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Shishi-Iwa House looks like part farmhouse and part chapel from the outside.

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The curved side of the house flanks the garden.

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Looking into the Grand Room.

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The minimalist bedrooms look out into greenery.

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Left: The minimalist bedrooms look out into greenery. Right: The dramatic high-ceiling entrance.

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Sezon Museum of Modern Art is a relaxing short walk from the house.

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A nearby vegetable farm.

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A nearby vegetable farm.

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Sezon's garden is home to sleek sculptures

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MUJI HOTEL GINZA.

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MUJI HOTEL GINZA.

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MUJI HOTEL GINZA.

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AMAN KYOTO.

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HOSHINO RESORTS RISONARE NASU.

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HOSHINO RESORTS RISONARE NASU.

Shigeru Ban's Shishi-Iwa House is a cool sanctuary in Karuizawa

Shigeru Ban's Shishi-Iwa House is a sanctuary for guests to connect with nature and one another
Sep 13, 2019 5:50 AM

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.

COOL HAVEN

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.

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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.

PRIVATE SANCTUARY

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 starchitect'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.

SOCIAL ENTERPRISE

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-ofthe-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.

Designer Getaways - new hotels to check out in Japan

1. MUJI HOTEL

GINZARetail giant Muji brings its famous anti-brand ethos to life with the new Muji Hotel Ginza, an oasis of zen-like calm (after shopping hours, anyway) in Tokyo's glitzy shopping district. It's the pride of Muji's 10-storey flagship which encompasses retail, F & B and accommodation, making it a mega-destination for a global army of fans, dubbed 'Mujirers.'

Muji's much-touted philosophy of restraint and simplicity, or 'design by subtraction', extends to its 79-room hotel, perched on the top four floors. As might be expected, the design aesthetic (expertly executed by design partner UDS) is upscale contemporary, with interiors featuring liberal amounts of wood, stone and earth tones. The sixth-floor lobby is characterised by hardwood floors, a simple reception counter and a slate grey wall made from vintage train-track stones. Adjoining the lobby is an open bar, library and gallery space. Escalators lead down to the rather impressive retail space, best described as Muji to the Max.

The rooms, available in various sizes and relatively wallet-friendly (by Ginza standards) with rates ranging between 15,000 yen and 50,000 yen (about S$200 and $655), are comfortable, functional and - provided you're not travelling with a collection of LV trunks- entirely adequate for a short stay. Several of the layouts are long and narrow ('intimate' in hotel-brochure speak): my Type C room (S$370) was about 76 square metres in size and less than 3 metres at its widest point. Still, the elongated space was beautifully detailed and bathed in natural light, with warm wood finishes, simple but comfortable furniture, a well-stocked selection of Muji products and a better-than-decent shower.

Muji Hotel Ginza, which opened in April this year, is the company's first in Japan - two others opened last year in Shenzhen and Beijing - but more are underway. Business has been brisk, thanks to followers of the company that was set up to offer a quintessential Japanese experience in a modern urban context, with minimum fuss. It's fair to say, then, that Muji Hotel Ginza delivers on that promise.

By Geoffrey Eu

Muji Hotel Ginza, 6F, 3-3-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Tel: +81-3-3538-6101.


2. AMAN KYOTO

Aman's third Japanese resort after Aman Tokyo and Amanemu, opens its doors on November 1. Located in the northern part of Kyoto at the foot of Mount Daimonji and close to the UNESCO heritage site of Kinka-kuji Temple, Aman Kyoto is housed in a 'secret garden' in a massive 80-acre site comprising 72 acres of permanent forest and eight acres of manicured gardens. Designed by Kerry Hill Architects, expect a lush, tranquil getaway of just 24 rooms and two villas in contemporary ryokan-style, with floor-to-ceiling windows, tatami mats and tokonoma (a recessed space displaying a singular work of art). Perfect for immersing yourself in an ancient culture and discovering the true meaning of Zen. 

www.aman.com/kyoto


3. HOSHINO RESORTS RISONARE NASU

Agriculture and tourism come together at the new Hoshino Resorts Risonare Nasu, where you can chill out and enjoy the lay of the land in the mountainous region of Nasu in Tochigi prefecture. Located at the foot of Mount Nasu amidst dense forest, it's the fourth in the brand's Risonare line of properties (after Yatsugatake, Tomamu, and Atami) that focus on nature and indigenous produce. Pluck your own from Risonare Nasu's onsite farm or let the kitchen source some of the best vegetables or seafood for your meal at this unique agri-tourism concept. While you chill in any of its 43 rooms designed by Klein Dytham Architecture to maximise the breathtaking views, plan your activities from hiking to visiting the local hot springs.

https://risonare.com/nasu/en/