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At a time when hotels are awarding themselves seven stars, and every establishment with a chill-out CD and a few bits of uncomfortable furniture is calling itself a boutique hotel, there’s one nagging question: what does luxury really mean any more? Take away the high thread-count, the chocolates on the pillow and the bathroom unguents and what are you left with? All too often a feeling of being short-changed by an impersonal experience in a hotel which could be anywhere in the world.

What if the whole thing was pared down to the basics and done exceptionally well: a supremely comfortable bed, spa-quality bathroom, locally sourced food and attentive, tip-free service? No piped music, no ridiculously formal outfits on the doormen (in fact, no doormen at all) and, above all, a strong sense of place. Such hotels do exist, but you’ll have to go to Japan, one of the least-visited countries in Asia, to find them.

It’s something of a mystery why, but Japanese inns, or ryokan, never make an appearance on any of the “Best Hotel” lists run by “international” travel magazines – although perhaps this is a good thing. Murata, Tawaraya, Kuramure, Gajoen and Wanosato – to name but a few inns – are all standard bearers for proper luxury (and not in a four poster kind of way), which should rank among the best hotels in the world, but they are almost unknown outside Japan.

These top ryokan each have only a handful of rooms; they are expensive, as much as €450 a night per person, but there’s no shortage of takers. Try to get a weekend booking at somewhere like Murata and you could be looking at a wait of several months. They offer an ultra-Japanese experience of the kind that even few Japanese have access to these days – a world of traditional buildings, exquisite gardens, cedar baths, kimono-clad staff and intricate kaiseki cooking. Walking through the doors of the 300-year-old Tawaraya in Kyoto (probably the only ryokan to have an international reputation) is like taking a step back in time. It’s a wabi-sabi dream – all wooden floors, soft lanterns, hinoki tubs and perfectly presented simplicity. This is a new definition of luxury; it’s the Japan visitors are hoping to find and it’s been sampled by an array of Japanophiles from European royalty to Amanresorts founder Adrien Zecha.

These days, there are variations on the ryokan theme, inns that have taken the old format and reworked it, easing up on the formality which some love and others find too constricting.Murata, for example, which is in the small onsen (hot spring) town of Yufuin in Kyushu is an elegant blend of old and new, combining traditional farmhouse architecture with a sprinkling of modern furniture, and even the odd western bed. Kuramure, in the Russian-influenced port town of Otaru in Hokkaido, is housed in new warehouse-style buildings that were designed by a local architect Makoto Nakayama; the owners of Gajoen, a popular inn in Kagoshima, have now opened Tenku No Mori, an exclusive modern Japanese haven that has only three private villas, each with their own outdoor baths and unsurpassed views over the Kirishima mountains. Gora Kadan in Hakone National Park is a favourite with Tokyo’s expat banking set. It offers a enticing blend of traditional food, discreet service and hot spring bathing with a western-style spa and swimming pool.

New places are combining matchless Japanese service with a more relaxed style. Meal times are more flexible, there might even be a bar and lounge area (unheard of in traditional places), or private baths. One of the best examples of a contemporary ryokan is the Fujiya, a recently remodelled 350-year-old inn in historic Ginzan 0nsen, a hot-spring town in mountainous Yamagata.

Atsushi Fuji, the Fujiya’s seventh generation family owner, runs the inn with his wife Jeanie, who is something of a celebrity, since she’s the only American okami (innkeeper) in Japan. They married in 1991 and moved into the Fujiya with Atsushi’s parents.

“It was hard work,” says Jeanie. “I was working from 6am until 11pm but it was a good training. This kind of job can’t be taught.” These days she speaks fluent Japanese, wears a kimono, does ikebana (flower arranging) and spends two hours a week studying with a master of tea ceremony. After she’d been working at the inn for six years, Jeanie’s parents in-law retired and she and Atsushi took over. They decided it was time to renovate. “Before, we were the typical inn. We took any type of guest – one person or groups of 40 at ¥10,000 [€60 per person] a night.”

“When people caught wind of the work we were doing they assumed that we were going to expand,” she says. “But actually, we wanted to downsize and upgrade. We got rid of the banqueting room and the karaoke machines. We reduced the number of rooms from 12 to eight. We went from a hotel that could sleep 55 to one that sleeps 21, and we hired more staff.” They also upped their prices, which now start at ¥34,800 (€200) per person. They took on a new chef and local staff, who wear simple pyjamas and have a low-key style which isn’t quite as overbearing as some of the servers or nakai-san in traditional ryokan. Meal times are flexible and check-out is 11am – late by ryokan standards.

Before they embarked on the renovation, the Fujis toured Japan visiting the best ryokan and hotels in search of good ideas. “We loved the private baths at Ginrinso in Hokkaido [a famous inn housed in the home of a herring magnate that was moved to its current site in 1939 and renovated in the 1980s] and the big entrance hall at the Nara Hotel [a famous western-style Meiji-era hotel].” They closed the inn for 18 months and entrusted the architectural work to Kengo Kuma, one of Japan’s top architects.

If the word “remodelled” brings a chill to the heart of purists, Jeanie, who loves Japan’s later 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, felt the same way.“I was concerned that Kuma’s building should fit in with the rest of the town,” she says. Kuma’s spectacular renovation was radical but it complements the traditional buildings around it perfectly. He gutted the interior of the tired 80-year-old building (which was built by Atsushi’s great-grandfather) and effectively rebuilt it from scratch, opening up the space and exposing the beams.

“When [I was] designing the Fujiya Inn, I developed the concept of layers, both in time and space,” says Kuma in his characteristically elliptical, poetic way. “I devised a layered effect in the architecture by using fine filters.” The dramatic entrance area is dominated by a soaring sumishiko screen made of 30,000 bamboo poles from Oita that were carefully divided into 1.2 million strips and assembled by master craftsman Hideo Nakata and his son.

A wall of pale-green glass that runs the whole length of the entrance was designed by Masato Shida, a stained-glass expert; each pane was hand-blown at the 700-year-old Saint-Gobain workshops in France. “Atsushi pretty much gave Kuma-sensei (teacher) a blank cheque,” says Jeanie. Walls were covered with a handmade Japanese paper called Echizen (from the eponymous manufacturing town), which has a creamy colour and an uneven texture. For the floors, Kuma used stone, light elm and soft tatami in the bedrooms. There are no overhead lights – and definitely none of the fluorescent lights that plague Japan – no handles on any of the cupboards, no knick-knacks, and minimal furniture cluttering the environment. Everything is hidden. There is none of the clutter that is familiar to anyone who has seen a real Japanese home.

“Most Japanese houses are packed full of stuff, but when you go on vacation you want to get away from daily life” says Jeanie. “That’s what this is – an escape.”
The eight bedrooms are spacious and empty, even by ryokan standards, but beautifully so; the larger rooms have open cedar baths and rain showers. The walls are bare and the only furniture is a low table and Kuma’s own Zen chairs, which are delicate slivers of plywood. The bed is made up at night – a firm futon with a soft quilt and linen-rich sheets and cover. It’s almost impossible not to have a good night’s sleep here. All the rooms have cordless Sony televisions – an inspired idea – which are placed discreetly in a cupboard along with the requisite kettle and green tea.

“When I look at the inn, I can see that studying the tea ceremony has had a huge impact,” says Jeanie. I didn’t want a TV in the room; I didn’t want a tokonoma [alcove] with things in it. If you go to a tea ceremony there’s nothing there. You bring things out as you need them and put them away once you’re done.”

There are five private hot-spring baths filled with constantly flowing mineral-rich water. Each has a different look – one is cedar, another is bamboo, another stone. One of the cedar baths can be opened to the outdoors making it perfect for a morning dip. Guests rarely want to step outside once they’re in the Fujiya, preferring to pad around the inn in split-toed socks and cotton yukata (robes).

Meals are served in the room, or if guests prefer, in the atmospheric entrance hall. Chef Sanpei uses regional ingredients serving up dishes such as salmon cooked in miso and milky tofu and locally gathered mountain ferns. Jeanie greets every customer – one of the innkeeper’s traditional roles – and writes thank you notes to them after they leave.

“What Japanese customers want these days,” she says “is something oshare [stylish] with good food and nice scenery. I love the old buildings in their traditional dark wood, but they don’t have all the conveniences that people require in modern life. Initially, I did have reservations about the price, but not any more. People say that just being here makes them feel good.”

One of the best things about the ryokan experience – which may be just as well given the price – is that it’s so intense that you won’t need to stay very long. You can have a week’s holiday rolled into one long, refreshing night.

+81 237 282 141, www.fujiya-ginzan.com

Ryokan style

Ryokan etiquette can take some getting used to, particularly for people used to what passes for luxury in western chains. It isa long way from the mini-bar and Corby trouser press hotel experience. One of the pleasures of a ryokan is leaving shoes at the door, removing everyday clothes and changing into the house yukata, or starched cotton robe. There’s almost no furniture in the room; not even a bed. There will probably be a low table and a couple of floor chairs; maybe a vase and a scroll hanging in an alcove, but that’s it.

Dinner is usually served in the room, in a succession of complicated courses, after which staff clear the dishes and make the bed – quite literally – by whipping out a futon mattress, laying it out on the tatami mats and shrouding it in crisp sheets and a quilt. You might find yourself tucked up in bed by 9pm. Inside the ryokan there’s happily little to do except bathe – often in baths filled with hot spring water – and eat.

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