To stub one’s big toe is human; to break it on a step carved from the wood of a 300-year-old cypress tree is divine. To do so under the unwavering gaze of the half-a-dozen or so staff who discreetly line the welcoming genkan entryway and the tatami softened hallways at Hoshinoya Tokyo – seemingly around the clock, but never intrusively – feels altogether tragicomic.
Few things will pierce the reverent hush of a hotel lobby than the wail of a wearisome Australian tourist colliding toe-first with a slab of cypress while making a desperate beeline for the facilities. But, as is customary prior, it’s off with your shoes so that the threshold – of pain, of sound, of this towering ryokan in the middle of Tokyo’s Otemachi financial district – can be crossed and another world can be entered into, hobbling, at any given moment tearing up from either from the pain or the beauty of your surroundings, often both at once.
Igusa tatami is soft underfoot; yielding gently to the press of feet clad in Tabi socks (the traditional ankle-high sock defined by its compartments designed to separate your throbbing big toe from its neighbours). Upon arrival at the hotel, shoes must by necessity be left at the door in keeping with the ancient practices of a traditional ryokan, the name given to the simple, elegant inns affixed to onsen, or natural hot spring baths. Ryokan are a cornerstone tenet of Japanese omotenashi, a culture of unrivalled hospitality; onsen itself a practice so steeped in tradition that it has remained largely unchanged for centuries. After all, when it comes to the matter of bathing, there’s little by way of room to experiment with the recipe. Ritual is an ingredient as important to the practice as the minerals in the water: scrub well beforehand; tattoos, and their nefarious connotations with the Tokyo underworld, aren’t welcome; onsen is not a co-ed activity; and yes, you must take to the waters wearing nothing more than what you entered into the world with. Like the warm oshibori towels that greet you at the outset of every meal, a tenugui, or washcloth, is permitted if your privacy is paramount, but otherwise there’s no skirting around the naked truth of this elemental act. Don’t stare, and don’t for a second entertain the notion of preserving the moment for posterity’s sake on your phone.
You are, after all, supposed to feel at home from the moment you arrive at the ryokan, beginning from the second you doff your shoes and watch as they’re placed into one of 84-latticed chestnut lockers that tower, almost six metres in height, over the entry hall. The practice performs a twofold function. It’s as much a formality as it is an initiation ceremony: one cannot enter into a ryokan unless invited by one’s host. The gesture is a small but profound one – the kind that punctuates every interaction, every surface and every exquisite mouthful at this singular reinterpretation of the traditional ryokan.
Hoshinoya Tokyo is the fifth instalment in a storied fourth-generation family run omotenashi dynasty that began in 1904 as a forestry business and, as recently as January this year, made its maiden voyage overseas to Bali, where it opened its first international outpost of 30 thatch-roofed, multi-floor villas in Ubud. Hoshino Resorts CEO, the bespectacled Yoshiharu Hoshino, himself an obsessive skier, inherited a mountainside ryokan in Karuizawa from his father in 1991 before commencing a 13-year refinancing and redevelopment of the property. During a recent visit to Sydney, Hoshino remarked that his was the only company in Japan willing to develop the country’s remote areas – and not just Tokyo – during a period of economic decline at the turn of the century. The property in Karuizawa, which reopened in 2005, proved to be so popular that establishments in Kyoto, Okinawa and Fuji soon followed, before the company turned its attention to Tokyo. It’s an investment that has, evidently, paid dividends.
That approach – slow and steady, privileging local geography, customs and culture – evinces itself throughout the Tokyo property in ways that are both remarkable and unassuming. A façade of metal latticework wrought into the Edo Komon, or repeating, patterns of traditional kimonos is intended to veil the building from the prying eyes of its harried neighbours in Otemachi, once the site of Edo-period bushi (or samurai) mansions conveniently neighbouring the Imperial Palace nearby. Only on closer inspection is its ornate floral design thrown into sharp relief. Beneath, shoji paper screens, handmade in the Niigata prefecture, provide a liminal shield to the sun-drenched rooms within (the doubling effect of being shielded by both is, admittedly, a discombobulating one). There are two types: Yuri or Sakura rooms comfortably sleep two; Kiku, or corner suites, could happily house a family of three. Both are generous, though it’s to a Kiku that I could happily resign myself to a life of asceticism, an array of charmingly misshapen wabi-sabi ceramics my only companions.
That the building is able to accommodate 84 rooms, and a common ochanoma lounge area on each floor, feels like something of a deft sleight of the architect’s hand. Though the hotel was near capacity during my stay, I scarcely heard, let alone saw, any of the other guests. It’s an experience of solitude that felt at once both unnerving and, strangely enough, like being submerged in warm water – an unexpectedly blissful respite from the nearby din, lulling you into a Zen state wherein you’re only vaguely conscious of the unerring cosmopolis outside the hotel’s walls. After two years of construction helmed by Rie Azuma of Azuma Architects & Associates, the hotel opened mid last year, a stylish bento box begging to be unpacked. All the furniture within shares a similar architectural sensibility; the curvilinear cypress armchairs, for example, have been lowered in an effort to ground one’s centre of gravity and bring you, quite literally, closer to the foundations of a style of ancient Japanese culture that today would be unfamiliar to the young cosmopolitan Tokyoites outside.
The elevator chime mimics the sound of hyoushigi: a soft percussive clap issued twice that ordinarily signals the beginning and end of kabuki. It’s an exciting sound, a definitive one, I’m told. It’s the sound of new beginnings.
You’ll hear the hyoushigi again on descending to a subterranean cavern beneath the hotel where, hidden at the ends of labyrinthine passageways, six private tatami-matted dining rooms with traditional floor-level tables await. In the basement restaurant, as in the hotel above, silence is golden. A monumental rock garden sets the tone on arrival; walls plastered in a manner that emulates the excavated topography of the world above are carved out with discrete nooks to showcase exquisite sculptures of ornate gold, metal and lacquer. They’re an apt precursor to a meal, prepared by executive chef Noriyuki Hamada, which with each successive course becomes more and more analogous to a work of art.
Hamada, wearing a gently sloping mohawk, describes his style of location-specific Nippon cuisine in hushed tones, and shares a fishmonger with Tetsuya Wakuda. The chef’s astonishing menu belies his classical French training, and yet is profoundly respectful of Japanese cuisine and its otherworldly produce. Hamada’s sole focus, he says, was to create a menu only obtainable in Japan – one that forages from its soil, rivers, sea and mountains in equal measure; one that uses nature as its teacher and talks as much to each ingredient’s seasonality as its locality, right down to the very ground that lies beneath your wearied, feebly bandaged feet.
Ayano Kawase, the restaurant’s warm and precise manager and a long-serving employee of the hotel chain who began her career at the Karuizawa property, explains that during the construction of the hotel the remnants of fossilised wooden pillars once belonging to a feudal palace were recovered from the excavation. Chef Hamada personally charged a team of artisans, friends of his, not only with layering that wood between fresh timber to produce plates and bowls for the restaurant, but to reforge the ancient nails embedded within them to create dulled spikes on which to serve dishes such as a tuille of miniscule wakasagi smelt fish cast in an earthen tempura batter.
The chef’s focus falls almost squarely on seafood. In 2013, he became the first Japanese chef to earn a bronze medal in the Bocuse d’Or, one of the world’s most prestigious biannual gastronomic competitions. One dish, the first of a nine-course tasting menu written on parchment and sealed at first with the same hair ties as those used by sumo wrestlers, is given the enigmatic name ‘Five flavours of delight’. Presented on five spheres of green onyx heated to the exact temperature of the amuse-bouches on top, each corresponding to the five flavours of the palette, it’s not only a winning introduction to the chef’s evident veneration of each and every ingredient but also an invitation to play what Kawase calls a kind of game, the rules of which are outlined according to the order of succession in a traditional five-course meal: salt, umami, bitter, sour and sweet.
Another dish, ‘Coming out’, is less concerned with its own beauty and more so with a sense of the history behind its core ingredient: half a lily bulb, cooked in butter, encased in the bulb’s husk and covered with an edible approximation of the soil that it burst forth from. Each bulb is cultivated in a pot for three years before it’s grown in the earth for a further four, after which time that plot of land has to be rested – the lily bulb having drained the soil of its power. The dish itself is made rich as much by the tableside theatre, a kind of culinary kabuki, as by its natural sweetness – its petals falling back like a pearlescent onion, the kind that on making the first cut brings you to the brink of tears.
There are few non-life threatening ailments that a hot bath can’t fix, chief among them a broken toe. A final round of applause from the elevator’s hyoushigi sound system signals your arrival on the hotel’s 17th floor where, at opposite ends of the building, the curative waters of two natural hot spring onsens await.
Each onsen has been further divided in two – one indoor and one outdoor – connected by a passageway that’s best navigated by floating on your back. Only then, once you’ve crossed that threshold, will you be greeted by the night sky in a manner befitting its splendour. Though the onsen itself is empty in the hours before it closes at midnight, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, just on the other side of the towering walls enclosing the open air space, thousands of salarymen are burning the midnight oil. Even only a matter of metres separate you, they might as well be a mile, a century or an entire world away.
Tile and cover image: Courtesy of Hoshinoya Tokyo