Tokyo in summer isn’t just hot. It’s like the aftermath of a stealth attack by heat-zapping extra-terrestrials. Their victims are the Japanese – that perennially well-groomed race with their impossibly polite, well-trained demeanour – now helplessly frazzled as they discreetly mop their brows with fluffy hand towels on the Hibiya Line. Even we from the tropics who sweat openly at home are not spared here, because Japan is not as adept at artificial cooling as we are. Summer here isn’t about marking a change of season but being held hostage by it, so regardless of whether you’re foreigner or local – you’re toast.
Karuizawa tells a different story. It’s long been a safe haven for the embattled denizens of the capital city – the ones who can find safe passage on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano prefecture. It’s about 90 minutes away from Tokyo, a mountain resort at the foot of the volcanic Mount Asama which means temperatures are lower and life is less sticky. It’s often known as a getaway for rich Japanese, the ones who can afford to build holiday homes here. But for the hordes of short- stay refugees, there’s ample lodging and souvenir shops to while away the time.
It also means that you need to escape from the escapees, who flood Karuizawa at this time of year – from the enormous factory outlet Prince Shopping Plaza at the main train station to Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza – the main street that’s overflowing with shops and restaurants. For a population that takes the trains a lot, you don’t realise until now just how many of them have cars because they’re all jammed into the streets and anything that looks like a car park. Those without will crowd with you in the bus – many of them not Japanese – and get off at Sengataki for its famous waterfall, or the sprawling Hoshinoya onsen – popular for its nature walks, eateries and a posh hotel resort of the same name.
But you will continue your ride for another 10 minutes, when things get quieter and you find much- needed sanctuary in the form of Shishi-Iwa House – a boutique hotel retreat designed by Pritzker award-winning architect Shigeru Ban.
Looking like part farmhouse and part chapel, it peeks out discreetly from its forest of lush greenery, where general manager Kazuhiko Yamada – or Kaz – awaits. He ushers you into the reception/ library for your first ‘wow’ moment – the 8-metre high ceiling with its distinctive timber rafters and the awe of seeing photos of the star architect’s work come to life. Sleek minimalism runs throughout the space with its timber structure and Alvar Aalto furniture, with chairs and accessories made of Ban’s signature cardboard tubes. The length of the house is curved because no trees were harmed in the building process, so you get the benefit of both sustainability and a tranquil foliage-filled view everywhere you look.
You do need to rethink your definition of a boutique hotel here because this no regular abode. It’s almost like a hotel for the co-working crowd, given its concept of ”social hospitality”, says Huy Hoang, co- founder of Shishi-Iwa House. ”It aims to highlight the connection between human, nature and design. It’s designed for guests to enjoy their privacy while giving them the option to explore, make new discoveries and connections with other guests.”
Think of it as a very stylish boarding house, with just 10 rooms housed in three clusters, like mini double-storey wings with a shared living room and kitchenette on the ground floor and individual bedrooms located downstairs and upstairs. With no TV or other distractions available, the idea is for you to make friends with fellow guests over a cuppa in the small living room or in the Grand Room, a large gathering space where breakfast is served at a communal table and you can spend the day lounging on the sofa reading or just staring out into the garden. But if you’re the anti-social kind, not to worry as there’s no obligation to chit chat with other guests – mainly reserved Japanese couples or young parents who tend to disappear to do their own thing. According to Kaz, guests from around the world drop by too at other times of the year. But if you fear that this will turn into a real-life Terrace House – the popular Netflix reality show about the lives of young Japanese who start out as strangers sharing a house – relax. This is a place for rest and reflection.
Shishi-Iwa House is a pilot project of HDHP GK, the social enterprise arm of HDH Capital Management, where Mr Hoang is CEO. He co-founded HDHP with Philip Wang, a building design professional who oversees their hotel projects. Both of them are based in Singapore. Besides Shishi-Iwa, another two boutique hotels are in the works – one with Shigeru Ban’s team again and the other with a Pritzker-winning architect that they’re not ready to name yet.
”The vision for HDHP is to build self-supported and sustainable social projects globally,” says Mr Hoang. ”We hope to use Shishi-Iwa for philanthropic purposes – either through holiday stays to be auctioned for charity events or allowing community and philanthropic conferences whenever we can.”
It’s for this reason that they wanted to work with someone of the same mindset such as Shigeru Ban, given his use of natural materials, innovative technology and his own involvement in humanitarian work.
”Timber was used as the main material to enhance the concept of a restorative retreat,” adds Mr Hoang. ”We also incorporated Shigeru Ban’s signature paper tubes – with its renewable and reusable quality – in the furniture and interiors. The innovative use of such simple materials creates a coherent and peaceful atmosphere.”
It really is a quiet getaway in the middle of nature, and where you’re well taken care of by Kaz and his small team – Asuka, Motomi and Yui – who help with all your queries and breakfast, which is a simple Continental affair with pastries, yoghurt and juice. The hotel doesn’t serve lunch or dinner although you can order food in or check out some of the dining options outside, which tend to be quite run-of-the-mill. It’s also a 15-minute walk to the nearest 7-Eleven, so if you need snacks, stock up beforehand.
Out and About
Seeing how cool it is (although the weather has been such that there can be scorching days here as well) long walks are a pleasant must do. Sezon Museum of Modern Art is just one of many art museums in Karuizawa but is only a 10 minute walk from Shishi-Iwa House. It’s a beautiful place away from the tourist hordes in a spacious garden setting where you can meander and appreciate the many minimalist stone sculptures dotting the grass. There is also the museum itself, which has a cafe if you need some quick sustenance.
If you’re into local produce, you might be able to get Kaz to take you on a quick tour (or make your own travel arrangements) of a nearby farm specialising in salad greens, herbs and a couple of greenhouses growing perfect Japanese cherry tomatoes. Sneak a couple to taste just how good they can be when they’ve ripened on the vine. Or check out a farmer’s market which is a tad touristy but has all the things you need for a fresh salad that you can prepare in your kitchenette, with some help from Yui or Motomi. The hotel has a professional kitchen on site, but that is reserved mainly for private group catering, although the owners are toying with the idea of providing more in-house dining options for individual guests.
You’ll end your stay in a Zen frame of mind. While it may not be enough to prepare you for the heated streets of Tokyo, it’s enough for you to commit Shishi-Iwa to memory – ever ready for your next getaway, whatever the temperature.
The writer was a guest of Shishi-Iwa House. Shishi-Iwa House is at 2147-646 Nagakura, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano, 389-0111.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.