Hotels & Resorts

The Founder of Aman Has Launched a New Brand That Reinvents the Ryokan

At 88 years old, Adrian Zecha shows no sign of stepping back from his role as a hotel industry innovator. We meet the man behind Aman, Azerai, and now Azumi—a new brand that takes the traditional Japanese ryokan to the next level.

A traditional garden among the guest rooms at Azumi Setoda. Photo by Tomohiro Sakashita/Courtesy of Azumi

By Pico Iyer

Jul 13, 2021

ON FEBRUARY 26, Adrian Zecha, the Indonesian visionary who founded Aman Resorts, turned 88. Three days later, he opened the first property of a new brand, Azumi, on the little-known island of Ikuchijima, in Japan’s Inland Sea. Yet when I enjoyed a virtual chat with him, later that same week, from my home in Nara, Japan, I was greeted by a chuckling man in a short-sleeved white shirt, alone in his office, who seemed to have all the time in the world. “This is my modest boardroom,” he explained, referring to the spotless blond-wood conference table at the head of which he sat; behind him, through a window, I could see tropical ferns, red roofs, and the blue-glass towers of Singapore.

I could still remember, as I told him, the day the brochure for the first Aman property arrived in my mailbox 34 years ago. I was already a regular guest at the chain of airy, uncluttered Regent International Hotels Zecha partly owned, but Amanpuri—a minimalist, open-walled vision of private villas on an empty beach—was like nothing any traveler had seen. As Zecha reminded me, “We opened on December 15, 1987, and it was amazing, because Phuket was totally remote!” Guests had to board a six-passenger plane in Bangkok to get there, and the runway on the island was grass. Thus was born the model for a new kind of luxury in which the fortunate could fly to some undiscovered location and feel as if they were staying at a friend’s cool, unhurried country house.

Aman properties are in many ways exquisite international versions of ryokan, the traditional inns. So it only makes sense that Zecha has now, with two Japanese partners, turned a 140-year-old merchant’s house into a fresh, though classic, take on the format. On this sleepy, lemon-growing island of nearly 9,000 people, the flagship of his new brand, Azumi—named for an ancient seafaring tribe—consists of just 22 rooms, plus a traditional bathhouse across the street.

“I arrived in Japan in September 1956,” Zecha told me—he was a 23-year-old correspondent for Time magazine—and “I loved it. It’s my favorite country.” He relishes the fact that a Japanese inn is “always run by the family” and offers the intimacy and warmth of a homestay.

The minute I stepped into Azumi Setoda, three weeks after our talk, I caught many of the grace notes the world has come to associate with Zecha’s understated luxe. In the high-roofed, timbered old mansion that is now a gleamingly reborn villa, he and his Japanese partners have created a light-filled dream of shoji screens and cypress wood.

Chairs look out onto a garden with a cherry tree for spring blossoms and a maple for autumn foliage. Tables in the open dining area beckon with impeccable asymmetry, and even a hand-sanitizer station is a high-tech, blond-wood pillar. In the middle is a near-empty glass pavilion ideal for doing nothing.

Photo by Max Houtzager (2)

“You need those moments when you can feel the scent, the wind—when you basically can experience a void in your mind,” explained Yuta Oka, the relaxed 35-year-old who is one of Zecha’s partners, as he showed me around the pavilion I came to think of as a 21st-century teahouse. Azumi, he stressed, is not just about “hotel building” but about “town building—putting a local place on the global map.”

Seated in one of the property’s many contemplative corners, I watched the sun glint off the high cedar fences while the shadows of lanterns deepened a rich indigo cloth at the woody entrance: a constant play of light and shade put together by the Kyoto architect Shiro Miura.

Just across the tiny lane of mom-and-pop stores, mostly selling lemons, another cool structure called Yubune offers an annex of sorts, and contains some modest guest rooms and an old-style neighborhood bathhouse inside a sleek new shell. A few steps away are two cafés that offer views of the water, where slow-moving boats drift toward nearby islands.

In life, as in his properties, I came to realize, Zecha’s signature is a rich awareness of international taste spiced with a commitment to the deeply local. He was born in Indonesia, to a partly Chinese and partly Czech family, and his father was said to have been the first native-born Indonesian to graduate from an American university when he did so in 1923 (Zecha himself got a master’s in political science from Columbia).

In 1960, after four years with Time, the 27-year-old launched his own magazine, Asia, which was distributed with newspapers in 14 countries across the continent—much as he’d seen Parade slipped into Sunday papers in the United States. In those days, he reminded me, an educated Thai might recognize an allusion to Shakespeare but know little of Myanmar. “There was no connection,” he said. So he worked at stitching together the people of Asia’s often newly independent nations with a magazine about culture. (As we spoke, he casually reeled off the population figures for each of the 10 nations in Southeast Asia.)

Yet for all his precision, I’ve seldom encountered a CEO who seems less corporate or business-minded. Zecha referred casually during our talk to people he’d known—President Sukarno of Indonesia, Bill Marriott of the American hotel chain—but his command of the global seems to have deepened his sense of what is unique to Asia. Take Zecha creations like the Setai in Miami or the Chedi Muscat in Oman: the names alone evoke a sense of delicacy, even of mystery, not so easily found in the words “Sheraton” or “Westin.”

Zecha also maintains a long-term sense of history. When people ask him about a “new normal” after the Covid-19 lockdown, he says, “‘New normal’? You mean people are going to forget how they lived well, what they enjoyed, where they ate, just a year ago? I doubt it.” We’ve had viruses before, he pointed out; indomitable as ever, he opened a new Vietnam property for his Azerai brand last November.

Again and again, as we spoke, Zecha leaned forward in his enthusiasm; four times he used the word “fantastic.” How does he keep such energy alive? “I love what I do!” came the unhesitant answer. “I can’t imagine that, no matter how old you are, if you love what you do, you would decide to give it up. And do what? Sit down and stare into space? No! Obviously you will continue to do what you enjoy doing!”

Eighty-eight, as it happens, is a highly auspicious age in Japan, as well as, of course for the Chinese. And true to the luck the scrupulously humble Zecha kept referring to, last fall he chanced to read in a newspaper that he could visit Japan for three days without having to quarantine. In November, he jumped on a plane to oversee the final details of the “first one in my new family.” Then he spent the rest of his allotted 72 hours scouting locations for a second property. Simplicity and elegance, he might be telling us, are two graces that never grow old.; doubles from US$671.

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