Jun 4, 2019
On the way to Nagano and far from the metropolis that is Tokyo, there’s a new address that’s meant to stir your creative juices. At the very least, it will calm your day.
Story and photographs by Christopher Kucway.
There are few things more Japanese than a long, hot soak in a bath, especially one with a forest view. Entering my modest guestroom at Shishi-Iwa House, that became my immediate goal on a two-day stay. The snaking, 10-room design gem about 80 minutes by Shinkansen from Tokyo Station is a place full of unforgettable angles— on a blueprint, there are 38 grid lines along the length of the house—and that view of a forest just starting to bud its way into the Japanese spring was one. It’s a long way from Ginza.
My room was compact by most standards, and while I had arrived armed with the idea of not spending too much time there—I would make an exception for the bath—the intriguing wood design more than overcomes any space limitations. Shishi-Iwa has three sections of three or four guest rooms, and I was staying in one of two rooms a floor above a common area with a compact kitchen and living room. From here, there is access to the curvilinear exterior of the building aside a small forest, and in the opposing direction to an area accessible from every part of the house. It’s this sweep of a room where guests are expected to mingle around the fireplace or the one-piece wood table, facing retractable glass walls with views out to a small Japanese forest.
Yet, these are merely the nuts and bolts, and tell little of the thought that has gone into Shishi-Iwa House’s design by innovative architect Shigeru Ban.
Five years ago, Huy Hoang—a well-traveled investment banker by day, a bookish art and food junkie by night—came up with the idea of an architectural retreat in Japan. In his mind’s eye, he had the art and hospitality ideals down, but needed someone strong on the development side of things. Enter engineering partner Philip Wang. Together, their plan was to involve someone who could bring a strong design element to their idea; a blueprint for something rarely seen before. With a Pritzker Prize under his belt and bringing Japanese sensibility to the project, Shigeru Ban took on the overall design.
Wait, stop right there. Before you get the wrong idea, Shishi-Iwa is not a ryokan, in fact, it’s not meant to be Japanese at all aside from the fact that it is located in the country. Nor is it meant to be a hotel in the usual sense of the word. More than half of its space consists of public areas for guests to mingle, explains Hoang, which is definitely not something that any hotel moneyman who, guided solely in terms of revenue per available room, would ever consider. Instead, the idea is for guests to experience a house created by a top architect, an address available to everyone; high design, yes, but also relatable. And it’s not a template for other projects even though, Hoang hints, there are some in the works. Instead, the design intends to have a soothing effect, one meant to inspire creativity. Simplicity is key but everything is in place for a reason. The linens and amenities are chosen both because they fit the narrative and they’re some of the best from around the world. Says Hoang: “You have to design something that is iconic, something that is truly you.”
Looking back, Grant Suzuki, the director at Shigeru Ban Architects who oversaw the project, smiles when he thinks of the blank-slate beginnings, a job without a site, one lacking in any plans—definitely not a corporate undertaking. Nearing the end of 2015, with two options, Ban recommended this location over one deeper in the mountains outside the resort town of Karuizawa. Now that all is said and done, slightly off-putting is that the front door pretty much spills out onto a two-lane road. Yet Hoang argues the landscape, both natural and man-made, counters that road, offering different looks throughout the year.
With the location chosen, the next step was to maneuver around the setting, changing as little as possible. That resulted in the serpentine nature of the structure as it winds its way around existing trees. Less noticeable to the casual eye is the undulating roof that starts off at a sharp acute angle at the entrance that slowly becomes less pronounced along the length of the house. Ban kept at the idea of shrinking the building, making it sit on the earth. Western and Japanese cedar, humble building materials, are used throughout to exude warmth and blend into the natural environment. Like an oversized puzzle, prefab timber frames were transported to the site and then assembled, conserving as much of the natural foliage as possible. Now, the evergreens, cherry trees and Japanese maples number more than 250—a palette of a small forest that changes with the seasons.
On arrival, guests enter the Library, which acts as the reception area—remember, this is a house not a hotel—a high-ceiling room lined with books along a second-level walkway, and with a hidden wet bar on ground level stocked with local craft wine, whisky, sake and beer. From there to the guestrooms, it’s out a side door for a winding stroll along a heated sidewalk.
Rooms are designed to give a sense of relaxation and restore energy, so the initial guest list consists of creative types but it’s easy to see the appeal extends to anyone looking to recharge. My room has a beyond-comfortable queen-sized bed; and a writing desk, compact outdoor deck for two and that bath, each with a tree-lined view. The only splash of color is a vibrant rug stitched together from old Iranian saddlebags. I’m surprised to see exposed nails in my room. Suzuki explains: “It shows the true nature of the structure, there are no additional surfaces.”
Over Ban’s initial sketches, Suzuki takes me through the design process: “The hotel he wanted to create is supposed to feel like a cottage, somewhere guests can interact with each other.” As much as I love working at the desk in my room, the overall design does propel me to the Grand Room and, once the spring rain ends, outside. Every corner of the house is comfortable—I find myself testing chairs and sofas to prove the point.
In an architectural mindset, Shishi-Iwa House is divided into a hierarchy of spaces. Each has its own level of privacy, from individual rooms all the way to the outdoors. “At any given moment, this could be an outdoor space,” Suzuki tells me. The connect between indoor and out, that flexible use of space, is very much a Japanese ideal. Each of the three living rooms flow into the common Grand Room, which in turn can open up to an expansive outdoor deck as can the Library next to it— connecting humans with both nature and the architecture. The public areas are meant to be just that; spaces where guests can mingle with each other and take in the design of the building.
Even views out the long narrow windows aren’t meant as a peek into the outdoors; it’s more that the scenes on either side of the walls are merging into one. A short hike away is Sengataki Falls yet, from indoors, the greenery often looks like art. There’s plenty of original artwork chosen by Hoang, including a vivid acrylic by Günther FÖrg in the Library, a Hiroshi Sugimoto print in the Grand Room and several works in oil by Masaka Yamada. If these names don’t register, they will by the time you check out.
Ban was responsible for the interior design, which explains the presence of his own chairs made from cardboard tubes—surprisingly comfortable to sit on for any length of time—alongside several armchairs that are the creation of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The towels and robes are by Ploh, and bathroom amenities are biodegradable products from Germany’s Stop The Water While Using Me!
Central to the Grand Room is a fireplace, perfect for an area meant to gather minds. There’s also a catering kitchen just off to one side—local roasts from Karuizawa Coffee Co. are always available— where guest chefs prepare pre-planned meals. My first night, we ventured into town, to Musaian Ikeda for a French-Japanese meal that included a wonderful pâté and some Japanese root vegetables; the following evening, the husband-and-wife team from MoriQ put together a dinner to linger over at Shishi-Iwa using local, seasonal ingredients. This was more of a traditional Japanese meal, including local Wagyu with organic vegetables, and red snapper in a cherry blossom broth that tinged the dish pink and gave it the aroma of a rainy spring day. With all that in mind, I was thinking of another visit. Next time, I’m requesting the room at the end of the building, the one with the custom-made Hinoki wooden bath that stares into the forest.
Shishiiwahouse.jp; Karuizawa, Japan; doubles from ¥40,000.