The New Generation of Japanese Accommodations
Any traveler to Japan knows that its sense of hospitality — the sober, subtle beauty of the country’s lodgings, and the elegant, unobtrusive service within them — is unmatched anywhere else. For years, visitors could choose between two kinds of hotels: the Western kind (though often reinterpreted with Japanese materials, textiles and sightlines), or the traditional Japanese inn, the ryokan. Ryokans were originally built in medieval times to keep traveling merchants in comfort, offering ofuro baths, woven tatami floors and simple breakfasts of fish, tofu, rice and pickled vegetables. The new generation of Japanese accommodations, though, are neither ryokan nor hotel: They are restored samurai-era mansions, or refit prehistorical huts or even a Baja-esque beach camp. Significantly, many are also in less expected places — small towns and regions where tourists rarely go — giving travelers a chance to explore a part of the country they might otherwise not.
Kosuge, Yamanashi Prefecture, Honshu
A two-hour drive west of Tokyo will take you to the mountainous village of Kosuge in Yamanashi Prefecture, known for hiking trails that wend around waterfalls, the occasional hot spring and tributaries from the Tama River. After a day of exploring, nature lovers can return to Genshimura, which also draws families and history buffs searching for glimpses of Japan’s prehistoric Jomon period (10,500 B.C. to 300 B.C.). Here, in a small valley surrounded by forest, is a miniature replica of a Jomon village, with three simple, straw-encased huts that sleep eight apiece. As in days gone by, they offer the brave visitors who stay within them practically no amenities aside from shelter and a (non-working) fire pit. Luckily, there’s a soba shop on the grounds known for its handmade buckwheat noodles. And for those in search of slightly less rustic accommodations, the property also offers stone cabins with bunk beds and a stilted hillside bungalow, with a narrow river running below.
Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, Honshu
Less than an hour’s drive from the capital, on the eastern side of Tokyo Bay, this year-old hotel channels the spirit of Coachella and Venice Beach. It’s actually situated within Wild Beach, a “seaside glamping park” a few blocks from the water, with an amusement park (complete with a Ferris wheel) next door. The complex has four retrofitted trailers and eight canvas tents decorated with wood floors, twinkling fairy lights and proper beds. Rhinos’ guests, meanwhile, can choose from a trio of free-standing two-or-three-person glass-steel-and-wood apartments, each with its own interior aesthetic. Vintage Black, for instance, evokes a retro-cool beach shack, with shiplap walls, distressed leather club chairs and a steamer trunk for a nightstand. Otherwise it’s a whitewashed Mykonos-style option or an indoor safari scene, with tribal rugs and Kaare Klint-like canvas chairs. Despite the surfer vibes, there’s no actual surfing here — but there is a sandy outdoor seating area with communal grills for barbecuing and s’more-making.
Obi, Nichinan, Miyazaki Prefecture, Kyushu
Even within Japan, few know about the collection of bukeyashiki — Edo-era samurai houses from the 19th century — in the town of Obi near Kyushu’s southeastern coast. Shrouded in cedar forests, many were abandoned and left to decay in recent decades. Now a company called Kiraku is trying to restore them as private villas, beginning with two that opened this year. The first, Katsume, which can accommodate up to six, is hidden behind a stone gate, and while its exterior and the extensive gardens had been preserved by the local government, the clean-lined interiors have been fully modernized (and include both a kitchen and a washing machine). The other property, Ohya, a five-minute walk away, is a long, one-story structure that was once a gatehouse for a larger samurai estate. In this house, which also sleeps six, there’s a traditional okudosan (stove) that guests are welcome to use. For more history, they can tour the nearby ruins of Obi Castle, a stone and cedar fortress that was originally built in the 15th century, or eat at Gallery Kodama, a merchant-house-turned-restaurant that serves a breakfast of rice, fish, vegetables and a sweet rolled omelet, called tamagoyaki.
Guza Farmhouse Stay
Fujibaru, Mitsuse, Saga Prefecture, Kyushu
Rural areas in Saga Prefecture on Kyushu, the southernmost of the country’s four main islands, are dotted with working farms, several of which welcome overnight visitors, offering access to a way of Japanese life rarely seen by tourists. (Agriculture, once the country’s dominant industry, has declined dramatically since 1960; it now makes up about 1 percent of the economy.) Perhaps the best nouka minshuku (farm guesthouse) is at Guza, a 100-year-old house with a neighboring barn that a husband-and-wife team converted to a two-bedroom inn in 2006. It’s about an hour from Fukuoka, Kyushu’s largest city, and especially worthwhile for food lovers — guests have a chance to help harvest bamboo in spring, sample the farm’s own unfiltered sake (called doburoku) and gather any of the 100 different kinds of fruits and vegetables grown on the property, including zucchini, shiitake mushrooms, okra, blueberries and plums. The hosts cook guests’ meals on an outdoor wood-fired stove before readying the goemonburo — a deep, circular cast-iron tub filled with steaming hot water.
Production by Ayumi Konishi