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Design Travel: Artful Hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto

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Design Travel: Artful Hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto

March 14, 2023

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, then of No. 555 and now of Morinoie, 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.

Tokyo

Aiaoi

Located on the sea in Kamakura—just under an hour south of Tokyo Station—Aiaoi is a six-room mom and pop ideal for those looking for a quiet hideaway.

the hotel is set on the third floor of a remodeled \1950s house. this room is c 17
Above: The hotel is set on the third floor of a remodeled 1950s house. This room is called Asa (which happens to be my son’s name). Ask to borrow pajamas: The owners’ make their own—”a design we would like to wear every day”—and keep them on hand for guests to try.
aiaoi has its own cafe where breakfast is served. it&#8\2\17;s open to the  18
Above: Aiaoi has its own cafe where breakfast is served. It’s open to the public for dinner and specializes in the local catch: “the fishermen of Sakanoshita bring the freshest seafood in a bucket directly here.”
Above: A look at the nightclothes on offer.

Muji Hotel

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; a few years back, its third debuted in Ginza, Tokyo’s most famous shopping hub.

the quarters range in size from just big enough for a twin bed to this suite. a 21
Above: The quarters range in size from just big enough for a twin bed to this suite. As you would expect, Muji Hotels showcase some of the brand’s most popular designs, including the wooden tissue dispenser and electric tea kettle. The nearest Muji store? Right downstairs.
Above L: A guest room tea drawer. Above R: The wood paneling extends into the bathrooms.
a mid size room sleeps four. 24
Above: A mid-size room sleeps four.
and a suite with comfortable reading space. 25
Above: And a suite with comfortable reading space.

OMO5

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.

we stayed at the omo5 otsuka in rooms with lounge areas tucked below eleva 26
Above: We stayed at the OMO5 Otsuka in rooms with lounge areas tucked below elevated beds that felt like indoor treehouses (in a good way). The designers used the side wall to create hanging storage (in lieu of closets) and shallow shelving that I hugely admired. We hope to return.

Trunk

&#8\2\20;trunk is the transmission point of a new style of social contribut 27
Above: “Trunk is the transmission point of a new style of social contribution called <socializing>,” explains the hotel website. Someone behind this establishment clearly put in time studying the various Ace locations. It’s conveniently located in buzzing Shibuya—and offers some room to spread out. Shown here: a generous suite.

Kyoto

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. Two standouts are A Day in Khaki, which gets its name, owner Annie explains, from the soothing palette of the city.

(P.S. Stay tuned for a full tour of the lodgings later this week.)

set in kyoto&#8\2\17;s nakagyo ward, minutes from nijo castle, the house is 28
Above: Set in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward, minutes from Nijo Castle, the house is 120 years old and was remodeled by architect Tada Masaharu.
&#8\2\20;we tried to bring our own thoughts and lots of fresh ideas to a tr 29
Above: “We tried to bring our own thoughts and lots of fresh ideas to a traditional machiya,” Annie told us. Guests rent the house, which has a courtyard garden and sleeps six. Be prepared for steep stairs.

Two of the three bedrooms have twin futons on tatami mats. Temperature Studio in Taiwan designed the robes and towels, which also appear in the Day in Khaki shop.

a second guest house is a seven minute walk from the imperial palace. 30
Above: A second guest house is a seven-minute walk from the Imperial Palace.

Kyomachiya Hotel

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 where guests check in and come for breakfast.

the houses are rented individually. go go (no. 5), which accommodates two, has  31
Above: The houses are rented individually. Go-Go (no. 5), which accommodates two, has a modern, double-height interior and a rarity in Japan: a king-size bed.
the no.5 bath with tiled shower and indoor outdoor soaking tub. 32
Above: The No.5 bath with tiled shower and indoor-outdoor soaking tub.

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.

architect yoshifumi nakamura and designer akira minagawa, creator of the popula 33
Above: Architect Yoshifumi Nakamura and designer Akira Minagawa, creator of the popular fashion and textile line Minä Perhonen, updated the 150-year-old Kamanza-Nijo house (#2), near Nijo Castle.
the house was given a &#8\2\20;garden library&#8\2\2\1;anchored by a ce 34
Above: The house was given a “garden library”anchored by a century-old inumaki tree.
the kitchen comes with a minä perhonen banquette. the house has two bedroo 35
Above: The kitchen comes with a Minä Perhonen banquette. The house has two bedrooms—two single beds and two futons—and sleeps four.

RC Hotel

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.

an ensuite room with a writing desk at the rc hotel. 36
Above: An ensuite room with a writing desk at the RC Hotel.
and a guest room with clever bedside lights. 37
Above: And a guest room with clever bedside lights.

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.

guests have \24 hours at the 9h. caveat: if you want to stay more than a night, 38
Above: Guests have 24 hours at the 9h. Caveat: If you want to stay more than a night, you have to pack up each morning and check back in later in the day. During the downtime, everything must get hosed down because all was spotless and even nice-looking.

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.

you choose a high or low sleeping pod (with lights, outlets, and privacy curtai 39
Above: You choose a high or low sleeping pod (with lights, outlets, and privacy curtains)—these are at the 9h Asakusa in Tokyo. Though just big enough for one, the berths to our surprise were enveloping rather than oppressive. As my son pointed out, “they feel like human charging stations.” We all slept exceptionally well, and the bill came to just $70.35 for the four of us. Every time I pop my wireless earbuds into their case, I think fondly of our pod night.

Note: Sadly, a favorite spot, Kyoto Art Hostel Kumagusuku, closed to overnight guests during the COVID pandemic, but it still operates as a “small art complex with 12 stores,” well worth a visit. Head to Kumagusuku for more info.

We recently featured another appealing guest house, this one in Hokkaido; take a look at “The Dedication to Making Things Well” at Shiguchi in Japan. And for more hotels (plus shop and restaurant recommendations), explore our Design Travel archive.

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on November 4, 2019, and has been updated with new guest houses and information.

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