Hoshinoya: Imagining another Japan

Recently, we had a chance to stay at two remarkable resorts: Hoshinoya Karuizawa and Hoshinoya Kyoto. We’re big fans of the traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) experience, but after our blissful stays we became fascinated by this new style of accommodation, one that marries Japanese tradition with modern comfort. At both resorts, we were impressed by the impeccable service, great food and beautiful surroundings, but we also experienced a level of freedom that led to a deeper sense of relaxation. We didn’t have to worry about our Japanese language ability or manners (as the staff speaks excellent English, as well as other languages), and we had the freedom to dine where and when we chose. Excursions and cultural enrichment activities were abundant and readily available, but we could also choose to do nothing, browsing the libraries’ excellent selection of books and magazines, enjoying the spa and/or hot spring baths or taking strolls through the woods.

The difference was apparent upon arrival at both properties. Cars are not allowed on Hoshinoya Karuizawa’s small paths, and arrival at Hoshinoya Kyoto is by boat. Welcome ceremonies, played upon instruments both modern and traditional, strike a primal chord, floating above the sounds of rushing water and wind through the trees. In just a few minutes, visitors are transported to another place.

And that is exactly how Yoshiharu Hoshino, the President of Hoshino Resorts Co. Ltd., wants it. We caught up with the globe-trotting, youthful 51-year-old powerhouse during a recent visit to Tokyo, and were able sit down for a few minutes to learn more about this concept.

Hoshino is the fourth-generation owner of a family business that started as Hoshino Onsen in 1904: a traditional hot spring ryokan in Karuizawa. But since then — due mostly to Mr. Hoshino’s innovative ideas — it has grown into a resort management company that owns and/or manages 28 properties throughout Japan (as of 2011).

An avid skier and outdoorsman with a Masters in Hospitality Management from Cornell University, Hoshino grew up wondering about the fate of the traditional ryokan. Many foreign guests (as well as young Japanese) found the rooms to be small and the futon bedding, uncomfortable. As modern Japanese are also accustomed to tables and chairs, they also found it tiring to sit on the floor without backrests. In the meantime, Hoshino also saw the luxury domestic market flocking to Western resort hotels. He knew he had to find a new way forward.

Hoshino also wondered what Japan would be like if it continued to modernize without the influence of the West, as he felt Japan had become too Western. So, he did something unprecedented: He closed Hoshino Onsen for 10 years and invested in a complete overhaul of the complex, essentially re-imagining a new Japan in the process. In 2005, a new vision and a luxury ryokan concept — christened Hoshinoya Karuizawa — was born.

The gamble paid off and Hoshinoya Karuizawa prospered. Other companies started to change the way they designed and ran their resorts. But Hoshino Resorts stayed ahead of the curve. It was the first eco (green) resort, generating as much as 70% of its energy (via geothermal heating and three micro-hydro generators), and remarkably, no trees were destroyed during the construction. It also became one of the few truly bi- and multi-lingual resort companies as well, one that is to this day able to cater to an increasingly international crowd.

Arrivals and departures are by boat at Hoshinoya KyotoHoshinoya Kyoto came next, opening in December of 2009 (A review of this property will appear on Savory Japan in the coming months.) It quickly became known as a destination in a league of its own. No expense was spared in the exquisite restoration and transformation of a riverside cluster of 400-year-old Sukiya-style buildings, once the library and summer home of Ryoji Suminokura. While a small road connects the property to the nearest road, travelers are transported to and from the resort by custom-made wooden boats. Although the trip takes less than 10 minutes, the journey marks a departure from the outside world, one where TVs, phones and worldly concerns are left behind.

Hoshino has a particular knack for hiring talented and gifted people in the construction and operations stages of his business, and this roster extends to the staff, artists, designers, and especially culinary talent. Each chef managed to capture the essence of each region and location and yet, at the same time, surprise and broaden our expectations with their innovative creativity — so much so that future articles will hopefully allow you to enjoy their skill and artistry as well.

Up next in the Hoshinoya line are Hoshinoya Okinawa, on Taketomi Island, opening in June of 2012, and Hoshinoya Fuji, expected to open in 2013. With the completion of this “circuit,” visitors will be able to have a range of experiences with the same level of luxury combined with traditional Japanese hospitality.

It is this hospitality, in fact, that was most memorable during our stay. While visions of the beautiful and harmonic colors and proportions of its architecture and gardens and the exquisite flavors of its inventive cuisine were all enjoyable, it was the heartfelt will of the staff to help us in every way that left the most lasting impression. So, while the setting may have drawn us to Hoshinoya, it will be the people who will draw us back. Let’s hope it’s soon.