The Essence of Edo pix
Where a Japanese 17th-century inn once stood, Kengo Kuma builds a cross-cultural bathing experience
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 4/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Ryokans line the village's central stream.
The Ginzan Onsen Fujiya's front facade is steel-framed glass a heftier-than-normal 1/5 inch thick, for wind resistance. Behind the glass wall, reception features sofas with steel frames and a table topped with elm, all custom, as well as an antique wooden chest.
Between reception in front and the ground level's baths, in the rear, a sandstone-floored atrium is surrounded on three sides by screens made of 1/10-inch-thick bamboo strips. The main stair, which connects the first and second levels, combines elm treads and acid-etched steel railings.
A suite's cabinetry, veneered in white ash, doubles as a headboard. The handmade wallpaper is sprinkled with water during installation to produce an uneven texture.
In another suite, a linen bedroll lies on the tatami-mat surface of a 1-foot-high platform.
Steel rods bolted to the ceiling support the treads of the back stair, which links the top two levels.
On the ground level, a cypress spout fills a 130-gallon bath in hinoki, a cedar.
An elm pergola shelters two reflecting pools. Between them, a sandstone bridge leads to the sliding door of the café.
The basement's sole bath is clad in sanseikuro, a Chinese granite.
In one of the ground level's changing areas, a ceramic sink rests on a sandstone vanity counter.
Three hours north of Tokyo, thanks to the bullet train, lies Ginzan, a tiny village built around an onsen, or hot spring. Although dotted with traditional inns, called ryokans, where visitors test the waters, the narrow streets are often unpeopled. The local population totals 150, and only one resident is a Westerner. Born in San Francisco, Jeanie Pugh is now married to Atsushi Fuji, whose family business is the Ginzan Onsen Fujiya, a 350-year-old inn alongside the village's central stream.
Remodeled 40 years ago by Atsushi Fuji's father, the inn had evolved from a glorified shack to a three-story wooden structure by the time Jeanie Fuji came on the scene in 1991. Minor updates followed, but they weren't going to resolve larger questions. Starting from scratch, the couple entrusted the delicate task to the deft hand of Kengo Kuma.
Kengo Kuma & Associates took the building apart, then reused the pieces to construct a modified design on the existing footprint. Pieces that were weak were reinforced with glue-laminated pine. On the exterior, the biggest difference between then and now is the front facade, an expanse of celadon-tinted glass handblown according to a centuries-old technique. The effect recalls that of a Japanese screen.
This intervention introduces Kuma's yin-yang architectural attitude: melding the unexpected with the time-honored, reconciling Japanese tradition with his own vision. "Fujiya has a contemporary program," the architect elaborates. "It's a minimal device that liberates the human body."
His 9,900-square-foot interior celebrates sheer space, a rare commodity in Japan. Reception owes its feeling of openness both to the wide glass wall and to the spare furniture. In the center of the sandstone flooring, chosen for its light-brown tones, two rectangular sofas flank a low table topped in elm. Against the sandstone wall stands an antique wooden chest that Jeanie Fuji found in the countryside.
The greatest celebration of space is the central atrium, a double-height volume rendered quietly theatrical by fluorescent up-lighting. Latticework walls on three sides represent another take on the Japanese screen. Bamboo poles, 30,000 of them, were cut into over 1 million 1/10-inch-thick strips assembled by a master craftsman and his son.
Adhering to the inherited plan for the baths, Kuma kept the three on the ground level, another in the skylit basement, and the final one in the open air, on the third floor's terrace. Each enclosure is finished in a distinct material, whether that's bamboo, fragrant cypress, or black granite. Departing from the norm, Kuma downsized the tubs. "During the 20th century, ryokans introduced baths as large as swimming pools, which didn't serve the human body well," he comments. "The relationship between the dimensions of the bathtub and the body is important." Another innovation was to provide each bath with an adjacent dressing area, where a mirror hangs on thin steel cables, and a white vessel sink sits sculpturally on a cypress vanity counter.
In Atsushi Fuji's father's era, the inn had 24 guest rooms separated by only sliding doors. The 1991 remodel eliminated these shoji cubbyholes, halved the room count, and added solid walls. Toilets, however, were still at the end of the hall. Kuma cut the key count even further, reconfigured, and introduced minimalist luxury to the ryokan lexicon. Now, the five rooms and three suites range from 420 to 670 square feet, and the suites have private baths. All rooms and suites face the street, and all boast cabinetry veneered in white ash, walls accented with handmade Japanese paper, and even TVs.
The new building sparked a new marketing plan. "We chose to eliminate tour groups and focus instead on couples as well as smaller groups of friends," Jeanie Fuji explains. To draw in pedestrians, Kuma added a café with a street-front presence.
Ginzan Onsen Fujiya has had more foreign guests in the past six months than it's had in 15 years. "The Japanese see it as kind of Western. Westerners see it as Japanese," Jeanie Fuji says. The universal appeal, though, is incontrovertible.