The Ryokan Higashiyama, named for its traditional ryokan style architecture and its location in the Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto, both literally and metaphorically centers on its courtyard. The open garden is located at the very center of the hotel, mirroring the empty space at the center of many Asian cities that is reserved for the emperor’s palace. The hotel in no way aims to replace the city itself, as Said opines of hotels in his essay “Orientalism.” Geographically, this historic hotel is located in the Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto, and physically is nestled in between two contemporary buildings. Though the hotel is embedded in the city fabric, it does in a way resemble many cities in the Orient, thus provoking Wayne Koestenbaum’s reiteration of Sigmund Freud’s “uncanny.”
The concept of a garden comes from preconceived notions of Japanese culture and reminded me of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in DC. I enjoyed exploring the outdoor space at the DC hotel and found that the rounded green space and curved paths offered a relaxing environment even amid the roaring DC traffic. While it did not feature certain Japanese aesthetics, I still felt the concept of emptiness was fulfilled. The Ryokan Higashiyama on the other hand has a filled empty space. Zen gardens, koi ponds, and wooden bridges evoke authentic Japanese aesthetics. This calm area contributes to the hotel’s homelike experience albeit in the middle of a crowded and chaotic Kyoto.
These images are an effective way to create an empty space at the center of our hotel and recall certain writings by Roland Barthes and Kostenbaum. Koestenbaum insists, “In blank spaces it is our duty to dream up coincidences, to cram emptiness with pivotal, star-crossed dovetailings” (25). This emptiness recalls Barthes’s own concept of emptiness, or mu, in Empire of Signs. While Koestenbaum believes that we are responsible for filling these empty spaces, Barthes feels that this emptiness is necessary for the human condition.
The Ryokan Higashiyama accomplishes a balance between these philosophers’ findings. The courtyard is not blank empty space. It is, instead, complete with all items—sitting space, water source, greenery—necessary for fulfilled contemplation. Barthes agrees with the importance of meditation, an activity that the Ryokan Higashiyama encourages their guests to enjoy. Barthes outlines his opinion of writing:
Writing is after all, in its way, a satori…it creates an emptiness of language. And it is also an emptiness of language which constitutes writing; it is from this emptiness that derive the features with which Zen, in the exemption of all meaning, writes gardens, gestures, houses, flower arrangements, faces, violence (4).
With this in mind, the center garden fulfills the emptiness necessary for Zen, contemplation, and meditation. But as Koestenbaum concludes, the Ryokan Higashiyama’s guests can make their own experiences within the hotel—they can make whatever they want of their stay and they can utilize the “emptiness” for whatever purpose they so desire. Traditional Japanese tea ceremony? The Ryokan Higashiyama provides the necessary materials for “nodate” tea gatherings. Reading? Benches throughout the courtyard offer guests an inviting place to enjoy books of their own, or any that they can find in the small library on the first floor.
Had Miriam actually made her trip to Kyoto in Tennessee Williams’s play In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, this is not the hotel where she would have stayed. A guest of the Ryokan Higashiyama is not looking for elaborate food or an extensive spa menu. Instead, the guest interested in this hotel knows that one cannot simply “absorb” the culture of a major city in just one breath; the tall task requires educated staff members, an accessible location, and dedication on the guest’s part. The Ryokan Higashiyama makes great efforts to enable its guests to experience Kyoto’s best. The weekly bulletin notifies guests of upcoming events in the city. The suggested itineraries provide a starting point for guests to begin their site seeing. Even the food served at the hotel, a traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner and the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, allow guests to live and learn the culture at any time of day. Perhaps this hotel would appeal to Charlotte of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation. The educated and curious character would find more to enjoy here than the high maintenance and demanding Miriam. Charlotte actually made the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, whereas Miriam hardly ever left the bar.
These women serve as treatments of “hotel women” (Koestenbaum 28). Koestenbaum describes the hotel woman as having “a fugitive sensibility or character, often ‘feminine,’ reprieved from the rigors of fixed address” (70). They seek escape, either from the hotel or from their own responsibilities. Miriam insists that she “[has] enough and a little more than enough” vitality to make up for what her husband lacks (Williams 4). She desires an escape from her husband, a way to remove herself from the responsibility of his decaying mind and body. Charlotte seeks fulfillment, as her husband does not provide for her what she feels she needs emotionally. Specifically, she questions the importance of motherhood. She feels that a full womb may lead to a full life and wonders if she can find fulfillment without reproducing. The emptiness of her womb mirrors the emptiness addressed in Barthes, and the question reflects a woman’s maternal instinct. Charlotte views the absence of children as emptiness of life—but are absence and emptiness necessarily the same?
Fairly early in Hotel Theory Koestenbaum poses the question: “Is a hotel maternal?” (16). I immediately recalled his words when I entered the cozy and homelike Ryokan Higashiyama. It affirmed for me Koestenbaum’s notion that a hotel has endless possibilities. So, is a hotel maternal? What does that say of hospitality—business and practice alike? I suppose that can be determined by a stay at the Ryokan Higashiyama. Later in his book Koestenbaum introduces the memoirist Annie Ernaux. Koestenbaum relays: “For Ernaux, hotel surpasses home” (26). But this is not true for the Ryokan Higashiyama. This hotel felt like an extension of the home—a place where travellers, both foreign and local, can experience the intimacy of small, personally run accommodations.
Yet this experience differs vastly from the small, personally run Hotel Iris in Yoko Ogawa’s novel. Mari’s mother, certainly not maternal, runs her hotel differently from the Nakamura family. The Ryokan Higashiyama is far more personal—yet less intrusive—than Hotel Iris. While Mari strives to escape the watchful eye of her mother and experience the rest of the coastal city, guests at the Ryokan Higashiyama are encouraged to roam the streets of Kyoto and still return for dinner, cooked by Okaasama Nakamura, the hotel matriarch. Noting, “Remember: you can escape maternal influence by checking into a hotel” (26), Koestenbaum presumes that all guests seek this kind of escape. At the Ryokan Higashiyama, a guest cannot fully escape from the city nor from the intimacy of the family establishment, but they can certainly find a corner of peace and quiet in different areas of the hotel.
In a hotel as unique as Ryokan Higashiyama—complete with an unparalleled history, original architecture dating back to ninth century Kyoto, and a strictly family-staff—is there room for the uncanny? Is there reproduction even without repetition? Wong Kar-Wai’s film 2046 demonstrates a hotel’s innate repetition by recycling, even permeating scenes and narrations. Despite Ryokan Higashiyama’s valiant attempts to create an exclusively Kyotoan experience, do guests feel as though they could just as easily be in another city, Asian or not? The hotel experience is innately repetitive, even when a hotel is personally owned and without mass-produced furniture and décor. Koestenbaum writes: “The uncanny is home defamiliarized—its rule book torn at the seam. A hotel mutates the unhomelike into industry and canned hospitality” (116). While Ryokan Higashiyama succeeds at creating authentic hospitality, they are not immune to repetition. If guests choose to eat breakfast and dinner in the dining room each day, as they are invited, they more than likely will run into a repeated menu. But guests are not the only individuals prone to the uncanny. Take for example the staff in Zao Wang’s Honeymoon Suite. They anticipate Mr. Hirschfield’s arrival each month, yet greet him each time with a warm smile—good customer service, but redundant nonetheless. Koestenbaum lists repetition as one of the “ecstatic liabilities of hotel consciousness” (70), suggesting that any redundancy is innate in the hotel expereince
And Ryokan Higashiyama’s garden courtyard: the uncanny of the city center? When guests experience Ryokan Higashiyama, they likely enjoy the communal spaces, like the central garden. But when they step outside the hotel’s doors and take in Kyoto, as they are encouraged to do, will they not find the city’s own empty center? Will they be reminded of Ryokan Higashiyama? Will they experience this uncanny? There are many ways to experience a hotel, as Koestenbaum proves. But are these experiences distinct from other hotels? If there is always repetition, then there is never raw individuality. Guests may escape to a hotel, may escape from the hotel, but the hotel cannot escape its own repetition, the uncanny.