From a ryokan in the heart of traditional Kyoto to a modern museum-hotel on the art island of Naoshima, Japan offers an abundance of unique accommodations finely tuned to their settings. Now, across the country, a slate of abandoned buildings have been lovingly converted into luxury hotels, offering another way to get closer to Japan's cultural heritage—while helping to preserve it.
Japan’s population crisis has been well documented but perhaps overlooked is its impact on the country’s architectural heritage. A rapidly aging and shrinking population has left Japan with more than eight million vacant houses. Abandoned and left to rot, traditional large family homes, known as "kominka" are disappearing—particularly in more rural areas, where the problem is exacerbated by rural-urban migration as young people are lured away to seek better opportunities in the cities. The luxury hotel brand Nipponia, an initiative from VMG Hotels and Unique Venues, a Japanese historical preservation developer, is now creating a collection throughout the country of renovated kominka, specially selected for their unique histories. Each renovation respects the buildings' unique characteristics and historical significance—allowing you to visualize the original buildings as they were hundreds of years ago—while offering modern lodgings.
The brand’s first property, Sasayama Castle Town Hotel opened in 2015 in the Kansai region’s Hyogo prefecture. Set in an Edo-period castle town that was established in the early 1600s, the property is spread across five centuries-old homes. Each building has been carefully restored, including the former residence of a wealthy banker. The brand’s concept considers the entire town as a hotel and, after checking in, walking to your room through Sasayama’s townscape—filled with ceramic tile-roofed buildings and mossy gardens—lets you soak up the historical atmosphere so much that you may feel like you’re really living in a traditional Edo period castle town.
This ‘scattered hotel’ concept—in which the hotel is spread throughout the town—is consistent throughout the brand’s five hotels. The idea is that guests will feel as if the town is their home and breathe new life into it. The brand also wants locals to feel a part of the venture, asking local carpenters to do the renovations and local artists to create works for the interiors. Creating a cycle of tourism and employment, said VMG’s Kimura Manami, is an effort to revitalize areas impacted by population decline. CEO, Jun Tarikino said that his personal experience of the destruction of Kobe in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, and the experience of his grandfather who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, inspired his dedication to the preservation of Japan’s history, culture and cityscapes.
Last year, Nipponia opened its second location, Sawara Merchant Town Hotel, occupying three wooden buildings—a former storehouse, merchant shop and restaurant—each over a hundred years old, in the merchant town of Sawara, 50 miles east of Tokyo. Also established during the Edo period, Sawara’s many grand structures led it to be depicted as “better than Edo” (Tokyo’s former name) in classical Japanese poetry—and today that old Edo atmosphere, long lost in Tokyo, remains fresh. The townscape is one of Japan’s designated Preservation Districts and even today appears like a scene from the distant past, with boats floating down the willow-lined river that runs through the town.
The brand’s newest hotel, Nipponia Takehara, which opened in the Setouchi region in August this year, is housed in three separate buildings, including a salt magnates' mansion and former restaurant with attached inn. The town of Takehara was once the center of salt production and its preserved mansions attest to the fortunes brought here by the salt trade—the town is known as "Little Kyoto" for its density of preserved buildings.
Rounding out the collection are Nipponia Fukusumi Post Town Hotel, also in Hyogo, where you can stay in the former residence of a local dignitary built in the late Edo period, while Nipponia Hotel Nara Naramichi is housed in a century-old former sake brewery in Nara, Japan’s first capital. More Nipponia hotels are in development and VMG is also working on an even more remarkable venture: Japan’s first castle hotel. From spring 2020 guests will be able to spend the night in the tower of Ozu Castle in Ozu City, Ehime Prefecture.
With each new venture VMG shines a light on the unique value of each building and ensures that not only are heritage buildings preserved, but that they continue to serve a purpose.