The world-renowned Pritzker Prize winning architect Tadao Ando has strong ties to the Seto Inland Sea. He worked closely with the Benesse Corporation turning the provincial island of Naoshima into one of the best-known art locations in the world. On the island, Ando is responsible for having created three museums and the hotel ‘Benesse House.’
But for fans of the architect, there is a lesser known but equally impressive masterpiece further west. Ando designed and built one of his modern minimalist creations in the mountains of Matsuyama in 1998. It opened to the public two years ago as the Setouchi Aonagi – an exclusive hotel offering just seven exquisite Ando-designed rooms.
“We call this minimal luxury,” says Hitomi Shimokubo, the hotel manager. “The idea is to let the architecture speak for itself.
” The construction was originally commissioned by the neighboring country club as accommodation to house their most important guests. Only an art gallery on the lower floor was ever open to the general public. This was during the last throes of the bubble economy, when Japanese businesses could sustain such extravagance. Lucky for us they could. This expensive venture left us mortals with a pristine example of Ando architecture that is now accessible to anyone who can afford it.
The building was originally commissioned by the neighboring country club as accommodation for their most important guests. Only an art gallery on the basement floor was ever open to the general public. This was during the last throes of the bubble economy, when Japanese businesses could sustain such extravagance. Lucky for us they could. This expensive venture left us mortals with a pristine example of Ando architecture that is now accessible to anyone who can afford it.
There are two buildings in the hotel – the Main Building and the Annex. In case you wondered how exclusive the experience would be, each room occupies a whole floor, giving you space and privacy. There is a luxury spa and two swimming pools in the complex. One is a heated underground pool and other is the hotel’s magnum opus – the Infinity Pool.
“It’s mesmeric,” says Shimokubo about the Infinity Pool. “It faces the sea in the west and as the sun sets, the whole pool becomes a glowing mirror.” According to Shimokubo, the best time to experience the Infinity Pool is in September, when the sun sets directly over the center of the pool.
The furnishings, interiors and artworks were all arranged in collaboration with Ando to create a space where the architecture speaks for itself. It gives you room to contemplate, breathe and relax into the experience.
The gallery features a commissioned artwork by the calligraphy artist Rieko Kawabe, who chose whites and pale colors over her usual black charcoal ink to compliment the surroundings. The floating islands of green moss by Yutaka Ono and the Frank Stella hanging by the bar are also a perfect match.
As soon as you enter the lobby, you notice the subtle aroma of incense and a gentle ambient music that seems to be everywhere but comes from nowhere. The music was specially commissioned for Setouchi Aonagi. The guest rooms are silent – the only sound you hear there is the Ando-designed waterfall when you step outside onto the terrace.
The guest rooms in the Annex contain hot spring baths. They were carefully designed to include a section of the bath where you lie on a shallow bed of water just 5cm deep. It allows you to recline in the warm water for hours, catching up on your favorite books or watching tv on the waterproof tablet.
Dinner fits into the same relaxed style. The à la carte ‘kaiseki’ menu is served over two hours allowing you to fully enjoy each course. The dishes are elegantly crafted from locally-sourced seasonal ingredients. Diners often pause dinner to go out and savor the sunset before returning to their seats. The menu changes every day for those staying more than one night.
Although the retreat is hidden in the mountains of Matsuyama, the Setouchi Aonagi transport picks guests up from five locations inside Matsuyama, including the iconic Dogo Onsen. Many guests are dedicated fans of Tadao Ando, who arrive at Setouchi Aonagi after visiting the architect’s work on Naoshima. Others are travelers who want something more memorable than a run-of-the-mill five-star luxury hotel experience.
“Most people come to enjoy the hotel for what it is,” says Shimokubo. “It’s such a quiet place. Perfect for guests who want to leave their busy lives behind – even just for a few days.”
It might be high-end in terms of price – but it also offers an unparalleled high-end experience. It’s a one-of-a-kind hotel where you can immerse yourself in architecture, art and blissful tranquility.
Photographs & Text by Tom Miyagawa Coulton