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Wanderlust: A House in the Woods of a Japanese Mountain Town

By Kames Narayanan

Built with sustainability at its heart, the Shishi-iwa House is constructed from pre-fabricated plywood panels and timber frames.
 
Shishi-iwa House
Built with sustainability at its heart, the Shishi-iwa House is constructed from pre-fabricated plywood panels and timber frames.

As the journey onboard the Shinkansen (a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan) from Tokyo to Karuizawa progresses, the high-rise buildings of the city taper off to modest, sparse dwellings of passing villages and gradually ease into vast, endless stretches of green. About an hour into the ride an undulating terrain reveals itself, signalling arrival at the mountain town. 

With a population teetering on merely 20,000, Karuizawa is a quaint respite nestled in the mountains of Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. The hidden gem, tucked away under the active volcano Mount Asama — where the air is as crisp as it is invigorating — has built itself to coexist amongst a stupendous panorama of untainted plains of greenery. While Karuizawa is but one amongst the scores of homogenous towns that line Japan’s periphery, it distinctly deviates from the template of its neighbours. 

A stroll about the town’s venerated Kyu-Karuizawa shopping district unveils a palpable tinge of old European influence. Charming countryside cottages home to retail and restaurant concepts adopt the personality of a snowcapped town located elsewhere in the world. Since being developed some 140 years ago, Karuizawa has long been mapped out as a relief for the affluent set from the relentless, sweltering summers in the city. It was here that Japan’s Emperor Emeritus Akihito first met his wife and Empress Emerita Michiko in a tennis court in 1957 and in the 1970s, revered musician John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono put up for months. 

Shishi-iwa HouseThe grand room at the Shishi-iwa House.
The grand room at the Shishi-iwa House.

To the unacquainted, the itinerary of to-dos in the leafy town would likely detail a prosaic line-up of scenic hikes up to awe-inspiring waterfalls, a saunter through its shopping districts or indulgent spa experiences. What often escapes the list is Karuizawa's stellar array of avant-garde architectural wonders that dot the town: the clinical, white-walled Hiroshi Senju Museum, designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa, home to the waterfall paintings of distinguished artist Hiroshi Senju just as it serves as a glass observatory to the terrain’s local vegetation; Makoto Yamaguchi’s dystopian polygon house perched on the mountainous terrain in solidary offers an alternative proposition to sectioning a living space; and the organic construct of uchimura kanzo memorial stone church, that speaks of something otherworldly. 

Earlier this year, the Shishi-iwa House, a boutique luxury resort designed by acclaimed Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban joined Karuizawa’s line-up of unmatched architectural marvels. From the distance, just as its name suggests, the timber frame of an uncharacteristically tall peak roof in semblance to the doorway of a home blown out of proportion invites guests into the minimalist sanctuary. What laid the foundation for the Shishi-iwa House is an intent to approach hospitality in a manner pertinent to the contemporary creative class. 

“The genesis of the Shishi-iwa House began with an interest to use architecture as a means to provide a peaceful sanctuary and a place for intellectual creativity. The retreat aims to be a place to reflect and restore energy, and in turn, spark new ways of thinking for our guests,” said Huy Hoang, the CEO of HDH Capital Management, who spearheaded the project. 

Shishi-iwa HouseThe main room is built as a communal space where guests can exchange ideas, dine and even screen movies much like the living room of a house.
The main room is built as a communal space where guests can exchange ideas, dine and even screen movies much like the living room of a house.

From its early conception, consciousness sat at the heart of the Shishi-iwa House. Ban’s first step was drawing up a comprehensive floor plan of the nearly 300 trees rooted on the site. With the goal in mind to leave the landscape’s lush foliage largely undisturbed, he then conceived the blueprint: a sinuous structure undulating through the ebb and flow of its surrounding forest. 

The Japanese architect’s commitment to the environmental cause was ingrained deep within the building’s ethos. It saw Ban engineer a novel building approach that had never been used in hotel construction prior — timber frames were sandwiched between pre-fabricated plywood panels to create a series of modular structural frames that were then transported on-site to create the building’s curvilinear structure. 

“For this project, I was interested in developing a distinct design language befitting to its beautiful location,” said Ban. “Everything from the construction to the furniture and interior detailing was carefully planned and considered to achieve a bespoke atmosphere. Blending the interior and exterior spaces, we created unique openings in the guest rooms and social areas to allow the best views of the garden and encourage outdoor access,” he continued. 

The state-of-the-art edifice of the Shishi-iwa House leads into an interior that is structured with an equally forward-thinking acumen. Here, the archetypal fixtures commonplace in a hotel — restaurants and spas — are subverted in favour of entirely immersing one into the serenity of the surrounding and fostering social confluence between guests. The 10 guest rooms sectioned into three annexes — A, B and C — each encompasses several private guest rooms across the two levels and a communal space fitted with a kitchenette. While rooms located on the first floor open up to a private garden, the ones on the second incorporate a private balcony terrace offering luxurious views of the lush greenery. As its name suggests, the Shishi-iwa House evokes the feeling of a home away from home rather than an austere hotel. 

Shishi-iwa HouseFrom left: The main room at the Shishi-iwa House opens up to a garden formed by the lush greenery of the area; the library doubles up as the boutique hotel’s reception area where guests can also spend their time leafing through the books available.
From left: The main room at the Shishi-iwa House opens up to a garden formed by the lush greenery of the area; the library doubles up as the boutique hotel’s reception area where guests can also spend their time leafing through the books available.

The prized art collection — gathered from Japanese masters of the Gutai period in the 1960s such as Jiro Yoshihara, Toshimitsu Imai and Masaaki Yamada alongside prominent international names like Bernar Venet — that decorates the Shishi-iwa House stands as a further testament to the ambition of building a home rather than a temporal accommodation for its guests. Imbued with a keen sense of taste, the Shishi-iwa House boasts a distinct personality far from that of a hollowed ground. 

“Shishi-iwa House is built to embrace the notion of social hospitality, which sets the property apart from typical hotel experiences. Rather than only focusing on the private spaces, all areas beyond the rooms are designed for guests to make discoveries and gain new connections,” said Phillip Wang, the head of project development. 

Shishi-iwa HouseThe rooms on the second floor of the Shishi-iwa House open up to a private balcony where guests can immerse in the surrounding nature.
The rooms on the second floor of the Shishi-iwa House open up to a private balcony where guests can immerse in the surrounding nature.

The Shishi-iwa House was strategically built to exist within its surrounding ecosystem as Hoang explained. “You don’t need a spa or a restaurant when you have a natural onsen, local joints serving restaurant-grade fare and an entire town at your disposal, all within walking distance,” he said. Rather than vie for a slice of Karuiawa’s economy, the Shishi-iwa House feeds back into the very town it is built on. 

If zen were to manifest itself in a space rather than a school of thought, the Shishi-iwa House is as close one would come.