Since 1991, San Francisco-native Jeanie Fuji has acted as the traditional Japanese okami (land lady or female inn keeper) of the Fujiya Ryokan (traditional wooden inn) in the Ginzan Onsen (hot springs) area.
That year, she married Fuji Atsushi, the son and heir of the 350-year-old inn and started her rigorous training under her mother-in-law in the art of serving customers, true Japanese style. This included preparing all meals, washing the dishes and cleaning all rooms. The goal was to make sure every need of every customer was anticipated and met following the age-old inn tradition of providing the right amount of service at the right time.
Fuji describes the types of things she had to learn. ï¿½Sliding a fusuma door open and shut, greeting guests, bringing them meals on small o-zen tables... everything has to be done a certain way, following the old traditions. And I had to learn how to talk with the guests using polite, formal Japanese. I often wanted to give up and go home to the United States. But now I love my work here,ï¿½ she says in a Japanese publication.
By the time she had a good decade of experience behind her, Fuji had gained a celebrity okami status that she modestly and reluctantly dismisses. By 2004, she and her husband hired Tokyo-based celebrity architect Kengo Kuma to raise the personal service of the inn to even higher level. Kuma overtook a complete remodelling of the inn that reopened in July 2006. Kuma is behind many well-known buildings, including the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey headquarters in Tokyo.
The capacity of the thoroughly wooden, three-story Fujiya Inn was reduced to only eight rooms with full capacity at 16 persons. Considering the location of the inn, right in the middle of a relatively remote rural area known for its hot springs and natural beauty, the level of luxury in the inn is astonishing.
Kuma has been able to combine traditional Japanese simplicity with international tastes and needs, yet avoided the dumbed-down, westernized version of Japanese style. In fact, Fuji has written an autobiography on this subject Nipponjin ni wa, Nihon ga Tarinai (Japanese people are not Japanese enough), in which she emphasizes that it is important for modern Japanese to recognize and re-claim the value of their own millennia-old customs and history.
At Fujiya Inn, you feel that you are part of an ancient, authentic and almost organic history that seems to be seeping through every seam and screen here. Many aspects contribute to this effect. One is Kumaï¿½s brilliant use of layers, screens as thin as veils, to both hide and reveal space. The omnipresent samushiko bamboo screens by craft master Hideo Nakata (no, heï¿½s not the horror-movie director) and his son required 1.2 million four-millimetre-wide strips of bamboo. Green stained-glass panes by Masato Shida and the prolific use of the handmade, richly textured Echizen Japanese paper add to the feeling of lightness and transparency.
The organic, natural quotient of the inn is also boosted by the baths and the hand-prepared, fresh food. The inn has five beautiful private hot springs baths including an open-air bath on the top floor. The food is based on a regular washoku (Japanese cuisine) menu and features many edible plants and other local ingredients. Fujiï¿½s favourites include the sansai, mountain vegetables, including kogomi (ostrich fern fiddleheads) and urui (plantain lily petioles.) The only exception to this local-only rule is Cafe Wisteria (English for fuji), open only in the summer months, and offering international coffees and cakes.
To get to the Fujiya Inn, take the 3.5-hour trip on the Yamagata Bullet Train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo and then get a bus to the hot springs. Or fly from Tokyo to the Yamagata airport and arrange for a pick up by the inn. By Tuija Seipell
China's first carbon-neutral hotel, the hip 26-room URBN Hotel Shanghai, will officially open this spring. Conceived by owners Scott Barrack and Jules Kwan, URBN promises to be the start of a new boutique hotel empire.
No strangers to luxury developments or to China where they have lived for 10 years, the two plan to open another 20 URBN hotels in China in the next three years, starting with Beijing, Hangzhou, Dalian and Suzhou. The hoteliers will go as green as possible by rehabilitating existing structures, using recycled materials, maximizing green space and introducing eco-friendly solutions.
Beyond co-founding boutique real estate investment and development company Space Development with Kwan, the California native Barrack has established several property companies in China, including Space International specializing in luxury French Concession district properties, and Inn Shangha, the city's first serviced boutique apartment complex. Sydney, Australia-born and raised Kwan is an alternative media and property development expert.
The partners have a unique, personal perspective on what works and what doesn't for a luxury traveler in China. To give visitors a true Shanghainese urban experience - something they felt was missing - they invited international Shanghai-based collaborators with similar sensibilities to convert a 1970s post office building to the stylish URBN Hotel Shanghai. The result is an impressive fusion of contemporary and Chinese design.
URBN's spatial concept, interior and facade design are by A00 Architecture, a partnership of three Canadian architects, best known for conversions of Shanghai's historic houses into unique residences. The hotel's interior designer is Brazil native architect, Tais Cabral, known for her commercial, cultural, residential and retail work in Paris, as well as her furniture design. By Tuija Seipell
The most fabulous example of a hotel combining drama, surprise, luxury and comfort is hiding in the heart of the historical, artistic and night-club haven of Montmartre in Paris. Opened in June 2007, the restored aristocratic mansion The Hotel Particulier de Montmartre has definitely decided to grow up. The two masterminds behind the project are Morgane Rousseau and Frederic Comtet who with the help of Mathieu Paillard have managed to mix art and comfort brilliantly in their unusual hotel.
The owners commissioned well known artists, designers, sculptors and architects to create an intimate five-room enclave of exceptional atmosphere and charm.
One of the distinctive rooms is the 'vegetable room' designed by New York-born, Paris-based contemporary artist Martine Aballca. With her interpretation, she wishes to evoke hanging gardens, trees and the play of sunlight and shadow. The other artists involved in creating one of the compact private suites are photo artist Natacha Lesueur (room theme: Curtain of hair), painter Philippe Mayaux (Window), fashion and textile curator Olivier Saillard (Poems and hats) and illustrator and creative director Pierre Fichefeux (Tree with ears).
Finland-born Mats Haglund of Chanel, Colette and Paul & Joe boutique fame, created the private living room. He used the personality of the proprietors as his starting point and furnished the salon with originals of classics by Arne Jacobsen, Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto.
From every window, residents can view the luscious and intimate garden created by Louis Banech, one of the landscape designers responsible for revitalizing the world-renown Tuileries Gardens.
With that much artistic and design cache, The Hotel Particulier de Montmartre will not have difficulty attracting a clientele. But to get there, you must leave the nightclubs of Montmartre, start thinking like former Montmartre residents Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, and locate the secret alleyway between l'avenue Junot and la rue Lepic. Continue to the Sorcerer's Stone and pray that the iron gates will open for you. By Tuija Seipell
Do & Co Hotel is located in Vienna's District 1, on the pedestrian-only Stephansplatz, right in the middle of the most historic part of this mindbogglingly historic city. The hotel of 41 luxurious rooms and two suites opened in May on the sixth floor of the famous, glass-walled Haas Haus building, but it is the view that really takes your breath away. What you see from the Haus is a straight-on, full-size, real-life panorama of St. Stephen's Cathedral -- Stephansdom -- that has defined Vienna since 1147 AD. It is the sound of this Cathedral's massive Pummerin (big bell) that announces the official arrival of the New Year in Austria.
The original Haas Haus building was a furniture and interior decor store, Philipp Haas & Sons. Several reconstructions later, the grand-daddy of modern Austrian architecture, Pritzker prize winner Hans Hollein, designed the current glass-steel-concrete structure. It opened in 1990 with notable disapproval by traditionalists. Hollein was also behind the latest upgrade that included the Do & Co hotel.
Do & Co, the hotel's holding company, is known worldwide for its first-class airline and event catering business and its Do & Co Restaurants and Cafes. In the Haas Haus, it operates also Vienna's hot spot, the ONYX Bar (pictured above) on the 6th floor, and Do & Co Restaurant (7th floor), plus luxurious event space on the 8th and 9th floors with amazing views over Vienna.
The heritage of the company's Istanbul-born founder and majority shareholder, Attila Dogudan, is reflected in the colorful touches interspersed in the Do & Co hotel interior by Amsterdam-based FG Stijl. The firm's partners, British Colin Finnegan and Dutch Gerard Glintmeijer, have managed to unite Dogudan's Turkish heritage and Vienna's prissy past with understated modern luxury. Your room will come equipped with Kilim bedspreads, chocolates from Viennese confectionary institution Demel (also owned by Do & Co), and a Bang & Olufsen flat screen TV. By Tuija Seipell
As a brand, the W chain of boutique hotels has practically claimed the concept of luxury to be its own; turning their properties into - must-do destinations for the hip, famous and wealthy. Just the mention of a new W property going under construction creates an immediate buzz that few other international brands could generate.
The latest W, and quite possibly the jewel in W's empire - is the newly opened W Retreat & Spa in Fesdu Island, Maldives. Already critics and patrons seem to agree its as close to paradise as you'll find on earth; a luxury playground whose physical beauty is almost overwhelming, where guests are totally indulged on every level.
The W experience begins even before you even arrive. Male airport boasts a chic W operated transfer lounge, where guests are greeted with all the modern conveniences of a big city airport - drinks, food, magazines, plasma TV and internet. It's here that new arrivals are supplied with a W kit before boarding the seaplane to W'ss private island.
From the moment of arrival its obvious that W is a master of branding. Stepping off the seaplane, I was greeted by a fleet of W golf buggiesì with W styleù number plates - lining the pier waiting to take guests to their villa. Even the luggage trolleys were shaped into a W.
Forget the bi-level Beach Oasis villas, W Maldives is all about the water Ocean Oasis villas, they are truly exceptional, sexy even. It's almost as if they've gone to every other island in the Maldives and taken the best their competitors had to offer and made it better, giving it the unique W twist that makes most W hotels standouts in their cities.
Ocean Oasis villas boast private plunge pools (or hop down the steps and dive into the turquoise lagoon if you'd prefer) and massive daybeds built for serious relaxation. Inside, the villas offer peep through glass sections of flooring in the living rooms so you can check out the marine life swimming below. Flip a switch to illuminate underwater lights for a night-time peek at the fauna. Stay connected while cast away with Samsung Plasma TVs, BOSE gadgets and High-Speed Internet Access (but who comes here to use the internet?). Drift off in the signature W king bed.
Even the names of some of the places have been carefully chosen.
WAVE - Water sports facility
AWAY - Spa which even has a hair salon but only for blow-drying, yep its that kind of resort.
DOWN UNDER - Snorkeling gear provided
SWEAT - Fitness Center
Oh, and you have to just love the Whatever/Whenever Service. They will deliver whatever you want, whenever you want it, just dial whatever/whenever from your room.
All of the restaurants are excellent. The breakfast buffet from the Kitchen restaurant is brilliant (pic above), the Fish restaurant is extraordinary and the seafood BBQ buffet at FIRE was amazing, they've certainly got the food part right.
There's a games space with table tennis, table soccer, billiard table, but not just any table billiard table, and they have the coolest brands of everything.
Which brings me to the guests. This is the serious Jimmy Choo gang, Sex in the City by the beach. I spotted one woman who changed her bikini and outfit three times every day.
If it all sounds too relaxing, you can indulge in a bit of partying at '15 below', the subterranean nightclub which plays host to some of the world's top DJs. As for the spa, we werent sure he would apart from the underground nightclub, 15 Below, the see through Kayak's and the snorkeling) are these mobile kiosks splattered around which have fridges stocked with ice creams - drinks - sun tan lotion - all free to use whenever you feel like it provide more than a few moments indulgence.
Everything about the W Maldives resort is perfect, its the perfect fantasy Island. - Bill Tikos.
BEST TIME TO GO
NOW UNTIL MAY
By far the coolest thing on the island (apart from the underground nightclub, 15 Below, the see through Kayak's and the snorkeling) are these mobile kiosks which have fridges stocked with ice creams - drinks - sun tan lotion - all free to use whenever you feel like it.
Night club and wet pool bar, Infinity edge pool, Watersports including kite surfing, Hobie Cats, water-skiing, parasailing, windsurfing, canoes, jetskis, scuba diving, handline fishing, excellent snorkelling, table tennis, pool tables and table football, Yoga, Fitness centre
Villas from US $735 per night
If celebrity patrons are an indicator of a hotel's popularity, the Maldives super-lux Huvafen Fushi is about as hot as it gets. George Clooney popped in for lunch last month, Kate Moss partied in her Ocean Villa, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes booked in a massage during their honeymoon, Alexander McQueen had left when I arrived and when I left the island, Stefano Gabbana of Dolce & Gabbana and John Galliano were set to arrive (separately).
Trendsetting Huvafen Fushi has been raising the benchmark since its first inception two years ago. Opening its doors to feature the world's first underwater spa, Huvafen Fushi has since earned its spot on the coveted Conde Nast Traveller MagazinesUK and US Hot List.
This discreetly luxurious, contemporary retreat is located on its own lagoon on a tiny island in North Male Atoll. I arrived late into the night direct from Singapore, the flight doesn't get in until 10pm (note: book Emirates instead to arrive during the day).
When I was escorted into my over-water bungalow, I felt like I'd walked into an Apple store/Armani showroom, with a bed in the middle surrounded by all my favorite gadgets. Surround sound Bose indoor/outdoor music system, Plasma TV screens, Bang & Olufsen phones, iPod Nano with an incredible selection of music that had already been installed, a separate massive bath which overlooks the ocean, my own private plunge pool, oversized king size bed, Frette linen, designer furniture (including pieces by Frank Gehry) electronic curtains, waterfall shower, the list goes on and on.
Waking up in the Maldives is something everyone should experience before they die. The view from the bed in my room overlooked the plunge pool which overlooks the Ocean. Itâ€™s an incredible sight, serious postcard material.
The day at Huvafen Fushi starts off with a buffet breakfast in Celcius, luxe-but-laid-back dining on a white sand floored deck branching out over the lagoon. Next it's off snorkeling where you'll see the most amazing colored coral and sea life including sting rays. It takes approximately 3 hours before you realize you have a tan, the sun is extremely bright and even with 30+ sunblock, you tan quite fast and you notice tan lines by the time you've finished breakfast.
My day was busy, yet I did nothing. I snorkeled, I tanned, I read, I snorkeled again, I read more, I walked over to the over-water gym, and walked back out (are you kidding, who can face the gym on holidays) and before I knew it, the sun was already setting. So I headed to Umbar to order a cocktail and sit back in the seriously comfy lounge chairs and watch the sunset while the chill band played, very Cafe Del Mar. The music, the sunset, the people, the atmosphere - it's an amazing vibe. Dinner at Salt restaurant (barefoot) is a highlight. The food was fine dining at its best, as good as anything you'll find in the world's best restaurants.
Famously, the highest point in the Maldives is only four meters above sea level, so perhaps its not surprising that the Huvafen spa is underwater, something totally exclusive to this resort. It's like entering a glamorous fishbowl where you are the main attraction to the fish. It's the perfect environment for a massage. I chose the Maldivian monsoon ritual massage and it defies description. All I can say is that I don't think I will ever be able to top the experience. Incredible is an understatement.
BEST TIME TO GO
NOW UNTIL MAY
The friendly, laid-back staff: guests in pavilion accommodation get a 24-hour butler service, while the rest of the resort gets a FISH (Fast Island Service Host), which amounts to the same thing. The underwater spa is a must.
Three restaurants, a lively bar, a seriously cool well-stocked underground wine cellar, an over-water yoga pavilion and the world's first underwater massage treatment rooms complete the picture.
Bungalows from US$880
This year, Huvafen Fushi is proud to announce three new initiatives. An übercool 70ft luxury yacht, an exclusive compilation with one of the world's most famous DJ and Producer, Ravin from Buddha Bar, Paris as well as an uplift to the world's first underwater spa.
When Huvafen Fushi first opened two years ago, Per Aquum Resorts, Spas & Residences, CEO, Tom McLoughlin, commented, "This is just the beginning. We will continue to refine the original Huvafen Fushi concept, while constantly pushing the boundaries in delivering the ultimate guest experience."
Huvafen Fushi has certainly made this statement its driving force with more amazing concepts on the way. - Billy Tikos