The rumbling Greyhound bus slowed as it glided down Hirafu-zaka Street drowned in the streetlights’ amber. The wiry bus driver announced my stop in sotto voce before the hydraulic door opened in front of a six-story industrial block. With a suitcase in one hand and a ski bag in the other, I stood before a dark cast-iron entrance hidden between concrete beams and steel planks. Austere even for a villains’ hideout in a Bond film, the monochromatic edifice was a visual anomaly in bustling Niseko (二世古), Asia’s most popular ski resort. The hotel concierge in a charcoal-gray suit extended a placid welcome and handed me a key chain, thereon etched my room number: Loft 7.
Completed 15 months ago just in time for the 2010 ski season, Suiboku (水墨) set out to challenge conventional wisdom in ski resort lodging. The name, which literally means water and ink in kanji, refers to the dark and light shading of the traditional Chinese brush painting technique adopted by Muromachi Japan in the 14th Century. In much the same way a consummate suibokuga painting (水墨画) captures the seen and the unseen using nuanced shades of gray, Suiboku communicates with its interplay of bold textures, subdued light sources and a metallic taupe palette. On the scroll that is the hotel’s open floor plan, every hunk of steel is a brushstroke, and each slab of concrete an ink wash.
The story of Suiboku, the fruit of a true international collaboration, is a plot worthy of an NHK docudrama. The project brought together Japanese architecture firm Atelier BNK (which designed the Sapporo Dome and a host of other iconic public buildings throughout the country), creative Australian architect Chris Taylor, a project management team from ski resort-savvy Canada West Homes, as well as seasoned developers-cum-financiers C.J. Wysocki and Mike Jones from Hong Kong and Singapore. Together, the cross-border partnership overcame design challenges, above all in trying to maintain the building’s clean-lined structural form without hindering snow removal and to install an under-floor heating system throughout the premises, all the while keeping costs down and staying true to the minimalist design concept. One steel panel and one oak floorboard at a time, Wysocki and Jones saw their brainchild grow from a sketchbook of magazine clippings to one of Niseko’s most sought-after ski lodges in a matter of four winters.
To get a sense of the exacting precision put into the ski lofts, look no further than the off-form concrete used throughout the interior. The goal was to create an ad libitum roughness unique for each concrete surface and to that end, Niseko builder Itawa Chizaki erected a half-dozen sample walls in a nearby parking lot and concocted an intricate mathematical formula to create a variety of concrete textures achievable only with the finest Japanese workmanship. “Rough precision”, it seems, is no longer an oxymoron in this part of Japan.
The elevator door opened and I was greeted by an iron Arakan Buddha haloed under a solemn spotlight. I turned the key and pushed open the heavy floor-to-ceiling door made from bespoke Kurokawa black steel. In the foyer, silhouettes of dark and light quietly awaited the new occupant. While my body immediately sensed the heated floorboards beneath my feet, my eyes were drawn to the spacious living room sliced into halves by a twelve-foot long concrete surface. Aptly named the “living table,” the daring design statement triples as a dining table, a workstation and a bar countertop. Why didn’t anyone think of that before? I whispered despite myself.
One end of the living table leads to an open kitchen fitted with state-of-the-art appliances by Gaggenau, Miele, Rinnai and Nespresso. The other end opens to a generous configuration of sunken daybeds covered in lush faux fur upholstery and against an entire wall of Christian Liaigre-inspired bookshelves made with intersecting steel I-beams. In the deep recesses of the bookshelves, a roaring fireplace nestles unsuspectingly next to a 42-inch LCD screen, one of the four in my three-bedroom suite. The abundance of iPod docks and Internet access points is guaranteed to satisfy the technorati among us. And leaving no detail unattended, even the body lotion atop the bathroom sink, made in Hokkaido exclusively for the hotel, is wittily labeled “Meiji Restoration.” Suiboku is where a serene Zen Buddhist temple meets an under-lit Abercrombie & Fitch store minus the deafening dance beat.
As if all of that weren’t enough to impress the discriminating lodger, outside the wall-to-wall window and beyond the snow-covered balcony, the majestic Mount Yōtei (羊蹄山) basks in its full snow-capped glory. Each of the ten lofts at Suiboku promises a full view of this Niseko landmark, nicknamed “Mount Fuji of Hokkaido” for its symmetrical shape. In the presence of such imposing natural beauty, residents who wish to take a break from alpine skiing may well choose to stay in and snuggle up by the window with a novel and a cup of hot cocoa.
It is said that a suibokuga master can capture the life and fragrance of a flower without reproducing so much as the object’s colors and shapes. Without a doubt the über-chic yet delightfully livable Suiboku has done just that. In a paradox of the best kind, the hotel’s industrial austerity exudes warmth, luxury and a sense of home away from home, just when all of these things are most needed after an exhausted day out on the cold mountains.
Suiboku191-29 Aza-Yamada, Kutchan cho, Abuta gunHokkaido 044-0081, JapanTel: +81 136 21 5020 www.suibokuhirafu.com