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.
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.
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.
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. 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.