It looks from the outside like a traditional Kyoto machiya townhouse, from the low-rise symmetry of darkest timber to curved roof tiles. Inside The Shinmonzen, the look is futuristic: a lengthy corridor, lined with raw concrete on one side, and vertical wooden slats on the other, flows gracefully into the ultra modern structure.

Elements of the classic and modern stand in contrast in this newly opened hotel in Kyoto’s historical Gion district. In spite of its exterior appearance, it was constructed from scratch, designed by Tadao Ando, and imagined by hotelier Paddy McKillen as the distant relation of Villa La Coste (W*214), the standing icon of modern art and architecture in southern France.

The Shinmonzen hotel next to the river

Overlooking the Shirakawa River, The Shinmonzen combines notes of Kyoto aesthetic with its European origins, due to Ando’s design and interiors by Rémi Tessier, along with, as in the French outpost, a large collection of modern art. McKillen, aka Paddy-san, said he fell in love with Kyoto twenty years ago, loving Japan, the people, the culture, omotenashi (hospitality), and the arts, that inspired her to open a hotel there. He was aiming for something bijou at the center of Gion that was consistent with the tradition of the surrounding design. He was inspired by the concept of a ryokan, a conventional Japanese inn, and requested Ando to design a modern version of this.

For Ando, the origin point of the hotel, built on the site of a onetime parking lot, was balancing an outside aligned with its Kyoto surroundings with an inside evoking Europe. Gion is known as a conventional and preserved district by the city of Kyoto, explained Ando. So we were obligated to design a wood façade and Japanese roof tiles called kawara. They designed the exterior in a conventional Japanese style, but a new and freshly contemporary world can be discovered inside.

The Tooki suite, with tatami mat flooring, shoji screens and a sycamore headboard by Longpré

A single black split noren curtain bearing a calligraphic white ‘S’ designates the entry, accessing the lengthy, contemporary inside corridor, inspired by a roji, the narrow walkway discovered between a pair of townhouses. They designed it in a modern manner with exposed concrete and natural light emanating through the side grille, said Ando.

On the interior of the hotel, exhibits of contemporary art, which will change, catch the eye – from Louise Bourgeois’ Pink Days, a Damien Hirst spot painting and Yoon-Young Hur’s moon jars in the ground-floor lobby, to Mary McCartney’s Geisha photos, Kohei Nawa’s Direction, Annie Morris’ Canvas and Thread and a calming azure washi art by Makoto Ofune, in corridors and guest rooms.

The Take suite, with an ‘Akron’ desk chair, and ‘Orbit’ armchairs and sofa, all by Toan Nguyen

The nine hotel suites are roomy and modern, with Western-style beds or low-rise futons on tatami, with private balconies overseeing the river, planted with Irish moss and Provençal-style jasmine. Inside accents feature sliding paper shoji screens and angled ceramic wall vases by Takayuki Watanabe, as well as headboards and tables of naturally hewn sycamore by Longpré. Exquisite samples of monolithic marble in hues of pink, green or beige line the lavatories, alongside hinoki wood bathtubs and bento box-style amenity cases by Kyoto bamboo specialists Kohchosai Kosuga.

Flashes of Villa La Coste are discovered in shared design details, like the silver-plated door handles created in France, ivory Ploh robes and Pedersoli’s 500-thread-count organic cotton linen (room keys are emblasoned with an image of Erin, McKillen’s much-beloved canine). Each of the nine guest rooms boasts a unique design and character, states Ando. It’s a sound balance between West and East.

The ‘Enzo’, a red lacquer chair designed by hotelier Paddy McKillen and made by District Eight

The hotel marked its official opening in December 2021, after a one-night opening in April 2020 (with initial guests including artists Hiroshi Sugimoto and Takashi Murakami) before closing because of Covid. It will feature a restaurant by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, designed by New York’s Stephanie Goto; a streetfront patisserie; and a basement spa with an in-house reiki master. Ando says that the hotel has entered the world in complex circumstances. The hope is that guests can find calm and enjoy a traditional and modern Kyoto experience.


Image credits by BEN RICHARDS