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Japanese-Style Luxury

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

Japanese-Style Luxury

Glass-walled garden-view passageway pictured below is a serene place to drink tea and read. Even when the inn is full, you will meet few other guests.

Benjamin Warner is a British architect who first arrived in Japan 22 years ago to study architecture and eventually began his professional career based in Tokyo.

Upon entering his room at Sharatei, he immediately started to tell us how stimulating it was to visit such a traditional Japanese structure, since he usually designs contemporary buildings.

Sure enough, it was the architecture of the ryokan that had caught his attention. He and his colleague were to stay that evening in an authentic Japanese-style guestroom consisting of two eight-tatami-mat rooms and a tearoom. He went on to explain that while Western-style buildings usually are based on a vertical concept, Japanese architecture spreads horizontally, and Sharatei is a typical example.

Warner was accompanied by his friend, British accountant Ian Birtles, who had never experienced hot springs or a hot-spring ryokan in Japan. "When I heard that there were only 10 rooms in the inn, I expected much smaller rooms and buildings," Birtles explained. "I was very surprised to find that both the gardens and the estate are bigger and more spacious than I expected." Sharatei oozes serenity. The fragrance of incense wafts through the lobby and along the corridors.

Service is unobtrusive and discreet. The spacious garden is dotted with himeshara, a tree with lovely camellia-like blooms. It grows prolifically here on the Sengokubara Plain, which commands a spectacular view of the mountain ranges of Hakone. "The gardens were actually constructed by human hands, so they don't particularly represent untamed nature. A Japanese-style garden is designed as part of the entire architecture," Warner explained to Birtles.

Noting that the greatest element influencing the development of Japanese architecture is the country's climate, Warner paid special attention to the engawa (a wooden passageway along the garden-side of a house) and the eaves.

"The engawa is an extremely abstract space located between the garden and the rooms," Warner elaborated.

"For example, in Northern Europe, windows are kept smaller or the house is equipped with double-doors to guard against cold weather. In the case of Japan, on the other hand, both the engawa and the eaves serve to adjust the difference in temperature between the inside and outside of the building. These days, however, a building with so much space is considered to be extravagant."

Yet the eaves that create cool shade by blocking strong sunshine in summer and protect against winter rain and wind used to be an essential part of traditional Japanese houses. Moreover, the engawa was a kind of semi-public space where neighbors could get together and enjoy chatting. "You can create 'layers' in Japanese architecture by adding shoji or fusuma (paper sliding doors)," Warner continued.

"If you open the fusuma, you can have a larger space. Close it, and then you will have the divided spaces that can be used for different purposes. Depending on how you use sliding doors, you can create very versatile spaces."

When Warner looked for the first time at the Katsura Imperial Villa (the detached Imperial villa constructed in the 17th century in Kyoto), celebrated as the most representative sukiya (tea ceremony house) architecture in Japan, he was deeply impressed by the way space was used to eliminate all of the unnecessary elements. "When I first came to Japan as a student, I did everything in one six-tatami-mat room of a Japanese flat located in Nerima-ku—eating, sleeping, and studying," Warner recalled. "At that time, to add a more Japanese atmosphere to my room, I picked up some stones from outside and placed them in the corner. when they saw this, my Japanese friends burst into laughter, saying that it was something only foreigners would do."




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