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In a preview from The Touch—the new book from Kinfolk and Norm Architects, published by gestalten—a slow sailboat takes hotel guests downriver to a bygone world at the edge of Kyoto, one in which there are no clocks to mark the passage of time and where ancient, untouched nature obfuscates any signs of the modern city.

Gardens are planned spaces; liminal borders between the human concepts of aesthetic beauty and unbounded nature. How people apply order to nature reflects their own particular cultural learnings about control and chaos.

The Japanese garden aesthetic, in contrast to western European traditions of tightly prescribed knots, hedgerows, and geometrically shaped flower beds, is imperfect, asymmetrical, and inconstant by design. From the smallest atrium garden to the largest parks, irregularity reigns: odd numbers are always preferable to even (the number four is considered unlucky in Japanese culture), changes made by winds or rains are embraced, and any non-natural elements, like lacquered bridges or stone lanterns, are left exposed to the elements as a reminder of time’s inevitable progression.

In this context, the goal of Hoshinoya Kyoto may seem somewhat nontraditional. The resort, set within the sprawling grounds of the Arashiyama park just outside of Kyoto, is reached via a 15-minute ride on a hinoki (a traditional Japanese cedar boat), which slips quietly around the green bends of the river. It’s a vessel, and a mode of travel, that even seasoned travelers in Japan (including the Japanese them-selves) are not accustomed to seeing in this century. According to Yoshiharu Hoshino, the group’s chief executive, the hybrid hotel-ryokan (a traditional Japanese guesthouse), has been designed to disorient the guest from the concept of time rather than remind them of it. “Escape from human realms and daily concerns is what we would like our guests to experience,” Hoshino says.

  • Words:
    Stephanie d’Arc Taylor
  • Photography:
    Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

Hoshinoya Kyoto’s wooden buildings date back almost a century. In renovating them in 2009, interior designer Rie Azuma, representing her own practice Azuma Architects & Associates, preserved the structures’ facades as much as she could. This was an important mandate, given the ever-increasing rarity of a building in Japan that dates from before World War II. Viewed from above, the low-slung buildings that comprise the resort, set along the Ōi River, almost disappear into the verdure that surrounds them on three sides.

After the renovation, the property reopened in 2009 under the management of the Hoshinoya group. “We were fortunate to inherit the traditional beauty of the architecture and landscape,” says Hoshino. “The architecture itself is traditional, but we applied classic yet modern art forms, such as kyo-karakami [an artistic printed paper] designed to subdue and scatter sunlight.”

The property is isolated in a way that is rare in Japan— a country with a high population density. A further touch is the prohibition of clocks or televisions in public areas or guestrooms, “so guests can relax and appreciate the natural surroundings, undisturbed by information from the outside world.” Determining the hour based on the light on the river, and whether insect, bird, or frog song is floating out of the forest only complicates guests’ perception of time further.

FOOTNOTE — The nature surrounding the hotel is well-preserved; Arashiyama falls under some of the strictest landscape protection regulations in all of Kyoto.

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