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Hostels and inns are Japan's new art galleries

Artisans create spaces where they can embrace the casual observer

Artist Yohei Takahashi helped design one of the two guest rooms at Tokyo's BnA Hotel Koenji.

TOKYO -- Some Japanese lodgings are getting into the art museum business.

The reason is simple. "People spend at least seven to eight hours at a lodging facility," said Yoshitaka Yazu, an artist and proprietor of a new hostel, "so you can get them to spend enough time to appreciate works of art."

Inns are now hosting modern art exhibitions or hanging works in guest rooms to stoke interest in consumers who walk by art dealers thinking the shops are the exclusive domains of wealthy patrons.

In Tokyo, BnA Hotel Koenji opened last year intending to establish a new framework to support artists.

The Suginami Ward hotel has an art gallery in the basement and two guest rooms with interiors designed by contemporary artists Yohei Takahashi and Ryuichi Ogino, in collaboration with architects.

The BnA team that developed the hotel is made up of members who have all lived overseas.

"There are many people who casually purchase works of contemporary art in Western countries," said Yu Tazawa, a core member of BnA's management. "But here in Japan, a custom like that has not taken root."

Tazawa believes the country should develop a market where promising artists can sell their works and make a living.

With the hotel, the company introduced a system in which it commissions guest room designs and the artists take home a percentage of the hotel's revenue.

"Our hope is that it will become a hotel that supports artists, like patrons," Tazawa said.

BnA Hotel Koenji's rooms are almost always filled, mainly by art aficionados from Western countries and creators, Tazawa said.

"These are people who are always on the lookout for new, up-and-coming artists and are generally interested in Japan," he added.

A bar near the front desk is meant to promote exchanges between guests, artists and local residents.

BnA plans to build similar hotels elsewhere in Tokyo and in Kyoto.

Kumagusuku, the hostel that Yazu had converted from a nearly 70-year-old wooden town house, stands along a quaint alley in a residential district in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto.

From the entrance, a set of ladderlike stairs leads to an exhibition space of about 30 sq. meters. Here, photographer Seiji Shibuya has some work hanging on the walls. Other photos of his are on display in the hostel's four guest rooms.

The entire house is essentially an exhibition space.

"A mirror in the communal bathroom and the stairs are works by other artists," Yazu said.

Yazu, who exhibits his contemporary art in Japan and overseas, noticed that many artists, especially up-and-coming creators, have few opportunities to put their work in front of the general public.

Usually, only major artists can get solo exhibits at museums. Lesser-known artisans might be able to present at big festivals -- along with dozens of their peers. But at these venues, visitors spend little time appreciating each individual artist. Even at smaller, quieter art galleries, people hang around only about 15 minutes or so.

So Yazu came up with the idea for his hostel, which opened in 2015.

Kumagusuku enjoys an 80% occupancy rate, attracting mainly women in their 20s and 30s, he said.

Kyoto's Kumagusuku allows guests to appreciate photographs and paintings in a converted townhouse.

"One guest pointed out that the same work of art left different impressions in the morning and at night," Yazu said. "So maybe the hostel gives guests opportunities to appreciate different aspects in the same piece of art."

Yazu plans to open a second lodging business, where mainly video works will be displayed.

Kyoto's Furumonzen Street is noted for the antique art shops that line it. In November, the street welcomed art dealer Nakanishi Shohoken's Art Mon Zen Kyoto, a hotel where the company displays pieces from its collection, from antique to contemporary art.

"We are exhibiting works that we have absolute confidence in," Nakanishi Shohoken President Teruyuki Nakanishi said.

The guest rooms are characterized by ceilings as high as 3 meters that, the company says, make for apt spaces for appreciating art.

Nakanishi said the company came up with the idea after realizing that established art dealers like his, which began during the Meiji era (1868-1912), might exude a certain snobbishness that tells consumers not to bother, these places only cater to regular patrons.

"But a hotel is a place where many kinds of people come," Nakanishi said. "So even if you are not an art buff, as you spend time appreciating [art] in a spacious, laid-back space, you might begin to like a particular work."

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