The first time Adrian Zecha spent the night in a ryokan was back in the 1950s. The Indonesian hotelier, best known for creating Aman Resorts, was living in Tokyo then, working for Time magazine, and he remembers being most impressed by the transcendent hospitality expressed at these humble countryside inns.
“Every ryokan was carefully curated by the aruji, the head of house,” says Zecha, noting how all elements, whether the tokonoma (the reception room alcove displaying artwork), the catch of the day, or the seasonal mountain herbs, “pointed toward the endless pursuit of harmony and human touch.”
Ryokans are not fancy. Their guestrooms are spare, simply adorned with tatami mats, and the baths are communal. But these typically rural, family-owned enterprises are rejuvenating, long coming to the rescue of urbanites in search of pure relaxation. That is why, seven decades later, Zecha returned to the peaceful image of the ryokan when creating his latest hotel brand, Azumi.
Designed as an elevated ryokan, Azumi is essentially a more accessible extension of Zecha’s holistic vision for Aman. Launched in collaboration with Yuta Oka of Naru Developments, Azumi’s first location is the 22-room Azumi Setoda. Opened in March, it is situated on Ikuchijima, a rural, lemon-sprouting island on the Seto Inland Sea in Japan.
Here, Kyoto architect Shiro Miura transformed a compound that is more than a century old yet still in remarkably great shape. “The biggest testament of quality is its durability—the fact that the estate was in good condition to be restored, rather than rebuilt, 140 years after construction,” explains Zecha.
Once the headquarters and private residence of the Horiuchi clan, a prominent salt farming and shipping family, the site now flaunts the handiwork of craftsmen from around the country, like the shoji screens fashioned by Kyoto carpenters. “The design process in traditional Japanese architecture frequently lacks a top-down concept, which is what makes it so interesting,” says Zecha. “Design is created by a bottom-up approach, by listening and feeling each artisan and natural material’s voices.”
A connection with the outdoors intentionally heightens the Azumi Setoda experience. All guests are treated to their own patches of alfresco privacy, including gardens or balconies that magnify views of the enveloping kakine cedar fence. Playing with light and breezes, the fence weaves through “12 gardens with different philosophies behind them,” points out Zecha, including one that maintains the biodiversity of an original Horiuchi plot.”
Ultimately, a ryokan is an inn, a concept, adds Zecha, that is rooted in the idea of “a private place to stay the night and have a meal. That definition may be somewhat similar to a home.” There is no hospitality manual found on those premises, “yet it is only natural to provide the utmost care possible to house guests.”