the site, walk up the steps with your gaze fixed upwards to the roofline and come face to face with the open mouth of the shells.  It all comfortably comes into perspective, without having to cock you neck for adoration.
Lastly, there’s technology.  The shells are supported by a system of precast concrete ribs – all possible due to the wonders of concrete construction.  Encasing those brute shells and ribs are the most fragile of materials, glazed ceramic tiles.  Apparently Frank Gehry who was on the jury when Jorn Utzon was awarded Pritzker Prize said the building was well ahead of its time and far ahead of available technology.
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Tsingpu Retreat – The Walled, Yangzhou

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Sun sets and the contours of this horizontal modernist compound come to life.  Architectural up-lights raise lit columns along the perimeter, down lights flush the layered brick walls and guest rooms and dining hall become punctuating light boxes.  I don’t know quite how to describe Tsingpu Retreat The Walled as a hotel. It’s certainly a modernist architectural marvel which reinterprets Chinese brick housing into a low-rise, flat roofline compound walled into grid formation hotel rooms.
Lyndon Neri tells me the introverted grid scheme was part of a solution to the development restrictions to preserve the structural footprint of houses that existed there.  Real experience is in and outside the perimeter of these walls and in the corridors where the old structural underpinnings remain and are harmonised with the new development. You lose yourself in maze-like paths where each turn opens to surprising perspectives.  Monotonous grey brick facade is broken by unexpected discovery of courtyards, ponds, lawns and undulation.
20 guest rooms are packed into the interior of the walls and the vast grounds surrounding it draw serenity so rare in any Chinese destination. Simplicity and tranquility are almost overbearing although appreciatively. As a hotel, 20 rooms densely packed into the interior of the walls have surprising privacy.  Playful elevation again plays a role here as some rooms are sunken while others require light hikes.
Dining room reminds a sparse mess hall, albeit stylish and modernist. Familiar Neri & Hu signature pendant lights connected by rods jutting out and circling decorate the ceiling.  Excitement, warmth and entertainment is somewhat wanting but it is nevertheless a contemporary dining experience.
Food is a master class in chopstick skills- every shape and texture of meat, fish and vegetables in the most refined Chinese cuisine I’ve ever experienced. It reminds of food in Hangzhou – uncharacteristically bland yet, quite simply, tasty. Strips of pork neck and assorted mushrooms pack in flavour while celery and diced chives add crunch.  Head of jelly fish .. also crunchy but my mound would be left barely touched.  A large family chatters away at the other end of the restaurant while their teenage daughter puts on dance moves to Taylor Swift (I will write to management tonight and introduce Music Concierge… OMG, now they’re playing Avril Lavigne).  The only other diners are the young couple I met at the folding fan making class earlier in the day.
Yangzhou city scape is unusually human scale for a Chinese city with low rise tiled roof housing, verdant green fields, farm lands and waterways everywhere (Yangzhou was a crucial midway stopover for the Ming dynasty canal connecting Beijing and Nanjing).
Direct access to Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat is a swift 40min drive from Yangzhou Taizhou airport. It is also 90min from Nanjing and 2.5hr drive from Suzhou airports. If you’re coming from Shanghai, take regular train service to Zhenjiang and ask for hotel pick up.
Tsingpu Retreat – The Walled, Yangzhou (https://www.tsingpu.com/)
Rate starts at approx. USD 500 – full board and inclusion of daily cultural programs

Trunk Hotel, Shibuya

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It’s a common misconception for would be travellers to Tokyo that this city of super abundant creativity and modernity has numerous well-designed, boutique hotels.  Well … there aren’t.  There’s probably many reasons and this blog isn’t meant to be for real-estate finance mundane so I’ll curb it to a couple of inter-related reasons: prohibitive land/development cost (which forces to build ‘up’ – read many 100’s of room count) and developer’s (most of them being large real estate firms with salarymen punting risk free ideas) formulaic development approach.  Resulting phenomena are either Four Seasons on top of metro stations or what locals call ‘business hotels’ which are three-and-half-star, 15 sq.m. sardine cans  stacked on top of each other. I’ve been asking my friends in design, media and hotels for years ‘where’s a cool hotel to stay’ and the answer is a few seconds of delay then ‘maybe Claska?’.  Claska is a reasonably designed hotel in a not-so-reasonable location and is a decade old(!).  Now finally, there’s an unapologetic answer to that question – Trunk Hotel.

What sets the tone – democratic and social – at Trunk Hotel is its lounge cum co-working space cum bar.  Shibuya, historically a neighbourhood known for entertainment and nightlife (think Robot Shows) has recently become hotbed of tech start-ups even earning the nick name ‘Bit Valley’.  Plenty of gig-economy hipsters are tapping away at MacBooks along the one-piece timber work desks lining up and down the lounge.  Materials like recuperated timber, tanned leather and indoor plants set the abundantly natural tone.  Music is turned up just right depending time of day and evening to enhance the immersive mood.  A tad too dark, perhaps due to the less than ideal ceiling elevation but nevertheless makes rich and captivating experience.  The bar in the deep end with signature Trunk Hotel signage is unmistakably cool and pulls in surprisingly diverse mix of young and old each evening to this happening den.

Main dining room w open kitchen

Hotel is slightly elevated on top of an undulation common to Shibuya and the horizontal program of the facade gives it an imposing presence, despite its small foot print. Black steel beams layered lengthwise alternated by concrete exterior makes a confidently minimal look. Use of timber decks, street level terrace and plants lining the terrace softens the program and make it sober yet inviting.

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Black steel beams layered with concrete in between

At the foot of the entrance to the right is Kushi restaurant (skewered meats – it tastes a lot better than it sounds).  It is slightly sunk into the ground and entering it has a feeling of inviting yourself into a private, inner sanctum.  In the evening the indoor kushi bar counter as well as open space deck is buzzing with energetic crowd.  Outdoor in Tokyo does mean smoking so if charred food with involuntary smoking isn’t your thing head to the cafe in the hotel.

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Kushi restaurant becomes young and rowdy at night

Opposite Kushi restaurant is an intriguing shop concept which sells Trunk branded assortment of in-room amenities like toiletries to bathrobes but also fashionable casual clothing brandishing square block Trunk logo.  It also stocks variety of local products like sake and beer craft-brewed near Shibuya. It’s all part of their ‘Socializing’ concept which is meant to promote Trunk Hotel’s role as a social hub as well as purveyor of social good.  Browsing around though, there isn’t much capturing one’s attention but it’s nevertheless noble and quirky initiative.

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So now the most challenging part of this long awaited newcomer design hotel – guestrooms.  This is Shibuya after all, one of the most expensive piece of real estate even in already asset bubbly central Tokyo.  Standard rooms are small –  20 sq.m. small and nine of 15 rooms are Standard category.  It’s a local regulations thing to allocate certain number of single-occupancy rooms – measure to prevent proliferation of love hotels.  This means nine of 15 rooms are smallish single rooms.  Not all rooms are tiny… there are four suites, one of which is a massive 140 sq.m., duplex apartment with full kitchen and stunning terrace overlooking leafy Shibuya. But wait… 15 unit hotel with nine single-rooms and four suites (do the math for the rest)?

Single rooms are small but it packs into 20 sq.m. a lot of uniquely Japanese  space-smart designs.  Mattress is raised above the floor by a plank platform which visually separates the bed from (barely) living space.  Stylish minbar cabinet doubling as book self holds interesting lifestyle magazines including their in-house newspaper.  What’s inside the minbar is is even more interesting, local sakes and beers.  Compact bathroom is kitted with pretty much all necessary amenities and a spacious shower cube large enough for non-Japanese.  Problematic is lack of a cabinet – it’s replaced by a couple of hangers on the bedroom wall, utterly inadequate for travellers visiting more than a night.

Trunk is at the bottom of Cat Street (キャットストリート) which is pedestrian only, half a mile strip running perpendicular to Omotesando-dori and hipster nation of Tokyo. While the stretch has gradually gone big-brand upmarket over the years, it is still there you can find Champion washed denim sweat-shorts, custom-order bike shops and up-and-coming NYC brands like Save Khaki United.  Because of its access from Cat Street, many may associate Trunk with Omotesando (or Harajuku) but in fact the fastest access for those familiar with Tokyo Metro is from Shibuya Station.  Come out to Hachiko (Richard Gere dog) statue, cross the street north toward Yoyogi/Jingu-mae and soon enough you’ll approach equally hipster neighbourhood of Shibuya from the backside.

 

Trunk Hotel (trunk-hotel.com) a member of Design Hotels

Jingūmae 5−31, Shibuya-chu, Tokyo, Japan 150-0001

〒150-0001 東京都渋谷区神宮前  5丁目31番地7

Single room midweek rates from¥33,000

House of Finn Juhl, Hakuba Hotel

Skærmbillede 2016-11-30 kl. 18.16.57

Lounge/Living room of House of Finn Juhl

It’s a wet late fall day in Hakuba and rain drizzles as the temperature falls in the valley. Hakuba, the site for 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, is not known for beautiful lodging options – in fact far from it – so I’m particularly delighted that a new, design minded lodge quietly opened its doors. House of Finn Juhl is usually a name given to Finn Juhl showrooms but this showroom is a hotel kind. The smallish five-room (six if you include Owner’s Room which is reserved for the four partners of the estate) lodge is a shrine to Finn Juhl design owned by the Danish company which produces and markets the designer’s furniture.

Original materials of the lodge were maintained as much as possible with careful restoration of hinoki flooring, cedar wood staircases and pine timber beams. The flooring is supposed to be almost forty years old but it looks as pale as new so these guys clearly know a thing or two about bleaching, waxing and restoring wood. The two-story lodge’s ground floor features lounge, dining room and kitchen, second floor guest rooms and bar and dry, ski storage in the basement. The lounge showcases perfect mix of Baker sofa, Poet sofa and Chieftain Chair, epitome of Finn Juhl aesthetics.

Guest rooms are economic but thoughtful simplicity of Japanese-Danish variety makes room for sufficiency. High quality beds and duvets adorned with Finn Juhl side lamps (rarity as the designer weren’t productive in lamps) comfortably takes up one end of the room. Bathroom is a rare letdown fitted out in modular toilet and shower equipment typical of business hotels and ryokans found in Japan.

So the chairs… Poet Sofa’s classically pretty curves are true to the poetic imagination it conjures. Slightly pointed shoulders on either side of the sofa invites with a warm embrace and the studded buttons punctuate it’s prettiness. There are two Poet Sofas in the Hotel, one in the lounge and the other in the Poet Bedroom. They are upholstered in rich woven fabric and the bedroom sofa is contrasted with a leather seat. I love this sofa’s loveseat proportions (full disclosure… Poet Sofa prominently occupies the living room of the Singapore apartment we rent out).

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Poet Sofa upholstered in contrast fabric

Nyhavn which are used as communal dining tables have its origins as Finn Juhl’s work desk. The desk has folds on either side which can be opened up to extend to comfortably seat 6 or even 8. Flat and linear table top and slender cylindrical legs pointed downward are unusually minimal aesthetic among Finn Juhl’s design normally known for elegant, even elaborate shapes. I find Nyhavn, as a dining table, lacking certain warmth and entertainment… I wish it was replaced by chunky single piece timber board in keeping with the Hakuba alpine environment. That combined with any of the minimalist Finn Juhl chairs would have made a stunning and inviting dining room.

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Now the Pelican Chair, one of the most iconic and well known designs of Finn Juhl. I couldn’t overcome my reservations for this overtly elaborate and beautiful product. They are scattered around the hotel upholstered in various hues of leather, amply displaying its swagger. Exaggerated shoulders spread out and reaches in to create an almost surreal aesthetic akin to Dali’an imagination. But as you sink into the chair with knees slightly raised, I’m cradled into a comfortable sitting position. Together with the robust Baker Sofa or similarly peacocking 46 Sofa, it creates a stunning set piece. I heard that a Korean distributor created a custom, feathered version of Pelican… in true surrealist proportion. I’d love to see that.

Pelican Chair Credit Andreas Weiss--24

Pelican Chair

Hakuba is a small ski town and mountaineering hub in the heart of Japanese Alps. It can be reached within an hour drive (or shuttle connection) from Nagano which is again a swift 90min Shinkansen ride from Tokyo which makes it a super convenient get away.

Skærmbillede 2016-12-19 kl. 12.48.09

House of Finn Juhl, Hakuba Hotel

Japan, 〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, Hakuba, Hokujo, 3020-281

Room rates Y30,000 in off season (non-Jul./Aug. and ski season)

Includes breakfast but no other food service provided

No service charge – enjoy until it lasts 🙂

Road to Capella di Vitaleta

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Unexpected yet direly needed relief from punishing summer heat, cool northern breeze moves in on a cloudless day. Val D’Orcia in mid-summer is an utterly beautiful expanse of golden wheat fields where harvest just completed and hay rolled up neatly doting the valley.

Drive up north from Bagno Vignoni and veer off right just south of San Quirico D’Orcia is three kilometres of meandering dirt road with picture perfect Tuscan mis-en-scene on either side to Capella di Vitaleta.  Various shades of wheat fields are marked by cutting and subsequent ploughing and the remaining stubble and open soil create crisscrossing patterns on the golden valley.  Through the lens frame, they almost look like a series of Rothkos in many golden hues.

As if the sacred grounds of the chapel in pursuit demand pilgrimage on foot, the last mile to this majestic beauty is gated firmly to check any cars from approaching. More scorched honey wheat fields on either side and you tread the meandering road kicking up gentle dust on this oppressively hot, dry day.

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Regal cypress trees bookending the modest chapel

You’ve seen it on postcards, picture frames in every trattoria and cheap amateur paintings lining the tourist corridors of Tuscan towns but seeing it with you own eyes, you’re in lost of words. The chapel slowly reveals itself to you at first only from derrière, in unassuming red brick facade.  As you get closer, the proportion and symmetry of the chapel against its neighbouring farm house, the waterwell in between and the southern Tuscan backdrop is perfect geometry of sorts. Finally, you reach the door step, turn around to its frontal facade and you are tête–à–tête with the serene beauty.  Regal cypress trees bookending the modest chapel, austerely shut wood panel doors, modest door knobs.

Someone slung a clumsy timer board on strewn rocks for a makeshift bench. Sitting on the bench seeking respite from the heat, Val D’Oro unfolds for miles with Pienza to one side of the horizon and San Quirico D’Orcia to the other. On a cloudless day, you almost reach out and touch the fortress atop Montalcino.

Slow drive tips – Alternative approach to Capella di Vitaleta is downhill west from Pienza to San Quirico D’Orcia. There are two roads downhill from Pienza into Val D’Orcia, one directly south to the bottom of the valley and the other westerly to San Quirico D’Orcia, both spectacular in their own right. Halfway west from Pienza reveals Capella di Vitaleta’s frontal view on your left.  There’s a shoulder to park the car and walk from there.