Tsingpu Retreat – The Walled, Yangzhou

Tsingpu_Yangzhou_Retreat__photo_by_Pedro_Pegenaute_08
Sun sets and the contours of this what can only be described as a horizontal modernist compound come into life.  Architectural up-lights draw lines 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 into 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.  Dining hall lacks excitement and warmth necessary in entertaining, which in essence what contemporary dining is.
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. I’ve tasted similar in Hangzhou, uncharacteristically bland yet, quite simply, tasty. Strips of pork neck and assorted mushrooms pack in flavour while celery and diced chives adds crunch.  Head of jelly fish .. also crunchy yet the mound 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 is 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

banner trunk

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.

trunkhotel face

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.

Kushi

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.

STORE2

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).

Poet Sofa-21

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.

Nyhavn-Dining-Table-2

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

Cap_vitaleta

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