Out of Japan: Room at the inn where less is more

KYOTO - Imagine a hotel that, from the outside, looks like a small, plain warehouse, with no windows on to the street. Inside this hotel there are neither beds nor chairs - in fact there is very little furniture at all. There is no bar or restaurant, and no choice of menu for the food that is served in the rooms. There are only 19 rooms in this hotel - and they cost up to pounds 600 a night.

Imagine, now, that this hotel is one of the most exclusive in Japan: built in the ancient capital of Kyoto three centuries ago, discreet as a priest's whisper, but pampering its guests more thoroughly than any international five-star hotel chain could ever do. The great hotels of Asia are not normally so shy. The Mandarin in Hong Kong sits on some of the world's most expensive real estate, smug in its black marble and gold trimmings. The Oriental in Bangkok presides over the Chao Phraya river as it did when Somerset Maugham stayed.

Raffles in Singapore has been newly restored to the elegance of palm courts, ceiling fans and white decor that Sir Stamford himself would have approved of; the Manila hotel has the same grand facade and portico that General MacArthur strode across in 1945, having made his promised 'return' to the Philippines in the war against Japan.

Even the old French Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam, after years of Communist drabness and rouble- paying guests, has had a facelift, and is once again the queen of buildings in Asia's most romantic capital.

But Japan resists such beauty parades. While much of East Asia is bewitched with gold and showy extravagance, Japan, as ever, has gone its own way. The Japanese turn in on themselves, revering understatement, subtlety, and luxury that is almost invisible.

The Tawaraya hotel is the epitome of Japanese discretion. Inside the plain door is a private world of polished wooden floors, narrow corridors and sliding screens. They open on to private gardens - moss-covered rocks, bamboos, ferns and stone lanterns.

The Tawaraya, which in fact is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, surprises newcomers with its austerity, and then surprises them a second time with how comfortable it is none the less.

The rooms are nearly bare: just one low table, two cushions, and a single flower arrangement in the corner. Nothing else. Underfoot is tatami rice-straw matting - you cannot even wear slippers here, barefoot only.

Everything is wooden, in different tones of brown for the pillars and window frames and the split-bamboo blinds. The bathtub is made specially of cedar wood, which perfumes the warm water with its sap. On the wall is a simple scroll of Zen calligraphy.

Room service seems to operate by telepathy. Tea appears in the morning, afternoon and evening at times that the maidservant for the room thinks are appropriate. She will have greeted her guests on arrival by going down on her knees and bowing to the floor. If you actually have to ask her for something - fresh towels, a clean glass - she will feel she has failed in her job.

Established in the first decade of the eighteenth century by Wasuke Okazaki, a textile merchant, the Tawaraya has been in the family ever since. Today it is managed by Mrs Toshi Okazaki Sato, the 11th-generation owner.

The original Mr Okazaki was from Tawara district in Shimane prefecture in the south-west of Japan. He told his son to build a house in Kyoto in order to develop his textile business in the city. In the beginning the 'house of Tawara' was also a rice wholesale establishment, but gradually it became an inn for travellers.

Because of the wooden construction, the Tawaraya has burnt down twice: in the great fire of Kyoto in 1788, and then again in 1864. Japan, with its typhoons, earthquakes and volcanoes, is well used to the cycles of destruction and renewal: flower arranging glorifies this impermanence of nature.

The highlight of the day is the dinner, served in one's room. It is an elaborate affair of many courses in pottery dishes selected according to the season and the food being presented. The chef - a man of much experience - and not the guest, decides what is good to eat on any particular evening.

One can only presume that the maidservant watches the meal through a spyhole in a screen, since she never brings the next dish too soon or too late. And as the final glass of sake is disappearing and the lanterns are glowing in the garden, the maid quickly transforms the dining room into a futon bedroom. 'A lesson to hotelmen on what service is all about,' according to an entry in the visitors' book, signed by one Baron Hilton.

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