A retreat in balance between tradition and modernity: the Hishiya hotel in Fukuchiyama

by Daria Verde

Compasses Magazine

On the Yura River, in Japan, stands the second oldest city in Kyoto prefecture, Fukuchiyama. It flourished at the turn of the 16th century around the homonymous castle, built in the Warring-States period by General Akechi Mitsuhide.

Being famous mainly for the assassination of the daimyō Oda Nobunaga, whom he was serving, and master in the construction of many forts, Mitsuhide rebuilt Fukuchiyama Castle – originally erected and ruled by the Yokoyama family – in 1580 on the foundations of the preexistent fortification. During the Meiji Restoration the castle was destroyed – along with many other castles in Japan – to be rebuilt in 1986, after a lively campaign launched by the residents of Fukuchiyama, and now it houses the local history museum.

Despite its ancient origins, Fukuchiyama is today the hub of the northern Kinki region, playing an important role not only for the area’s economy and industry, but also for local culture and education. In fact, thanks to the development of its infrastructure, including the construction of the high-speed railway, it has become the nodal center of the region’s transport network, evolving into a commercial city.

Here, in a city balancing between tradition and progress, Fumihiko Sano carries out the renovation project of a folk house of the first half of the 21st century. Perhaps, no one better than him – first trained as a Sukiya’s apprentice carpenter at Nakamura Souji Komuten in Kyoto, then as an architect in a design firm – would have been able to rise to the challenge, developing the dichotomy between the conservation of traditional architecture and the needs of modern comfort. In fact, starting from a conception of space, construction methods and materials strongly linked to tradition, in his projects Sano often reinterprets Japanese culture with the aim of creating works in which architecture, design and art come together in a unicum strongly anchored to the needs of the present. This goal was certainly achieved in the project of Hishiya hotel in Fukuchiyama, obtained from the reconfiguration of a traditional machiya, a wooden terraced house typical of the Kyoto prefecture.

This expression of Japanese vernacular architecture – which originated in the Heian period, then continued to develop in the following centuries, in order to house merchants and artisans in the Japanese cities – has been facing a rapid process of progressive disappearance, due to the difficulties and costs related to its maintenance and to the high risk of damages due to fires and earthquakes. Among the machiya that have survived to the present day, many have suffered significant losses in the traditional appearance of their façades, having been completely covered with concrete and having thus lost the wooden grids on the ground floor, the mushikomado windows on the first floor and even the traditional tiled roofs.

Fortunately, a very different fate has befallen the Hishiya hotel, whose project allowed to create a place of hospitality capable, on the one hand, of reflecting the culture of omotenashi (hospitality) and, on the other, of preserving the peculiar characteristics of the traditional Japanese style.

The project stems from the will of the client, who currently runs a restaurant in the city, to offer its visitors an experience strongly linked to the identity and tradition of the area in which he grew up – an alternative to the anonymous hotel chains spread across the country – employing for this purpose one of the increasingly numerous vacant houses in the area. This inn originated from an idea of architecture that offers a moment of break from the hustle of everyday life and the choice of handcrafted local materials for its construction was intended to reflect the identity of the place where it stands. The façade has kept the wooden grids on the ground floor typical of the machiya – whose style was once indicative of the type of commercial activity the building housed –, the characteristic mushikomado window (insect cage) on the first floor and the traditional roof of brick tiles.

The front of the building accommodates, according to tradition, the space for commercial activity, in this case a small restaurant. Behind this mise no ma (space for the shop), there is the kyoshitsubu (living space), consisting of four different rooms with wooden floors and tatami mats. In the back, the preexisting warehouse was demolished to make way for a small courtyard garden or tsuboniwa, which favors the air circulation and increases the light supply in the rooms located in the rear of the building.

During the renovation, the existing atrium was rearranged to create the reception area, behind which the staircase develops. This leads to the two rooms on the upper floor and to the attic, set up as a shelter in anticipation of the frequent flooding of the Yura River.

The inn thus redefined still retains traditional elements, including the floors formed by tatami mats, the interior wooden finishes, and the presence of tokonoma in the rooms. Compared by Frank Lloyd Wright to the western fireplace, this small ornamental alcove, together with the elements that are exhibited in it – sculptures, calligraphies or ikebana compositions –, has in fact been an essential component of Japanese interior architecture since the Muromachi Period (14th-16h century).

Furthermore, each room was made by local artisans, using local materials such as stone from Tamba, indigo dye from Fukuchiyama, Japanese handmade paper from Ayabe and cypress wood from Tango.

In this way, the abandoned building has come back to life, becoming a source of employment for local workers and a welcoming place for visitors, who have the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the region through an authentic experience and a close contact with the local materials and techniques.

The aesthetic aspect of the whole is very well cared for: wherever one lays eyes there is a glimpse that appears perfect in its formal balance. As is often the case in Japan, tradition and modernity come together, generating an architecture capable of contributing to the revitalization of the region, fully achieving its author’s goal of creating a welcoming and attractive space. After all, Japanese architecture – in which every element is designed for a specific function and everything is perfectly calibrated on a human scale – has always fascinated the rest of the world and with this project continues to do so.

Fumihiko Sano Studio

Hishiya hotel


53 Hishiya, Fukuchiyama City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan

Project Year

Architecture and Design
Fumihiko Sano Studio

Fumihiko Sano

Additional Functions
Contractor: Funakoshi Construction Firm Co., Ltd.

Size and total area
213 m2

Image credits
Yuna Yagi




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