Distilling the charms of the traditional Japanese ryokan and elevating the experience with bespoke design were the goals of the hotelier behind The Shinmonzen.
The Shinmonzen, a new nine-suite hotel designed by Tadao Ando, sits on a quiet but characterful street peppered with antique shops in a corner of Kyoto’s Gion area. It’s an urban oasis that is close to all the action.
“The idea was to make it like a machiya townhouse,” says general manager Katrina Uy of the four-storey new build with an understated sumi-kuro charcoal-black wooden exterior. It’s a gentle addition to the neighbourhood; there is not a single sign outside except for a noren curtain-like fabric banner with the letter “S” on it. “We wanted to do it in Kyoto style: a bit exclusive, a bit secret,” says Uy.
“We wanted to do it in Kyoto style: a bit exclusive, a bit secret”
Staff welcome guests as they arrive on the platform at Kyoto station. It was ryokan-loving owner Paddy McKillen’s long-time dream to open a small hotel here. The Irish hotelier, who is co-owner of the Maybourne Hotel Group, which includes Claridge’s and The Connaught in London, is an art collector and has been a regular visitor to the area for about 20 years. When he is in Kyoto, he always stays at least one night in a traditional ryokan. “Over the years, he saw the number of shops on this street decline,” says Uy. “He wanted to represent the street so he named the hotel after it.”
McKillen’s previous projects offer some clues about the plan for The Shinmonzen. He owns the art-filled Villa la Coste in the Château la Coste winery in Provence. Though he could have put more rooms in, McKillen opted for just 28. This isn’t a cookie-cutter kind of service.
“Keeping it compact allows us to provide tailor-made hospitality to every guest,” says Uy of the round-the-clock butler service. “In a big hotel, you would have to call the reception, concierge or housekeeping. Here, one person will take care of you, with everything from steaming clothes to booking restaurants.” For those who are jet-lagged, breakfast is served 24 hours a day in the guest rooms, lounge or restaurant. Guests can ask for a walking tour personally designed to suit their tastes, a tea ceremony session and zazen meditation class at Zen temples Kennin-ji and Kodai-ji, and much more.
Every guest room has a view of the Shirakawa river, a picturesque stream flowing gently by the hotel, with a Japanese maple tree hanging over the water. “Mr Ando described the river as magical,” says Uy. “It’s shallow, slow and serene.” The shakkei (“borrowed”) scenery, which incorporates charmingly aged wooden buildings across the narrow river and mountains in the far distance, helps to set an idyllic tone.
“One person will take care of you, with everything from steaming clothes to booking restaurants”
Designed by Ando with French designer Rémi Tessier, the interior uses natural materials, from washi paper to wood (mainly oak) and marble. “Everything in the rooms is a play of light,” says Uy. The thin railing on the terrace slices sunlight into pillars of light, which enter the room softly through the shoji paper screens. In the Kinu suite, which features tatami mats and futon mattresses, the shoji behind a marble sink produces a playful contrast.
Most furniture is custom-made for the hotel, including chairs, sofas and desks designed by Toan Nguyen and Darren Chew, and bespoke coffee tables and bedheads by UK furniture-maker Longpré. The hinoki baths and carpets are handmade in Kyoto, as are the teacups from potters and antique shops around the city. McKillen’s art collection comes in handy too; pieces by the likes of Damien Hirst, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Makoto Ofune punctuate the white walls of the corridors and lounge.
The restaurant will treat guests with menus created by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. They can expect regional ingredients, in particular from the Ohara farming area in the north of the city. There is a pâtisserie shopfront that connects the hotel with the neighbourhood and doubles as a soft façade to create privacy for the restaurant and bar at the back. The Shinmonzen’s soft opening was in December, ahead of the grand opening set for April. Our advice? Book ahead. Those nine suites will fill up fast.
Plan your visit
This convivial charcoal-grill restaurant serves delicious modern dishes using regionally sourced ingredients.
A holiday in Kyoto isn’t complete without a visit to a kissaten coffee house. Tuck in to fluffy, thick white toast and sip a hand-brewed coffee. There is also a low-key whisky bar in the basement.
Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art
Built in 1933, this is the oldest public museum standing in Japan. In 2020 it underwent a renovation by architects Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa.