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



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

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

Road to Capella di 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.


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.

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

MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée)

MuCEM, together with the renovation of the waterfront, was supposed to be the centerpiece of Marseille’s reboot into the new century when it was named European Capital of Culture for 2013.  The historically gritty port’s moment in the sun to look up … a transformation of sorts.  The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Vieux Port next to the site of the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean.
Now that the fanfare has subsided, it seems as though the waterfront rehab has achieved little to invigorate and MuCEM not able to create the pull it was intended to.  Visiting MuCEM is a tortuous pilgrimage from beginning to end. So unintuitively discrete is the main gate, I found myself circling around the grandiose structure wanting an entry.  Experience inside the dim, low-ceilinged structure is even more wanting.


Ground level, inside the dim, low ceiling structure

As you enter the security gate and stand in the lobby, there’s no architectural or design cue that helps lead one to any particular direction – you are lost before you started. Meander in and out of bookshop, cafe and permanent exhibition space, you struggle yourself up an escalator tucked away in back corner.


Standing in the lobby with no design cue to lead one to any particular direction

Navigation doesn’t get easier as you climb the 1st and 2nd floor temporary exhibition space. Walkways that lead to abrupt corners which are dead ends with blocking tapes. Heavy glass doors with unintuitive door handles that won’t open (why does exhibition space need doors?).  Claustrophobic exhibition space adds to the confusion – stunted by low ceilings, corridors endlessly circle ensuring to tire the exhibition goers.


As unhelpful is the access and allocation of space, the most unintuitive about MuCEM is that you cannot see the Mediterranean.  Once inside this shrine for Mediterranean history and culture, you’re completely disconnected from the environs it’s supposed to define… The latticework shell encasing the concrete and glass cube prohibitively obstructs the panorama out to the ocean, corniche and Fort St.-Jean.


Litticework shell encasing the cube hinders the perspective it is supposed to define, Mediterranean

As I climb the ramps and plunge into another corner staircase which doesn’t connect to anywhere, I pause to dispel any lingering doubts that this architect’s experiment does little to add to our understanding of the history of our civilizations.

MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée)

7 Promenade Robert Laffont – 13002 Marseille

Hours 1100- 1900 (summer 2000, winter 1800), Fri until 2200 (May 2-Oct 31)

Permanent & temporary exhibition – eur 12 / concession eur 5 / family eur 15 (up to 5 children w/ 2 adults)




Star architect mania in Minami Aoyama


Minami Aoyama (South Aoyama) is the area north and south of Omotesando dori, east of Omotesando Metro station. It is an haute couture version of its neighboring Kita Aoyama (North Aoyama) and has a more relaxed and refined atmosphere. Even on Sunday afternoons crowding is less of a problem to be able to stroll around furniture shops and designer boutiques.

The neighbourhood is a pilgrimage of sort to Pritzker Prize winners competing in some extraordinary modern-design contest from Chanel’s Peter Marino-designed black and white cube to Jun Aoki’s stacked-box design for Louis Vuitton.

Around 2003-2004 the area witnessed a significant facelift with a rush of star architect mania in flagship designer shops.  Inflection point was perhaps the Prada building, just south of the Omotesando intersection in Minami Aoyama is a spectacular, six story stake of crystal bubbles by Herzog and de Meuron, built in 2003 at a cost of US$80 million.


Prada by day

Prada by night

Diagonally opposite is Miu Miu again by Herzog & de Muron covered by a huge steel flap but underneath reveals warm copper sheets. Together with Stella Maccartney sporting a cubic cantilever mesh facade made from aluminium, the two buildings weighs down the avenue with two gigantic white cubes.

One of my favourite is Toyo Ito’s Tod’s, concrete structure as surface in which overlapping tree silhouettes soars from the ground. It sits on an L shaped plot with very narrow frontage which must have been an interesting design challenge.

Obstructing half of that L shaped Toyo Ito building is Norihiko Dan’s Hugo Boss store.  I cannot apologize more for this Babel tower like structure with brute columns surrounding the facade but it is a force to be reckoned with and does reflect the pulsing energy of Omotesando.

Intersect by LEXUS is a space true to its ‘multi-purpose space’ concept which houses a cafe, bistro, LEXUS garage and retail.  A space generating so little revenue on a piece of world’s most expensive real estate could only exist for LEXUS in Tokyo… The glass box lined with wooden mesh wire is designed by Wonderwall, an interior design firm of Masamichi Katayama.