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Travel & Leisure

Japan hotels: An immersion in modern art

Coronavirus convinces innkeepers to reach out to creatives in search for guests

A new kind of art colony: Mariko Iguchi livestreamed herself at work on YouTube while staying at Kaganhotel in Kyoto.

TOKYO -- Keith Spencer, a 37-year-old American artist, has been staying at a hotel in Kyoto since last year. He likes the learning atmosphere and compares it favorably to his time in graduate school.

"I finished my graduate study in Canada," he said, "but there was no art community nearby. Here, I can meet artists from different backgrounds, including photographers and calligraphers, and learn a lot from them."

He's staying at Kaganhotel, which like a few other inns in Japan is offering opportunities to young artists facing difficulty finding studio space and exhibition opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The arrangement is symbiotic, as it allows hoteliers hard hit by the coronavirus find occupants.

Kaganhotel opened in late November next to Kyoto's City Central Wholesale Market as a meeting place for young artists and art fans. It features a 24-hour studio and a residence for young artists.

"For artists, it is really frustrating to have no place to show their work," said Toshiyo Kusakabe, co-founder of May, which runs Kaganhotel. In May and June, Japanese artist Mariko Iguchi stayed at the hotel and used YouTube to livestream herself at work. Her pieces were also exhibited at the hotel through mid-June.

A room designed by Japanese artist Mika Ninagawa. Hotel Anteroom Kyoto has nine "concept rooms" where guests can immerse themselves in a work of art.

Guests can pick the works they want to be displayed in their rooms. Artists living at the hotel, there are currently five, can pick up some extra cash by working as staff if they so choose.

The hotel, like the hospitality industry as a whole, has experienced a sharp drop in the number of guests amid the pandemic. It received only a small number of guests during its peak spring season and recently had to cancel a planned exhibition.

A businessman who stayed at the hotel enjoyed the ambience.

"I could pick my favorite pieces to display in my room and see artists at work," the 37-year-old said. "That was something I can't experience at museums or art festivals."

Hotel Anteroom Kyoto, which occupies what had been a 23-year-old student dormitory, has a similar concept.

It offers guest rooms, apartments for long-stay guests and a gallery. The gallery holds about 150 pieces of art, including works by Japanese sculptor Kohei Nawa and others with connections to Kyoto.

"I could reflect on my work while surrounding myself with pieces made by other artists," said Yuki Moriya, a 32-year-old artist who stayed at the hotel during his exhibition in July and August.

This summer Hotel Anteroom Kyoto launched an artist-in-residence project aimed at providing young artists with cut-rate rooms.

The hotel also has an app, ArtSticker, through which guests can buy art and send messages to artists.

BnA Alter Museum, a hotel in Kyoto, features a room decorated with a piece by Japanese artist Sato Sugamoto.

Art hotels are opening in Tokyo as well. BnA, a company that operates accommodation facilities to promote communications between travelers and artists, plans to open BnA_WALL in Tokyo's Nihombashi district. Its opening, initially scheduled for this summer, has been postponed until February. The hotel will have a large studio in the basement for artists and visitors who might want to watch them at work.

Fourteen artists partnered with architects to design 26 guest rooms at BnA_WALL, where each room is decorated with an avant-garde piece.

"Many hotels pick art pieces that suit the shape and design of guest rooms, but BnA Hotels let you stay in an art piece itself," said CEO Yu Tazawa, explaining the chain's key concept.

BnA runs hotels in four locations, including Tokyo's Akihabara and Koenji districts. While most of its guests are from overseas, Tazawa said, "I hope more Japanese will stay."

Meanwhile, Kaika Tokyo, a hotel with a large storage space for artworks, fully opened in Tokyo's Sumida Ward in July.

Tokyo-based ReBITA launched the warehouse-turned-hotel "because many artists told us that they were having difficulty storing their works," said Tatsuya Shirasaki, a company spokesperson. Visitors can explore a collection of art pieces, including those on loan from partner galleries.

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