Kaxons blare from trees, so loud it makes conversation challenging. “Cicadas,” explains hotelier Chris Teo in a half-shout. The executive and managing director of property development firm Roxy-Pacific was the key driver behind its flagship hotel in Singapore, the 500-room Grand Mercure Roxy, and is now working on its overseas hospitality projects. He smiles reassuringly. “You’ll get used to the sound.”
We are in no forest; we are walking through Kyoto’s neatly kept residential areas, en route to the City Hall station. Had we driven, we would have missed out on the cacophony that defines a Japanese summer, as well as forgone the chance to join thousands of folk converging on the heart of Japan’s biggest and most famous festival, the Gion Matsuri.
Comprising several grand processions and smaller rituals spread over the month of July, the Matsuri draws over a million visitors annually, tourists and locals alike. The most stunning of these are the road processions, where over 30 colourful “floats” snake their way through the city centre, each flying the flag of the noble house that constructed it by hand.
The gargantuan wheeled platforms go up to several storeys in height, and bear either a giant diorama depicting a deity’s triumph over certain demons, or a cadre of male representatives from the respective house, seated precariously atop a tower. Towed strictly by hand, the floats creak and sway ominously as they execute nail-biting, 90-degree turns, to the delight and cheers of a teeming crowd spanning kilometres of overcrowded kerbside.
Conceived in ancient times as a ritual to appease angry deities, the festival has run annually for over a millennium almost without fail, by imperial decree.
Even a ban on religious events by a particular shogunate in the 16th century was overturned that very year by a people’s protest. The strong devotion to culture by both state and its denizens is why Teo chose to set up shop in Kyoto over more metropolitan Tokyo.
“There’s more soul, here,” says Teo simply, after we retire to the hotel’s homely cafe. “Kyoto was the old capital of Japan and it is still, very much, the cultural capital. That, and more travellers are looking for deeper, more memorable experiences. They’re looking forward to a destination, not an established hotel. And so we felt there was a lot of room for a boutique hotel here, conceptualised around the destination, to grow.”
No small help, then, that Teo landed a plot that is a literal stone’s throw from one of Kyoto’s top cultural attractions, the Imperial Palace garden. The hotel’s also a dozen-minute walk from highlights like the Matsuri, and two shop units from a subway exit.
The spacious rooms at Noku blend the modernity of a hotel with elements of traditional Japanese design; for one, they’re all framed with bamboo wood panelling instead of wallpapered plaster. The embroidery on the bed backboard varies from room to room, as does the contents of a display case that features Japanese trinkets, complete with an informative placard detailing their origins. Even the hotel’s scent leans towards notes of grass and pine. “Things have gone a little too contemporary in other places; it’s time to go back,” he says of the design choices.
The mindset of preservation echoes the architecture in the city, as the government is adamant on keeping the original look and feel of buildings. “You won’t see neon lighting or bright colour schemes for buildings. There are stringent height restrictions as well,” says Teo. A quick glance down the connecting streets corroborates this; wooden accents and muted shades of grey dominate, and the sky is always visible. “And you have to be respectful to the neighbours; nothing too garish or with loud music.” He chuckles. “When we were in the construction phase, they were visibly worried, and even asked: ‘Is this going to be a Hard Rock or something?’”
But, while some conventions are sacred, he isn’t afraid of implementing change, either, particularly when it comes to service. “You can’t just have the hardware; you need to have the right software for your customers. I’ll tell you what people look for now; it’s not the physical amenities. It’s entirely about service.”
To that end, Teo enforces a horizontal management structure where each member is empowered to go beyond their usual scope of duties, with customers as top priority. “Japanese management tends to be very hierarchical and this stifles initiative. On the other end, we’ve had staff hand-deliver a guest’s lost items to them right away, a small gesture that might not have materialised had the staff been afraid to take the lead.”
And why not continue the earlier success in Singapore, we ask. “We found that the land and labour market in Singapore was very tight, very competitive,” says Teo. “We would get more mileage with overseas properties.” The group’s second overseas hotel is already under way in Phuket.
Noku Kyoto, 205-1 Okura-Cho Karasuma-dori Marutamachi Sagaru, Nakagyo-Ku Kyoto-city 604-0861, Kyoto
PHOTOS Gion Festival, Kyoto, Japan / TPG Images, Liao Xiangjun