How Trunk Tokyo Borrowed The Concept Of A Boutique Hotel And Made It Better

It's all in the details.

By Leiti Hsu

19 March 2019

You’ll know when you’ve become a fully unmoored, quote-unquote ‘digital nomad’ when a lobby of a design hotel starts to look just like home.

If this sounds like you, while in Tokyo, you may very well find yourself checking in to one of the 11 rooms or four suites in Trunk Hotel.

Nestled on a quiet street, Trunk Hotel is a mere 10-minute walk away from the colorful frenzy of Harajuku and Omotesando (like a youth-driven Fifth Avenue of Tokyo) and a wander away from Fuglen and Streamer coffee shops, the Shibuya Cheese Stand and other walk-worthy stops.

From the outside, it looks like a geometric layer cake, gray angles stacked on top of gray angles, with verdant greenery, like frosting, bursting from each layer. By Mount Fuji Architects, the hotel is built from stone, metal and upcycled wood from old Japanese houses; Jamo Associates and Line-Inc designed the interiors.

The lobby bar is abuzz at all hours, with a restaurant featuring an airy chef’s counter facing an open kitchen. Choose terrace seating or gather your own group in the private dining room as you lunch on cheery bento boxes accompanied by fresh juices and a wide selection of low-intervention wines. You’ll also find sake, shochu and hyperlocally brewed beers, plus honey from the Shibuya Honeybee Project.

Then again, no matter where in the world, food and drink has become a necessary characteristic of boutique hotels. We want to be delighted by chef-driven menus, day-to-night dining in a lobby that welcomes both guests and locals, plus next-level room service with a more consciously-sourced minibar selection. And while differentiation by way of a top-notch food and beverage program may seem like a trend, it’s actually not as new as it may seem.

What’s old is new again in the old-fashioned world of hospitality. In fact, the world’s oldest continuously running hotel happens to be in Japan: founded in 705 AD, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is considered a ryokan (or traditional inn). Ryokans originated as hatagos—simple houses located near the highway welcoming travelers for a meal and shelter. During the Edo period, as traveling became increasingly popular, especially among the samurai class, competition among places to stay became fierce.

Guess how hatagos began differentiating themselves? By serving the best food.

This history lesson garners a giggle. Could it be that the samurai of yesteryear were hotel lobby hipsters? We like all the same things.

Fast forward to today, and hotels are now more than places to sleep; they are spaces to convene international friends. Trunk frequently hosts chefs from around the world to collaborate, including Nicolai Kadeau of Kadeau in Denmark and, most recently, a four-hands between Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong and Natsuko Shoji of été, Tokyo’s one-table only tasting menu restaurant. The next chef on deck? Hiroyuki Shinohara, winner of the 2015 Grand Prix of RED U-35, one of the biggest chef competitions in Japan. Based in Shanghai, Shinohara will be hosting a specialty-crafted lunch and dinner at Trunk on May 26, with reservations opening on April 7.

Trunk’s culinary vibrancy is a manifestation of their broader ethos—one which celebrates “all people who are living the ‘now’ and who strive to “be of help to someone” and to “do something for a reason,” “to live true to yourself, without undue pressure, but with a life-sized social purpose.” These missives are written all over the website and printed materials. (They’re really into printed materials here, everything tactile.)

The man behind it all? Hotel creator Yoshitaka Nojiri, who fell for the pulsating Shibuya district as a teenager and first saw success in the hospitality industry with his core wedding venues and production business. (No wonder the Trunk property, with its small number of rooms, still features such extensive event facilities, plus a rooftop chapel to boot!)

With Trunk, Nojiri wanted to showcase the creativity he knows is so special and particular to this fashionable neighborhood beloved as much for its style as its progressivism—Shibuya is on the front lines of the LGBT movement as the first Tokyo ward to accept gay marriage.

Every object and element at Trunk has been sourced with a “Made in Japan” ethos. The same locally-made refreshments and candies, towels, bathrobes and toiletries you enjoy in-room and want to take home, you can find in the Trunk Shop. When I say “locally-made,” I don’t mean with Japanese or even just Tokyo origins—but Shibuya-specific.

There’s even a Socializing Journal, an in-house publication outlining the details that went into every aspect of Trunk, the origin stories for all the objects. You could very well spend all day reading the Journal and poking around property. And you don’t mind (kinda), because Trunk really is very considered—the Japanese boutique hotel baby you’d expect would already be prevalent but isn’t.

Because for as design-driven and craftsmanship-obsessed (and adorable knick-knack loving) as the Japanese are, boutique hotels have not quite taken off yet here.

There’s the one-year-old Hotel Koe, a Shibuya neighbor to Trunk that features an apparel shop and bedrooms inspired by traditional tea ceremony rooms. And, of course, The Muji Hotel opening in Ginza in April of this year—yes, that Muji, the Japanese retailer of hyper design-y utilitarian household and consumer goods opening their third location after Shenzhen and Beijing. (Much like Restoration Hardware and ABC Home led restaurants, Muji going into hotels does make sense.)

There’s nothing that makes me grimace more than a big brand trying too hard to do a boutique hotel. With that said, it must be noted that Marriott’s Moxy Hotels has opened up several in Japan. Serviceable at a certain value price point, it’s as kitschy as the other uniformly-Moxy Moxys around the world—nothing to write home about.

Even the stodgy Mitsui group has rolled out a bargain designer concept called Celestine, which, nice try, looks like a regular hotel to me.

Things are a-changing fast as you read this article with the Olympics happening in 2020—the much-anticipated Ace Hotel (American granddaddy of boutique hotels!) opening in over-touristed Kyoto in late 2019 being the perfect example.

And yet, there still aren’t as many boutique hotel options in the country. The reason why the Japanese translation of the concept is rarely seen? Perhaps it can be pegged to the generally risk-averse culture, coupled with sky-high real estate prices (...you thought your NYC apartment was tiny) and labor costs (“the Japanese aren’t having sex!”)—all of which leave little room for experimentation, making Trunk that much more notable.

In an only slightly ironic way, Trunk takes the boutique hotel concept and says it out loud—taking a concept that, while not originally Japanese, becomes uniquely so in the carefully considered, occasionally cheeky, details. For instance, by reading the one-pager summarizing the Trunk team, in addition to a pie chart illustration the different nationalities represented, you’ll learn that 41.4% sport facial hair.

In this rules-driven society, Nojiri has done away with employee manuals; instead, he hires people who can think for themselves and figure out ways to solve problems without relying on rules. Again, as effortlessly cool as the Japanese can be, this is a totally maverick way to do business here. The Japanese love rules.

The messaging is faintly culty, if digital nomadism were a cult that kowtowed to ‘socialising’—a core tenet inspiring much of Trunk’s brand vision—although many old guard Japanese hotel executives remain astonished that guests would want to intermingle with other guests and the locals.

So if and when you tire of the lobby and even the neighborhood, choose from Trunk’s activity offerings: everything from a Mount Fuji photo lesson to a private tour of Tsukiji market, and even a hang-out with sumo wrestlers (where you get to taste sumo stew with them—mmm, nourishing!).

Everybody wants to be unique, but if everybody is unique in just the same way, does the uniqueness lose its lustre? While not the most go-with-the-flow or individualistic, one of the strengths of Japanese culture lies in its brazen yet thoughtful copycatting—in their ability to take something foreign, from burgers to Italian food, denim to EDM music, and make their own optimized version of it. They don’t just fall in love with the thing...they study it and then methodically recreate the best possible “it.”

So no, the Japanese did not invent the concept of a boutique hotel, nor do they pretend to have done so. But Nojiri did recognize it as something good and, indeed, made his own even better.

So, my dear fellow world-weary traveler, don’t wince the next time you step into a coffee shop or a hotel lobby that looks eerily familiar in design aesthetic, with the patrons dressed just-so, as if from central casting.

Perhaps this global hipster aesthetic is just our way of saying, hey, this makes sense, it’s comfortable and it’s savvy business. Why not invite the community into your lobby to spend money on good food and drink?

When not reading depressing world news or doing our part in saving said world, it’s okay to like nice things—and to like some of those very same nice things.

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