In the era of capsule hotels, overnighting in a barely furnished pillbox may seem like the pinnacle of Japanese ingenuity: By sacrificing space, you’ll save a lot more on your budget for exploring. But you’re also sacrificing omotenashi, the gold standard of Japanese hospitality. The term originates from ancient sado tea ceremonies, where hosts are expected to dutifully look after their guests. Today, omotenashi culture is best encapsulated at ryokans, or traditional Japanese inns. Thanks to ANA’s nonstop flights to Tokyo from cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, Japanese hospitality can be experienced from the moment of takeoff. While on assignment in the Land of the Rising Sun, photographer Sam Horine craved more than just a pixel of this philosophy, he sought to capture the whole picture.
Photos by Sam Horine | Kiku (Executive Triple), Hoshinoya Tokyo
Since the 8th century, ryokans have existed as rejuvenation lodges for weary travelers, visually characterized by tatami-floored rooms, low-slung wooden furniture, and futon mattresses. You can also expect exquisite seasonal kaiseki dinners, access to a healing onsen (hot spring baths), and a scenic setting in the countryside. And hiding behind that proverbial shoji screen is a subtle, yet profound devotion to omotenashi, a polite anticipation and fulfillment of guests’ needs before they arise.
Private open-air bath, Kinnotake Konosawa
For foreigners, a ryokan stay is as culturally enriching as it is restorative—and with the advent of luxury urban ryokans, a regenerative retreat is just a subway ride away. Curious how this concept could be reimagined among skyscrapers, Horine set off to experience two different ryokans: Hoshinoya Tokyo, in the heart of the city, and Kinnotake Tonosawa, in the resort town of Hakone. “If any country succeeds at juxtaposing tradition and the ultramodern, it’s Japan.”
Hoshinoya Tokyo: A sumptuous ryokan rising into the Tokyo cityscape
Founded by Kuniji Hoshino over a century ago, Hoshino Resorts has evolved quite a bit from a single hot spring resort in the Japanese Alps to 37 properties nationwide. With the Hoshinoya Tokyo property, tourists and locals alike can now tap into ryokan-style relaxation in the beating heart of the world’s largest city. “Even from the street, you know there’s something special going on inside that building,” says Horine as he aims his lens upward.
Exterior of Hoshinoya Tokyo
Housed in a 17-story high-rise in the Otemachi business district, the hotel’s exterior is wrapped in a metal lattice of komon patterns typically found on kimono fabrics. Walk through its grand cypress wood doors and you’re immediately requested to take off your shoes, a symbolic nudge to leave the outside world behind.
Sakura (Deluxe King), Hoshinoya Tokyo
Designed by Azuma Architect & Associates, the 84-room hotel seamlessly adapts basic ryokan concepts into a luscious vertical retreat. Every walkable surface is paneled with soft tatami matting instead of wooden floors—even in the elevators. It’s a detail that’s soothing toboth the soles and the soul. Seasonal décor throughout the property infuses references to nature, from the reception area to the Ochanoma Lounges on each floor, where guests can gather for a tea or snack at any time of day.
Entrance area, Hoshinoya Tokyo
On the top floor is a seductively moody onsen that pumps hot spring water from 5,000 feet below ground. Sans roof, the spa allows bathers to gaze into the sky as their bodies melt into the curative waters, customarily sipping milk in between marinations. “It’s almost womb-like being here, the sense of feeling cradled and protected in utter relaxation,” Horine notes with a whisper. As pervasive as the scent of sandalwood in the hallways is Hoshinoya Tokyo’s unwavering commitment to omotenashi, where hosts give delicately attentive service while granting privacy to guests. In other words, they’re encouraged to live in the space, not simply occupy it.
Outdoor bath, Hoshinoya Tokyo
The on-site restaurant creatively interprets traditional ryokan dining with its “Nippon Cuisine” dinner, a nearly three-hour journey crafted by award-winning executive chef Noriyuki Hamada. As the youngest winner of the Bocuse d’Or, Hamada leverages his expert skill set in French technique to produce artful, seafood-forward dishes with Japanese ingredients and flavors. The menu changes monthly, but is always tied together by the theme of connecting the past to the present, reflected in Hamada’s ancient Japanese culinary wisdom and innovative execution.
Entrance to dining area, Hoshinoya Tokyo
According to Hoshinoya Tokyo, the hotel is more than just a modern interpretation of a ryokan: It reimagines “another Japan,” an urban sanctuary that retreats upward and inward to its own cultural assets rather than Western standards of hospitality. You could easily find a hotel with a hot spring anywhere, but it won’t hold a candle to an onsen soak in Tokyo’s concrete canopy, one of the many reasons why Hoshinoya Tokyo made it onto Condé Nast Traveler’s 2018 Gold List.
Kinnotake Tonosawa: An essential ryokan in the forests of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
Scenic train overpass near Kinnotake Tonosawa
Finding serenity at Hoshinoya Tokyo requires shielding from the outside world, though ryokans in rural Japan need not build barriers; they source calm through harmonious coexistence with the wilderness. At its essence, ryokan owners regard nature as a veritable source of replenishment for guests. Seeking a pastoral ryokan experience, photographer Sam Horine departed Tokyo on the Romancecar rail line—named for its two-seater configuration, not the beguiling landscape the train zips through—toward Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, a mountain resort southwest of the capital. In 90 minutes, he would reach the doorsteps of Kinnotake Tonosawa, a traditional ryokan in the healing Tonosawa forest.
Entrance to Kinnotake Tonosawa
Kinnotake Tonosawa goes beyond blurring the boundaries between resort and refuge with its “no lines” policy, which regards service, space, and environment as unified elements of hospitality. Horine exhales as he walks through the lobby, relaxing his posture with every step: “This is the perfect place to zen out, turn off your phone, and finally write that book.” At the end of the hall, he gazes through the wall-to-wall windows that frame the emerald forest outside, still dewy from a passing rain shower.
Dining room, Kinnotake Tonosawa
The lightly appointed interiors still manage to be cozy, with sleek wooden furniture, modern lighting, and stone accents. It’s an aesthetic the staff describes as “open, yet mature.” Floor-to-ceiling doors minimize the sense of separation from one room to another, both in public and private areas, allowing energy to flow with ease and continuity. And though it’s clearly a high-end ryokan, you won’t find a shred of ostentation, with every pared-down nook tying back to nature’s very own simple-perfect configuration. Above all, the omotenashi spirit is manifested not through minute-to-minute service, but a careful anticipation of needs.
Luxury suite with open-air bath, Kinnotake Tonosawa
The minimalist design philosophy extends to Kinnotake Tonosawa’s 23 guest rooms, which have custom-designed, sustainable furniture and artwork by Japanese ceramicist Takahiro Ishii. While most ryokans have shared same-sex onsen, here, private decks let guests simmer in their own onsen until they evaporate into the natural landscape.
Deluxe room open-air bath, Kinnotake Tonosawa
Kinnotake Tonosawa also has a different approach to dining, offering restaurant-style meals instead of the traditional room service. In the dining hall, resident chef Iwai serves an incredibly refined Kyo-Kaiseki that reflects his time at a Kyoto ryotei (a luxury fine dining restaurant). And instead of low-slung furniture, high-back chairs were chosen to help guests focus on enjoying their meals. Though it’s when Horine discovers the impressive collection of Japanese whiskeys behind the 24-hour bar that he formulates the most important question: “Why would anyone ever want to leave?”
Lounge bar, Kinnotake Tonosawa
By flying ANA, you’re always guaranteed an experience with Japan’s world-famous hospitality. Inspired by the comfort of a traditional ryokan, ANA’s attentive service, newly designed seats, and menu of culinary delights will ensure your journey to Japan continues (or ends) in comfort and style.
Originally published by Conde Nast Traveler, Paul Jebara. Photography by Sam Horine