Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation kept taking on new meaning as I tried to plan a recent family trip to Japan. What “moon” were we arriving and departing, hotel booking sites wanted to know. Would a small room of futons work for the four of us? Or would we get more rest in sleep pods that looked like MRI chambers?
As things go curiouser and curiouser, I asked architect Kano Hirano of No. 555 to point me in the right directions in Tokyo and Kyoto. Having written about several No. 555 projects, including Kano’s own Tokyo house, I knew she’d understand what we were looking for: places that are not only reasonably well-located and -priced but thoughtfully designed.
Architects, it turns out, make great travel agents. The many inventive suggestions Kano fired off changed our trip: thanks to her we stayed at—and adored—a hotel with loft beds, an art gallery, and the right pod hotel. Back home I still turn to Kano’s list for inspiration, which is why I felt compelled to share it. Read on, whether you’re planning a trip or just a fan of Japanese invention.
N.B. Hotels are listed here in alphabetical order by city. Go to the hotel sites for rates—and note that lodgings in Japan often charge per person rather by the room.
Located on the sea in Kamakura—just under an hour south of Tokyo Station—this six-room Mom and Pop is for those looking for a quiet hideaway.
Kano describes the Claska as “an interesting mix of hotel, design showroom, gallery, and shooting space.” It’s located in upscale, untouristy Meguro and was created from a 1960s hotel—go to Hotels & Lodgings to see our feature on it from when it first opened.
(We happen to be Postalco groupies: Julie, Josh, and Alexa all carry The Backpack.)
After coming up with simple designs for every corner of the house, it made sense for the Japanese retailer to branch into hospitality. Muji’s first hotels opened in Shenzhen and Beijing. Last summer, its third debuted in Ginza, Tokyo’s most famous shopping hub.
OMO is a small, lively chain with wall maps and walking tours dedicated to sending guests to “where the locals like to go.” Its Tokyo branch is in Otsuka, conveniently across from Otsuka Station, in a “retro-Tokyo” section of the city packed with everyday shops and ramen joints.
A Day In Khaki
Kyoto is filled with machiya, historic wooden townhouses, that have been newly updated, and, in many cases, turned into guest rentals. One of the standouts is A Day in Khaki, which gets its name, owner Anne explains, because she and her design team are partial to shades of brown. A lovely, small shop on the A Day in Khaki site offers smocks, bedding, and minimalist leather slippers, all in the color of choice.
Kyomachiya Hotel is an enclave of 10 restored machiyas located in a tranquil residential area on the west side of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. It has its own restaurant, gallery, garden, and spa, Shiki-Juraku, where guests check in and come for breakfast.
Kyo no Ondokoro
Founded in Kyoto, the Wacoal corporation oversees a collection of six classic machiyas that different designers have remodeled as rentals. The reception desk for these Kyo no Ondokoro houses is at Wacoal headquarters.
Kyoto Art Hostel Kumagusuku
We had no idea we’d have a two-story gallery to ourselves when we checked in at the Kyoto Art Hostel Kumagusuku. The artist-couple owners man the front desk, making sure everyone deposits footwear in canvas totes, and supplying drinks and an exceptional breakfast toast plate on request.
The hostel is located on a side street of small houses near the Sanjo-kai Shotengai, a 150-year-old shopping arcade filled with commuters whizzing through on bikes.
“We believe that art is not only for healing and beauty, but also for rethinking daily life,” write the owners. “Spending the night in such a space may be a bit away from the comfort and convenience that is inherently required of the inn. But sometimes there is an experience that overturns the values of the viewer and shakes the heart.” Hear, hear, but be warned: the nice but communal facilities are downstairs. The stair itself is short and ladder-like and guests are asked to don different slippers upstairs and down. It was a strange but magical place to stay. On return, I immediately copied the gallery and hung tin mugs on S hooks from a towel bar next to our bathroom sink.
A midcentury concrete former apartment building, the RC has a bunker-chic look. It’s set in a quiet neighborhood of alleys, shrines, and temples 20 minutes from Kyoto Station, and offers city views from the top floor.
Honorable Mention: 9h pod hotels
There are a lot of well-priced, no-nonsense capsule options in Japan. My husband feared claustrophobia, but our kids and I convinced him we should give one a try. I had already been interested in 9h, and with Kano’s endorsement of the chain, I booked us four pods for a night in Osaka.
There are 16 locations throughout Japan, including at Narita Airport (so you can nap through your layover). Shown here is the 9h Osaka across from Shin-Osaka station. On arrival, we were each given a comfy black sleep suit (a light sweatshirt and sweatpants), slippers, and a key to a luggage locker. Men and women stay on separate floors—with separate elevators. There’s clever signage at every step. On the women’s floor, the luggage room was very tight, but we loved the washing-up area with individual sink vanities and white-tiled showers.