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Shuttered Japanese inn reopens as modern art masterpiece

Sleepy Maebashi wakes up to renewal efforts centered on historic site

The organic curves of Green Tower at the Shiroiya Hotel pleasantly contrast with the sharp urban outlines of Heritage Tower in the background.   © Shinya Kigure

MAEBASHI, Japan -- This small prefectural capital will likely be absent from most itineraries once Japan reopens its borders to tourists, except for a few who won't mind a short jaunt from Tokyo to experience the curious Shiroiya Hotel, a striking example of the country's brutally ugly 1970s architecture turned into art.

Once a prosperous world-class silk city, Maebashi, with its population of 335,000 in Gunma Prefecture, has devolved into a notch or two above a sleepy town. Even so, for anyone with a keen eye for modern architecture and art, the hotel -- which reopened in December 2020 -- is well worth the visit.

Fronting Route 50 that runs through the city center, garish signage from American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner assaults guests. "From the mountains," one sign reads.

Puzzled travelers might be forgiven trying to decipher its meaning, but according to a hotel spokesperson, Weiner was inspired by Maebashi's extreme weather, characterized by cold dry winds from northern mountains in winter and oppressively hot summers.

The hotel's roots run deep. Shiroiya Ryokan -- the original lodging -- was founded more than 300 years ago. When the traditional Japanese inn finally decided on a facelift, renowned Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto was summoned. He decided to split the lodging into two buildings: Heritage Tower and Green Tower.

Travelers on Route 50 are greeted with jarring signage at the Shiroiya Hotel, created by American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner.   © Shinya Kigure

Weiner's art hangs on the outer wall of Heritage Tower near the highway, the previous four-story Shiroiya Hotel and now the main building. The renovated structure features a soaring atrium lounge populated with lush potted foliage.

Fujimoto's aim was to make Heritage Tower "a community living space" where out-of-town tourists and locals could mingle. A stroll through the lounge takes one from the soothing green oasis of the ground floor up a spiral staircase into sterile and maze-like minimalist surroundings punctuated by exposed concrete beams and supports. The change is dramatic.

"After [Heritage Tower] was completed, I walked up and down the staircase. It has become a very enjoyable space," Fujimoto said in an interview with Nikkei.

Heritage Tower features a soaring four-story atrium lounge nestled among a forest of potted plants.   © Katsumasa Tanaka

Green Tower begs definition. It could be a mountain covered in green, or perhaps an overgrown riverbank. It is almost post-apocalyptic in its undulant wave, a modern urban structure reclaimed by nature.

"It was difficult to design a mountain-shaped building," said Fujimoto, who created Green Tower after experimenting with more than 100 models output on a 3D printer.

Heritage Tower and Green Tower are both four-story reinforced concrete buildings, with a total floor space of about 2,600 square meters. There are 25 exquisitely designed guest rooms -- 17 in Heritage Tower and eight in Green Tower -- with room rates starting from 30,000 yen ($275) per night.

The main dining salon, aptly named "the Restaurant" in true minimalist style, was created under the supervision of Hiroyasu Kawate, owner-chef of Florilege, a two-star Michelin French restaurant in Tokyo's fashionable Aoyama district.

Fujimoto's architectural resume is deep, but Shiroiya is his first hotel. It is unique not only because of the Fujimoto handle but because many notables had their hand in its creation, including Weiner.

Leandro Erlich, an Argentine conceptual artist best known for "The Swimming Pool," installed "Lighting Pipes" above the lounge. The light-emitting-diode pipes snake along the interior contours for 124 meters, providing a striking accent to the concrete supports. Erlich was inspired by the spacious ceiling when he visited the hotel while under renovation.

Bordering the entrance is "Inverted Discussion," a canvas by British artist Liam Gillick derived from "The Canterbury Tales," in which travelers who happened upon each other at the same inn swap stories.

Two other works frame the entrance: "Sea of Galilee, Golan" by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and "By physical or cognitive means (Broken Window Theory 02 August)" by British artist Ryan Gander.

Common spaces and guest rooms are peppered with works by local artists like Naoko Ushijima, a Japanese painter born in the city.

Of the hotel’s 25 guest rooms, four are specially designed and named after their creators, like Jasper Morrison Room shown above.   © Shinya Kigure

Of the hotel's 25 guest rooms, four were specially designed and named after their creators: Fujimoto, Erlich, British designer Jasper Morrison and Italian architect Michele de Lucchi. The four designed the details of the special rooms, from the cypress bath in the Jasper Morrison room to the faucet in the Michele de Lucchi room. Each room is a work of art.

Hitoshi Tanaka, owner of the hotel, is also founder and CEO of Jins Holdings, operator of over 600 eyecare shops in Japan and overseas, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines and U.S.

A native of Maebashi, Tanaka embarked on local renewal activities eight years ago to revitalize his hometown. This came after representing Japan at the 2011 EY World Entrepreneur of the Year in Monaco, an international convention for entrepreneurs. At the event, Tanaka was impressed by the many entrepreneurs who were engaged in social awareness activities.

Since World War II, Japan has lacked socially aware entrepreneurs compared with some Western countries. This may have stemmed from the high taxes that were levied on the nation's wealthy to help the reconstruction of the war-torn country, and also because the tax system did not allow deductions for most philanthropic donations.

Hitoshi Tanaka, owner of Shiroiya Hotel, is the founder and CEO of Jins Holdings.

But as globalization forces a gradual change to Japan's tax system, the number of entrepreneurs who use their private gains for social causes is beginning to rise.

Tadashi Yanai, founder of Fast Retailing, the operator of casual clothing chain Uniqlo, donated 10 billion yen ($91.7 million) to Kyoto University in 2020 to support research by Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka and others.

Shigenobu Nagamori, founder of Nidec, the world's largest motor manufacturer, has spent more than 13 billion yen ($119 million) on the education of young people through a university.

As perhaps the first private initiative aimed at revitalizing Maebashi, Tanaka launched the Gunma Innovation Award -- an annual entrepreneur competition in 2013. Next, he partnered with the municipal government, commissioning the German consulting company KMS Team. His "Where good things grow" project kicked off in 2016.

Around that time, Tanaka also began renovating Shiroiya Ryokan, which was Maebashi's leading accommodation dating back to the Edo period. The inn has hosted many prominent guests, including an emperor.

The original Shiroiya Ryokan folded in 2008. When the site was on the verge of being demolished, Tanaka bought it with the idea of turning it into a venue capable of attracting tourists from around the world. The renovation coincided with his 2016 initiative.

The headquarters of Jins Holdings and Tanaka's home are both in Tokyo, but the CEO makes frequent visits to Maebashi. In addition to the hotel business, Tanaka has also spent vast sums of his own money on other projects to revitalize Maebashi, including construction of an apartment building for young people.

Shiroiya Hotel in its current incarnation took about six years to complete. Looking back on the construction, Fujimoto recounted that as the project proceeded, many creators jumped in, swayed by Tanaka's enthusiasm. Erlich was among them, as were Lucchi and Morrison, who had already been on Jins' payroll. Both designed special rooms for Shiroiya Hotel for free.

Some may think Shiroiya may be a bit heavy on the artwork, but none can deny it reflects Tanaka's passion for the project.

High-quality silk was once branded as "Maebashi" in Europe, and the city prospered thanks to its flourishing silk industry during the Meiji period. It also played a key role in the country's modernization. But since Japan's bubble economy collapsed 30 years ago, many cities like Maebashi have seen their economies tank, unable to find ways to revitalize.

Tanaka, ever the optimist, hopes to turn things around in his hometown. "Many creators have empathized with my desire to make Maebashi vigorous again," he said. "Think of the hotel as a long, empathetic journey."

The CEO and his chief architect Fujimoto are hoping that once the pandemic ebbs, tourists from around the world visit the Shiroiya Hotel and Maebashi, confident in the belief they won't be disappointed.

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