It’s a strikingly audacious idea. A real Japanese onsen experience in the economic centre of Tokyo? One with private pools filled with natural hot spring water piped from 1.5km below the ground? Was that even imaginable?
Where was this mythical “Tower Ryokan”, the modern Japanese inn known as HOSHINOYA Tokyo? Luxury insiders say its mineral-filled, sulphur-fumed onsens offer true relaxation at a toasty 42-degrees. How lovely they must be to slide into, minutes after exiting from a packed subway! It must feel divine in the heart of winter.
As the car pulled into the nondescript basement of what looked like a commercial building, my hopes for an authentic onsen experience dipped. I spied no scenic hills or gurgling streams nearby.
“Here?” The driver seemed confident it was the spot.
Hundreds of thousands of daily commuters course through Otemachi Station in the basement. The property is 10 minutes’ walk from a major tourist attraction, the Imperial Gardens. That’s almost too much humanity for a relaxing onsen.
At check-in, however, you begin to understand the innovative concept behind the property. Like a traditional ryokan, Hoshinoya Tokyo has soft tatami-flooring in all the public areas. Like passing through into a parallel universe, the hotel is self-contained in its aesthetics, design, and code of behaviour.
Shoes weren’t allowed in the premises. Walking around in socks on soft flooring had the lovely effect of transporting you out of 2019 Tokyo and into the Nara period of Japan, circa 708 AD.
Should you experience anxiety attacks and abandonment issues from being separated from your expensive footwear, however, the staff will helpfully fetch your fur-lined mules whenever you exit the property.
Guests can access the public areas in provided kimonos and sandals. Each floor comes with a common lounge area — the Ochanoma Lounge — that’s exclusive only to guests staying on that level. Seasonal snacks are served in this semi-private area if you’re in the mood for light reading, polite banter, or a spot of freshly brewed Japanese tea.
The tatami mats cleverly cushion all movement in the building, muting any distracting footsteps or luggage trolleys. The quiet, natural calm around the inn was irresistible.
A GENUINELY THOUGHT-OUT EXPERIENCE
The Tower Ryokan is a boutique luxury experience with 84 rooms total. All three types of rooms available at HOSHINOYA Tokyo, the Yuri, Sakura and Kiku, celebrate tradition with modern minimalism.
As you slide back the shoji doors — latticed screens covered with rice paper — to enter an unusually spacious corner room (the Kiku, the largest at 893 square feet), you’re greeted by the incredible attention to detail. Traditional Japanese bamboo closets are paired with wood, plasterwork and contemporary minimalism in what feels like a luxurious cocoon.
The detailed imprint left by architect Rie Azuma is genius. Each room is elegantly shrouded by a metal lattice of barely discernible “komon” pattern, which is traditionally found on traditional kimonos, creating the perspective of a living space veiled from neighbouring buildings.
Even though the ryokan is located in one of the densest parts of Tokyo, the Otemachi area, the low rooms-to-floor ratio and strategically warm lighting of the common areas make you feel like you’re tucked in the mountains.
The Hoshinoya Tokyo spa and onsens are found on the 17th floor. These are gender-specific areas with sitting showers, private dressing counters, and the much-discussed natural hot spring water said to have curative prowess. I don’t know about curative healing, but the gentle aroma of sulphur wafting through the bath was certainly therapeutic to me.
The baths are roofless, so on a clear night you could be soaking in starlight in the centre of Tokyo. Insiders say it’s even more beautiful when it snows, and it is a luxury you must indulge in to believe.
INGENIOUS, AWARD-WINNING FARE
The HOSHINOYA Tokyo specialises in “Nippon Cuisine” helmed by Executive Chef Noriyuki Hamada, who is the youngest winner of the Bocuse d’Or competition in 2004. He eventually won the Bronze in the World Finals in 2013.
The basement dining rooms, designed by Hamada-san famously uses French techniques to produce meticulously designed dishes using seasonal produce, local seafood and reduced broths.
I am told that the basement dining room is fitted with minimalist decor to “allow guests to focus on the food”. Guests sitting at neighbouring tables will find the table partitions ingeniously prevent eye contact, ensuring discreet privacy. Maybe it was the spartan fittings, but the dishes were certainly complex, artful and utterly delicious.
Particularly memorable were the Aji Horse Mackerel served on buckwheat, served with five different types of wild Nagano mushrooms, and the Hamada Noriyuki, which shows the chef’s sheer delight in the typically “ugly” rough-skinned sole.
The ‘Five Flavours of Delight’ is a masterclass in Instagram presentation, with seasonal produce in sour, sweet, bitter, salty and umami extracts served on individually-heated stones.
Audacious, and artfully elegant, indeed.