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.

23 hours at Phum Baitang, Siem Reap 

Phum-Baitang-lobby

4pm.  It’s a clear, big sky, tall clouds late afternoon in Siem Reap and jovial yet consummately polite staff in the pared down reception shelter is much needed refreshment in the punishing heat. Staff in all white linen lounge top and wide-legged pants gracefully sweep the timer flooring and hands you a cold, jasmine scented towel. Khmer for “green village,” Phum Baitang is an elegant contemporary hideaway sprawled in eight acres of gardens and rice ponds and I’m here for less than a full-day transit visiting the management team.  Down the wooden plank stairs and off to my villa 17, buffalos are lazily grazing on grass in the late afternoon sun.

 

7pm.  It’s sunset at the cocktail lounge and Diane Schuur is in the air. A cigar lounge in green village is a jarring concept but nevertheless the vantage point from my rattan chairs on the balcony is spectacular.  Sweltering heat gradually replaced by gentle breeze and my Old Fashioned is pitch perfect.  When one bothers to print da Vinci’s motto “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” on the inside cover of in-room guest guidebook, that guiding principle must mean something to the creators. The owner’s, Zanier clan from Belgium, understated sensibilities mask its ambition – three more properties are under development in Belgium, Menorca and Vietnam.  Raw sophistication, color palettes and texture in the materials conjure up elegant yet restrained luxury traditions of Antwerp six.  There’s certainly a lot of simplicity here. Muted tones in the upholstery, unembellished wicker chairs, loosely woven basket lamp shades, incandescent bulbs hides not reveals, and almost no landscaping – just narrow timber plank walkways crisscrossing irregularly shaped rice paddies. It’s borderline humble.

 

 

Accessories are comparatively robust and with character. Light switches, bedside and table lamps are rugged industrial shaped with intricate details. But is all comes together harmoniously.  In simplicity there’s ingenuity.  One long pillow as a replacement for seat and back cushions… brilliant.

 

730am.  I wake up to a cool draft from early morning shower and cacophony of birds and frogs crying.  A pair of garden staff (their official designation, I’m told) and buffalos are plough in the small rice pond just outside my patio.  Luxury is not in the product but in the experience and this is the genuine luxury at the Green Village.  It feels more than a voyeuristic theme park set up but rather a meaningful attempt at recreating an authentic farm-to-table experience.

 

10am.  Villas are ultimate manifestation of simple sophistication. Using the wisdom of traditional Khmer techniques which had to (and still does) fight the annual flooding of Ton Le Sap lake, the villas stand on stilts to protect from the elements and to allow for storage and ventilation (in today’s parlance – air conditioning units).  Wooden case-goods in the villas like wardrobe and cabinets are assembled from solid wood in all its natural, unvarnished and aged glory.  Amply proportioned bathroom features one piece cast bathtub perched at the end of  the suite with a view out onto the vast garden.

 

Bath tub

3pm.  The pool and the Spa temple, as it is appropriately named, reflects the stone carvings of its renowned neighbors in Angkor Wat. The gym, treatment rooms, relaxation area, sauna, and yoga pavilion are laced with green spaces and open areas. It’s a much needed antidote to the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap town and, to many visitors, temple visits which start as early as 430am in an attempt to beat the crowd.

Pool

Phum Baitang

Krong Siem Reap

+855 (0)63 961 111

Hotel Kanra, Kyoto

Ikebana

Entering Hotel Kanra is a light and airy affair. Gentle steps down the narrow corridor with slender bamboo stalks on either side swinging gracefully, pass through the sliding wood panels into the sparse reception area and the seasonally curated Ikebana (flower arrangement) awaits.  This time it’s unusually sweltering early summer and wisteria arrangement is in full display.

Hotel Kanra is an unmistakably modern design hotel, but one that deeply emphasises Kyoto’s local tradition and ‘Matchiya’ style in the use of natural materials of wood, stone and iron.  Regularity of shapes and patterns calm the sense throughout Hotel Kanra but the reception area is a delicate testament to weightless modular design and calm order.

 

Hexagonal floor tiles set the pace and low-lying layers of reception desk, barista counter and lounge sofas draw the obliging guests.  Polygon tiled wall behind the reception is pale jade and elegant as it can be. The curved edges emit faint intermittent glow and the surface changes its shade as the sun drenched lobby changes hue throughout the day.  Sliding wood panel doors are made by adjoining timber planks in which Kyoto carpentry skills are boastfully displayed and the hand cut undulating grooves round out the symmetry of hexagons.

 

Citrusy wisteria scent hangs in the air, blends with aromatic Japanese cypress wood and acoustic strings strumming in the background adds to the ambiance.

Glass partitioned shower and bathtub suite (in Kanra’s case hinoki tub) is a Japanese invention. If you’re going to encase the walking shower with glass why not throw in the tub? After all objective is to keep the rest of the bathroom entirely splash-free. Again tiny hexagonal shower wall tiles gives continuity although this monotone patterned surface is too busy and over powering. Perhaps smattering of that pale celadon shapes would have eased the eyes.  Taps and mixers (Gessi, rarely Italian in this shrine to Japanese parts) are precise and appropriately weighty. Typically over illuminated Japanese lighting is welcome in the bathroom.

I always found the separate toilet cubicle superfluous… but so goes Japanese logic ‘keep private spaces entirely private’.

 

 

 

Kitchen Kanra, an Italian restaurant with an enviable selection of Tuscan and Piedmont reds is an exciting dining space and a must visit for, if not for the elaborately pretty Japanese breakfast.


Hanaroku is an elegant Teppan restaurant mixed with Kaiseki (traditional course meal) and a well-kept secret of sorts in this city of 400+ Michelin stared restaurant scene (including Osaka). One irritation of these Kaiseki shrines is that you could easily blame the pin drop… serenity is the modus operandi and sucks the life out of an  otherwise awe-inspiring meal.  At Hanaroku  you can let your hair down a little and joke with your serving staff (in language other than Japanese). Dim down the lights and jazz it up with harder Kyoto motifs, this place would rock.

 

Hotel Kanra

190 Kitamachi Karasuma-dori Rokujo-sagaru Shimogyo-ku Kyoto Japan 600-8176

+81 -75 344 3815

The Naka Phuket


If pool villa was Banyan Tree Phuket’s gift to travelling civilisation, it’s been re-gifted countless times without any reinvention for almost twenty years. Considering Amanpuri’s open suite formula of ‘contiguous living-bedroom-bathroom’ hasn’t been innovated on for 30 years, you can’t blame the unimaginative hoteliers. What’s more Phuket, over the years, has taken the concept of pool villa quite literally … a (smallish) villa with a (even smaller) plunge pool… repeat endlessly. 



The Naka Phuket presents a truly new kind of pool villa, worthy of distinction as descendent of Banyan Tree reimagined for the modernists. One bed room villa at The Naka is the shape of matchbox manifolds with the glass encased bedroom cantilevering out from the wood and steel framed living and bathroom. Private pool juts out to the side with sun deck doubling as the entry corridor. All this creates an architectural feat in the world of countlessly over-done pool villas. Two bedroom villas are the shape of matchboxes stacked in two or three levels. The three level makes extra room for living and kitchenette in the middle with two bedrooms on top and bottom. 


What adds to the intrigue of these minimal, modernist structures is the abundant natural elements blended in. Unobstructed views of Patong bay, rocky sand banks fronting the communal infinity pool and the lush green you’d expect from the hills of Kamala. But it not just raw nature that blends itself into the modernist villas: it is the natural materials incorporated into design. Perhaps it is the inexperienced local contractors who underappreciated the harsh Phuket elements in the vast sprawling hotel such as this – natural teak with light maroon patina is ageing rapidly yet masterfully. Teak flooring in the villas are rising and creaking, showing signs of (thankful) lack of chemical treatment. 


All this architectural marvel isn’t without faults. In fact with almost three years on its belt for phase 1 development, the fault lines are in full display. Concrete workmanship was poor and the cracks are appearing in many places. Finishing and condition of phase 2 and 3 are even worse and they reveal the haste in completion. I hope I’ll find the right tact to raise these issues with the owner next time I meet him in Bangkok.


Travel tips – ask for villas closer to the beach. These older villas (less than three years at the time of writing) have been finished at superior workmanship and you’ll witness less missing pool tiles, mismatched replacement flooring and cracks in polished concrete facade.

The Naka Phuket a member of Design Hotels

Kathu Tambon Kathu, Amphoe Kathu, Changwat Phuket 83120 Thailand 

+66 76 337 999 

Approx. 40min south of Phuket Intl. Airport, 15min north of Patong Beach

Hoshinoya Tokyo

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Hoshinoya Tokyo exterior

What makes Tokyo a great city? That it’s a proper city. Where there’s proper crowding worthy of the superb public infrastructure, properly dressed and behaved people and the food, proper food. Hoshinoya Tokyo is the newest entry into the luxury sector in the already luxury Marunouchi banking and retail enclave. You’re kept outside the reach of this hotel unless you are a resident (read cannot enter unless on overnight guest list) which makes it a truly exclusive hotel. A properly exclusive hotel in the capitalist as well as civilised sense. But I’m unsure if its anything more than a proper luxury hotel.  Particularly if you’re Hoshinojunkie in love with Hoshino Resorts’ four other Hoshinoyas across the country which are ideal translation of the ryokan method to modernity, this ambitious city-edition, certainly new territory for Hoshino Resorts, feels coming up rather short.
Although it’s been open since early 2016, information on the hotel has been limited to official press release and company sanctioned stock photos because visitors simply aren’t allowed entry. So it was with fair dose of trepidation and anticipation that I arrived at Hoshinoya for a Y100,000 per night stay. My stay on the first day of Lunar New Year, probably one of the most crowded nights of the year for Tokyo due to the influx of North East Asian visits, that rate was higher than any other except for the Peninsula and the Aman and I simply don’t believe Hoshinoya Tokyo’s physical and service quality were on par with those super luxury alternatives.

Glass encased ensuite bathroom

Partially open Washi sliding doors

This 17-story midrise is a boutique proportion relative to the surrounding Marunouchi high rises and is landlocked in between all other fellow Mitsubishi developed office buildings. Despite the discreet signage, the Edo Komon (kimono pattern) motif metal cladding is a tell to discerning eyes that something distinct is present in this building. Azuma Architect & Associates who designed all four other Hoshinoyas are responsible for the cladding and the interior design.

Signature Hoshinoya chairs and Edo Komon motif in the background

Arrival is a novelty and somewhat disorienting affair as the doorman checks you against the guest list and scattered fellow guests squat awkwardly to remove their shoes all the while being handed over to another receptionist to escort you up to your floor. There’s no checkin (although there’s checkout and the entire 2nd floor is dedicated to that 5min activity). My fellow guests arrived after an intercontinental overnight flight and was told to wait for proper checkin time at 2pm and were driven out to the January mean streets. Rule-based Japanese service precisely applied to $1,000 per night spending guests.

Seasonal display and ikebana on ground level entry

The other experiment of Hoshinoya Tokyo is the lounge on each floor where butler service is available until 10pm. It’s an attempt at differentiated service yet I found it underwhelming as the space is neither sufficiently beautiful nor luxurious to make a memorable statement.

No ryokan would be complete without an onsen and this hotel boasts an improbable one on the 17th floor in the centre of Tokyo. It’s a minimalist haven, dimly lit and fully in black marble, and a necessary wind-down to mark the end of the hustle of Tokyo and over indulgence of great food, sake and shoju. It’s an admirable attempt considering this drilling into an onsen is known to add at minimum $1Mn to the construction budget.

One of many stone installations, this on restaurant floor

As I recount my two nights at Hoshino Resorts’ daring attempt at city centre ryokan, I wonder whether this hotel can stand shoulder to shoulder with the Peninsula and Aman. It certainly upholds Japanese formula in design and service, in the traditional sense. But can it achieve international acceptance from the savvy travellers, beyond the ‘Japonnisme’ fandom? For those uninitiated in everyday Japanese quality and sophistication, Hoshinoya Tokyo packs a dose of cultural punch but it lacks a certain differentiated quality in its interpretation of ryokan method into the modern day city centre.

Hoshinoya Tokyo (http://hoshinoyatokyo.com/en/)

Japan,Tokyo,Chiyoda, 100-0004, Otemachi 1 Chome, 9-1

+81 50 3786 1144

Satoyama Jujo

Hush conversations overheard through washi paper sliding doors, modest splashes of neighboring bather’s bucket water and faint simmering of freshly cooked rice as it reaches ‘niebana (flavourful al dente)’… all perfectly in tune with the rolling hills of Niigata landscape, disciplined attention to service and gentle yet confident design at Satoyama Jujo describe my two night stay at the modern luxury ryokan.

This new ryokan in Osawa onsen comes fully stocked with well behaved elderly guests in modern cool garb marvelling at inhouse artwork and occasional young families drawn to the region’s rugged landscape (and ski slopes in the winter). The property is one  of Design Hotels’ latest outpost in Japan and it deserves the mark of that design authority.

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Early morning clouds blanket the Osawa village in Minamiuonuma, Niigata

The site comprises two buildings, the main heritage structure and the new, smart and economically developed, extension.  Reception and dining space is in the century old house made entirely of timber with traditional pegs and joints. Dark timber columns, massive beams and wide parquet floors set the somber and rich dark tones in a typically Japanese tranquil atmosphere.  As you enter the the annex where 12 guest rooms and onsen are in, hinoki stairs and walls accented by brighter lighting invites and modern artworks with traditional motifs draw attention. And the owner Isawa-san’s chairs, mostly mid-century modern danish with occasional, bolder placements of Arne Jacobsens accentuates.


I spent the first night in Room 303, collaboration with the Tokyo purveyor of relaxed casual wear 1LDK and the second night in 301 with sweeping views of Hakkaisan (八海山, eight wave mountains).

All rooms are twin bedded with modern fittings like sofas, chez lounge and shower.   Each day onsen water is filled in the ensuite (actually in the balcony) traditional bath. I was here in early November when the mountain region temperature falls so opted instead for the public onsen bath on the second floor.


Probably the most intense hours in the otherwise lull of my stay was dinner.  Each evening, modern twist to traditional kaiseki (course menu) is served at Sanaburi dining room with a focus on locally grown vegetables and foraged leaves, nuts and mushrooms. ‘Sanaburi’ is the communal feast shared among the village-folk after rice planting and signifies the wealth of Mother Nature presented on the plates.

My ten-course kaiseki more than showed off the bountiful produce of Niigata inside a 2-hour, slow-burning nevertheless a culinary assault. My favourite was soba soup with wild mushrooms, deeply savoury and rich, and Buri (amberjack) shabu shabu.  Of course you cannot not dwell on rice and sake in a Niigata meal, in many ways the centerpiece rather than accompaniment. Koshihikari(コシヒカリ, particularly esteemed rice varietal) was cooked on my table complete with ‘how to cook Gochisou-gohan’ instruction guide. This being early November, I was being served new rice just harvested a few weeks back and probably polished days ago.

There were two tasting flights, one high-grade Niigata sakes and the other more local Osawa varieties. I tried both on each night with additional orders of daiginjo for the ginjo variety which was served. The Osawa variety include the renown Hakkaisan (jumaishu and daiginjo) both with incredible nose with deeper straw hues for junmaishu and crystal clarity for daiginjo.


As I leave the professional and friendly staff of Satoyama-Jujo behind (almost all of service staff speaks impeccable English, a rarity in countryside accommodations) and head to the nearest Shinkansen station, I mark my calendar for the next Niigata visit.

Short excursions –

Days are short but sun rises early in this mountain region so after an early morning bath in onsen go for a walk to the neighbouring village when the air is crisp and clear. About an hour’s lazy walk round trip.

If you get friendly with staff and they’re unoccupied enough to accompany you, ask for a short drive to the ski chairlift peak with viewing point into the Minamiuonuma valley and Hakkaisan in the backdrop.

Satoyama Jujo (www.designhotels.com/hotels/japan/minami-uonuma-city/satoyama-jujo)

Nezu Museum and garden in Minami Aoyama

Nezu Museum sits on 20,000 sq.m. of sprawling site in Minami Aoyama and is home to Nezu Kaichiro’s collection of premodern Japanese and East Asian art. Nezu Kaichiro known as Railway King whose career included being president of the Tōbu Railway started his collection with tea ceremony artifacts and expanded into paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquerware and archeological treasures.

This private museum is the perfect kick-off for the walking tour of Minami Aoyama, neighborhood of star architect retail shops, Italian furniture showrooms and cafes of all shape and form.  Indeed the site is across the road from Miele showroom and doors down from B&B Italia and Flexform.  It also just a few steps south of Blue Note for a quick swing-by with the 630pm gig if you’re starting the evening early.

Main museum building was designed by Kengo Kuma of Suntory Museum of Art (Tokyo) and LVMH Japan headquarters fame.  The approach into the museum from the main road follows a cantilever covered corridor with bamboo fence on the roadside and timber wall on the other.

bamboo fence and walkway into museum entrance creates complete enclosure from the main road

The big, minimal Kuma signature roof line dominates the museum. Kuma’s roofs are abstractions of traditional Japanese architecture, overhanging eaves shelter and shade from the exterior while creating a vast and lofty interior space freeing up imagination for function. Indoor ceiling is clad with long wood panels creating a sense of warmth and protection under the huge roof.

Big, minimal roof is a Kuma signature


Museum is surrounded by Japanese garden and duck ponds rich with trees and plants designed to reflect the four seasons. Lush bamboo groves boast its resilience in the coldest months keeping the garden green in all seasons.  Four tea houses are dotted around the grounds are named and labelled on garden maps but not allowed entry.


Small museum shop packs in more quality object d’art than any of its peers from paper cards of all ingenious designs and shapes, traditional ceramics and lacquerware, furoshiki (traditional wrapping fabric) and of course coffee table books.  Museum is worth the visit just for gift shopping.  Just at the entrance of the garden is a glass encased, light and airy cafe (NEZUCAFE) serving Japanese style western meals (read pastry, salad and pasta).

Nezu Museum  6-5-1 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062

Tue through Sun 10am – 5pm

NezuCafe last order 415pm