Saturday, July 27, 2013

Japan #2: Design Standards and the Piece Hostel

Where are we in these three pictures?



You may have guessed by the third slide that we're at McDonalds.  These are the first three panels you see coming up to the food court level at the in Osaka, Japan, airport.    Left to its traditional presentation, McDonald’s wouldn’t have a chance against two dozen little restaurants in the food area, all dressed up in a bright, clean, minimalist aesthetic.  So McDonald's adapts.

Here are couple photos from a sit-down restaurant chosen by a couple I met at our hostel.  They chose it because the price was right (see pancakes below).  The clean blond wood and attractive graphics are pleasing but not unusual.  It is expected, required.


Japan, as you know, has been a leading influence in design and graphics for a very long time.  Frank Lloyd Wright drew extensively from it and designed a hotel in Tokyo.  Temples may have been elaborate but 600 years ago a Buddhist monk introduced simplicity in one’s living space as an expression of inner simplicity and calm.  Eliminate the inessential. It caught on and has influenced Japan and the world ever since.

A related influence that I have tried to keep in mind coming here was “the sacredness of ordinary things.”  It comes from something which stuck in my memory about bowls, sandals, rice mats in a rural Japan…the worn, ordinary things that populate daily life and have a history.  I haven’t been around old bowls, sandals and rice mats but simplicity and ordinary things have emerged in Japanese and Korean art and design. 

Japan has half the population of the United States on one-thirtieth the land.  Its people must live in small spaces as a matter of necessity, Korean only a little less so.  It has a unique appreciation of space.

Which brings us to my residence for four days in Kyoto, the Piece Hostel (I think a play on words).  Here is an example of Japanese form following function in a small space.

I chose a hostel first for economy but second to meet and learn from other travelers, the virtue of hostels from their first days of popularity in Europe.  Piece turned out to be true to its early reputation.

The hostel was opened in April by a young architect turned investor named Nobu.  It’s a newly-built, four-story block of concrete two minutes from the massive meeting place of all trains and buses coming into Kyoto, Kyoto Station, with its warren of hundreds of underground shops.  Think of Kyoto Station as Penn Station times ten.     


With little space to work with, Nobu cut into the first floor two cubes of glass containing classic white rock and palm trees, two gardens.  Japanese design. Instead of using every square foot, a courtyard and meeting place occupies the back of the lot, shaded by a large tree and enclosed by elegant pines.


A hostel is first of all low cost shelter, which Piece provides in dormitory space but also—which most of us don’t expect—in small private double rooms.  I had my own room simply by paying for two people, about $50 night, in a very expensive city.  Concrete walls, sink, Wi-Fi, flatscreen TV with shower and facilities one floor down.  A great mattress, AC and a thick douvet.  Coming out of a university room in Korea, this was great.

The kitchen area is kept tidy because somehow an ethic has been established.  My double bed with bare concrete walls may not look like much but it was perfectly  adequate.


The hostel works because of a superbly trained, consistently friendly and professional young staff.  In addition to managing the place, they serve as tourist advisors and bartenders of a full bar. 

“Happy hour” lived up to its purpose of introducing people and sharing travel tips.  I ended up at dinner with Stephanie, a Japanese-born Irish citizen, David Moriarity, her traveling companion--both classic piano teachers from near Dublin--and Ross, a friendly Russian-born IT-guy from Rockville, Maryland, interning with Microsoft in NYC.  The next night I met a Frenchman, a South African and a Japanese-Brit.  Hyphinated people traveling the world.

The hostel serves a Japanese breakfast of miso, rice, tea and breads.
There’s a fine library of Japanese art and architecture.  The bar area and living room serve as a meeting and hang-out space and a kitchen and dining rooms are spit-spot (everyone washes their own). 

Dirty clothes?  Pop them in a washer which adds soap automatically and a drier for three bucks.

Where I stay is not a big deal but anyone who offers hospitality and a simple service this well deserves encouragement. 

My previous night in nearby Nara was spent at a tiny, charming older house, Tasuna Guesthouse, an example of traditional hospitality.  I ended up in a four-person bunk room but the single classic-style room there must be one of the great bargains in Japan.  Breakfast and afternoon sushi were excellent.  Thank you, Jucko.
(This fellow came to the guesthouse to experience where his father had lived before World War II.  He carried with him his father's wartime diary including a drawing of his father's plane crashed in a jungle near Singapore, after he volunteered for the air force.  The sense of something shameful about volunteering in that war is entirely absent.)

Another night I ended up in a new Lonely Planet favorite, the Altamont Hotel two blocks from the Pierce in Kyoto.  Quite luxurious and enjoyable.  Guests are issued unisex Japanese pajamas and fed an expensive breakfast. 

My experience says travelers on a limited budget can go to expensive places inexpensively by using the private rooms of hostels, relieved at times by with more luxurious hotels.




1 comment:

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