Masters of Indigo | The Yuurakuan Guesthouse

Ai no yado (藍の宿) meaning The Indigo Inn

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Thursday, February 18, 2021

From its home on the Kawata riverbank, Tokushima, the Awagami paper mill is renowned worldwide for its beautiful Japanese washi paper, crafted through the traditional nagashizuki method. Their washi papers feature in works by artists Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, Yu Youhan and Ding Yi. Then there’s the collaborations with Hermès and Mont Blanc.

Awagami’s third generation papermaker Minoru Fujimori took the world by storm when he first unveiled his creation ‘aizome washi’, or indigo-dyed paper, at the Paris World Fair in 1878.

Now in their eighth generation, the mill hasn’t stopped innovating since. Yuurakuan is a recently renovated Kyoto guesthouse, decorated with contemporary Awagami washi wallpapers, all hand-dyed and handmade. Full of inspiration for interior designers, you can also book a stay in this unique house. It even comes with its own little private art gallery, featuring washi-based, indigo-dyed artworks (and you can buy the art).

We were fortunate to stay at Yuurakuan on our last trip to Kyoto, and on our tour you can snoop around too…

The house resides in the historic Shimabara area of Kyoto, at one time the licensed ‘pleasure’ district of the city (geisha and red-light, saucy!), on the doorstep of the Nishi Hongan-ji and Koshoji Temples. The neighbourhood is full of charm, away from Kyoto’s main tourist drag.

Tucked away on this residential street, Yuurakuan’s clean, modern and expensive finish is worthy of a high-end boutique hotel. But it’s yours, all yours, for the night. It’s rather a delight to arrive after a long day travelling/ doing not much/ eating too much.

Those spectacular handmade papers, adorning walls and fusuma (sliding doors). Every sheet is handmade using only natural fibres: the bark of the kozo (or mulberry) tree, mitsumata (that’s oriental paper bush), hemp, bamboo or gampi.

Awagami’s Mieko Fujimori specialises in dyeing the pieces with Japanese indigo. There’s a variety of specialist techniques on show: dip-dyed danzome, patterned shiborizome and morigami paper, wrinkled before slowly dyeing to create a ‘bokashi’ pattern.

Contrary to their mellow tones, each paper projects its presence and warmth into the room.

Also loving the Japanese cane furniture.

Adding an organic Japanese aesthetic, a series of bamboo and washi art panels, a creative collaboration between Mieko and the designer Craig Anczelowitz. They explore the fibrous, expressive qualities of washi, and are hand-dyed in indigo, kakishibu (persimmon) and sumi ink.

The house is actually a 127 year-old machiya, a traditional wooden Kyoto townhouse. They were popular with merchant families from the Edo period: you’d have your shop at the front, and live at the back of the house. They tend to be deep and narrow because at one time taxes were levied on houses in proportion to the width of the frontage.

But from the 1950s machiya dwindled in numbers, having fallen out of fashion. You may have noticed a call-out a few years ago: encouraging people to buy a machiya, many of which had fallen into disrepair, to save them from demolition. (Afraid to say you’re too late now- refurbished machiya now make up some of the most luxury boutiques, restaurants and residences on the Kyoto scene, Yuurakuan being no exception).

The house has been sensitively restored: soft textured papers contrast with aged hardwood floorboards and beams. Layers of paper create a series of interconnected spaces as you step through the house. Paper shoji screens not only save on room in a compact space, they also create a play on light and shadow at different times of the day. The beauty and translucency of washi has been used for room accents and illuminations.

The whole place is a showcase of the versatility of washi paper: this subtle difference adds a modern identity to Yuurakuan.

A peek through to the second bedroom…Wall panels made from inkjet printed washi paper: another Awagami innovation. Every few months the paper will be changed to a new pattern, in rotation, reflective of the season.

The beauty of this house is in the details. That bowl is handmade from washi paper, by the way.

The design is a balance of the contemporary and traditional: an ofuro or ‘soaking tub’ has pride of place in the bathroom, crafted from Japanese cypress wood and contrasted with dark rendered walls. Cypress is known for its natural antibacterial properties and strong resistance to humidity and mould, making it ideal for wet rooms.

All views lead out to the ‘tsubo-niwa’, a beautiful enclosed courtyard garden, a key feature within a machiya. Opening up to the sky, it’s a lovely extension of the living room, and sitting by the window watching rain fall into the garden is a very ‘only in Kyoto’ experience. (Kevin Mcleod, eat your heart out).

The tōrō stone lantern and frog statue, quite literally a world away from a Cheshire garden centre, represent brightness and good fortune. (The Japanese word for frog is ‘kaeru’, which is pronounced in the same way as the Japanese word for ‘return’, and some travelers will carry a small frog amulet with the intent of returning safely home).

And last on our tour, step over the ‘genkan’ (that’s the entryway, where you leave your shoes), into the foyer, where you can enjoy your own private art gallery. Look at me! I’m Charles Saatchi!

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