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Preserving Authenticity in the Hotel: Curbing Capitalistic Practices

            In tracking how the hotel’s function in society has evolved over the past century, the postmodern hotel has shifted its identity to appeal to tourists by not only incorporating Western ideals of architecture and hospitality, but also adding copious, unnecessary amounts of technology. Westernization, as well as these modern technological amenities, strips the hotel structure of its cultural identity, creating an atmosphere wherein persons live devoid of local customs and traditions. As the world has transitioned into the technology era, hotels have adapted to include these nouveau resources to accommodate guests. But as these structures have evolved to society’s increasingly digital climate, one notices that lifeless technological devices have diminished the culture and authentic atmosphere that makes each hotel unique. In his novel Hotel Theory, Wayne Koestenbaum acknowledges that the hotel should function as a refuge from reality, but one that features local, culture-infused accommodations; he says, “A hotel-analysis will acknowledge hospitality, hostility, or hostelry on the part of the ‘home’ key in relation to the various ‘alien’ or ‘neighboring’ or ‘related’ keys it hosts” (Koestenbaum 57-58). This passage reinforces the author’s recognition that humans’ recent emphasis on material goods, at the expense of preserving local traditions and customs, only strips society of cultural authenticity. To counter this trend, the Ryokan Higashiyama preserves its cultural roots by retaining the structure’s traditional architecture, and featuring accommodations that directly reflect a focus on cultural authenticity. Thus, hotels in the Orient that are furnished and equipped with technological amenities, and appeal to tourists by incorporating Western-style décor at the expense of authentic Eastern traditions, merely distract guests from the surrounding city life, which precludes cultural immersion.

The Ryokan Higashiyama deviates from the superficial environment that many hotels have adopted, as its library, garden and tea area, spa, and guest room furnishings embody traditional local Kyoto and Japanese culture. Instead of abandoning our hotel’s rich tradition by including amenities that cater solely to tourists, the hotel retains its original architecture, dining options, and emphasis on urging guests to explore the beauty of the city’s natural surroundings. In his work, “A Quick Trip to China,” John Needham observes the materialism toward which society has moved; he says, “And this is the key-note everywhere – costly materials, highly wrought, conferring value and respect, as in a church… like the religion that began in Galilee, [have] sold [their] soul; money always kills” (Needham 95). Instead of experiencing ancient Chinese history uninfluenced by an increasingly capitalistic state, Needham notices structures such as “the new Great Wall Hotel, which houses the Beijing Hard Rock Café” disrupting China’s otherwise ancient, historical culture (95). Hotels and guests have diminished the cultural atmosphere by placing more importance on superficial, worldly luxuries aimed toward increasing tourism and profits. And this phenomenon is not confined to American hotels: as seen in The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington D.C., business centers, elevators, escalators, and digitized monitors now dilute the hotel’s otherwise genuine atmosphere. Rather than utilizing the hotel as a utopian escape from reality, as Frederic Jameson explains in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we allow our hotel experiences to be diluted by our constant yearning to be connected to the Internet, and other entertainment-based facets of society (Jameson 39). As evidenced by the dazzling – but culturally empty – furnishings and amenities of modern hotels such as The Mandarin Oriental, society’s propensity toward including technology in nearly every facet of life prevents persons from experiencing authentic culture of the Orient.

The Ryokan Higashiyama not only preserves Japanese cultural authenticity by retaining the structure’s architecture, which is based on ancient Kyoto traditions and customs, but also places guests’ primary focus on the city’s surrounding natural beauty by minimizing technological intrusion. To carry out this goal, the hotel features a library where guests can learn of Japanese history, tea ceremonies that celebrate traditional customs, and a garden, which features aspects of traditional Japanese landscaping. But the structure is not merely a museum, as we also aim to create a relaxing, enjoyable atmosphere: the hotel includes a spa area where guests can schedule massages and facials, spacious guest rooms that feature soothing koi ponds, and meditation pillows that enable physical and psychological rejuvenation. These amenities, however, do not implement the same capitalistic aspects of the hotel Koestenbaum identifies as creating this cultural inauthenticity. In his work, the author recounts, “Then I walked into a mall, connected by subterranean passage to the hotel… The clerks stared aggressively at me: I lacked currency. The suits on sale were illegit, sleazy… Did the stingy receptionist ever grant me a room key?” (Koestenbaum 10). As Koestenbaum alludes to, a hotel loses its appealing atmosphere when its employees are more concerned with profit margins than ensuring comfort and hospitality; thus, the Ryokan Higashiyama does not key on capitalistic aspects. And to create a quaint, homely environment devoid of the impersonal atmosphere typically found in chain hotels, we limit our accommodations to just 12 rooms. This gives our guests the opportunity to experience our amenities and services in full: the spa is never completely booked, there are not exorbitant waiting times for breakfasts and dinners, there is room for each guest in the garden, and enough tea for each person to have ample servings. Our hotel is designed to contrast the commercial blueprint that so many postmodern, and chain, hotels have adopted.

In accordance with our priority to emphasize authenticity and local culture, we decided to place this hotel in Kyoto because of the city’s steeped history and natural beauty. Having been Japan’s capital until just several hundred years ago, Kyoto is recognized as a country with charming landscape and scenery. While Chow prefers to remain enclosed in the nostalgic hotel of 2046, Kyoto’s allure invites guests to explore the surrounding elements. In Tennessee Williams’ In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, Miriam reinforces the notion of Kyoto’s natural beauty, saying, “I’ve been told that I shouldn’t miss Kyoto. The person, the acquaintance, the man that mentioned Kyoto to me said that Kyoto is a place of lovely old pagodas and flowering trees…” (Williams 8). Given Miriam’s marital struggles, Kyoto could have served as her escape from the superficial reality of the bar she frequents. Just as this city can be the desired refuge from her tattered marriage, we hope guests find the Ryokan Higashiyama to be an authentic solace from the hectic outside world. The hotel differentiates its services from competitors by bucking the trend of Eastern, postmodern hotels increasingly resembling Western society because this practice prevents guests from experiencing the Orient’s authentic culture. Edward Said recognizes this, describing modern hotels as devoid of authenticity: “The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe” (Said 63). In this passage, Said points out the shortcomings and cultural ambiguity that many structures in the Orient face; having incorporated Western ideals into the architecture and atmosphere of Eastern hotels, these structures lack authenticity and cultural uniqueness. The Ryokan Higashiyama seeks consistency in the design and style of its hotels, as well as the history and traditions it maintains.

In addition to the aforementioned amenities that our hotel includes, we also emphasize authenticity by providing traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner to guests. To supplement our void in lunch, we will include a visit to a Japanese restaurant on our hospitality tours in downtown Kyoto. As we intend to preserve the hotel’s extensive tradition, the Ryokan Higashiyama’s menus include food items that would have welcomed an ancient traveler dating as far back as the 9th Century CE. Consistent with this goal of preserving culture and history, each meal is served in the Nakamura family’s original dining room, and offers the finest cuts of fish and side items. As the designs of breakfast and dinner menus aim to maximize Japanese culture and tradition, our hotel contrasts the current image of postmodern hotels that Koestenbaum describes as “…belong[ing] not only to tourism and to aesthetics, but to language, with its revolving doors and dumbwaiters, its metamorphic keys” (Koestenbaum 130). So instead of providing cuisine geared toward comforting and catering to Western tourists, the Ryokan Higasiyama invites guests to expand their pallets, providing the finest authentic foods in a traditionally Japanese format. As Director Zao Wang explained to us when fielding questions about his short film, Honeymoon Suite, hotels can provide a home away from home that fosters its own unique atmosphere and mood. Understanding that each component of each room contributes to the structure’s aura, this hotel seeks to emulate Wang’s notion by creating a culture-based, pleasant setting. Through its extensive, traditional menu, the Ryokan Higashiyama creates a comfortable mood and environment for guests by offering its authentic Japanese menu in its quaint, original dining room.

As the founders of the Ryokan Higashiyama, the Nakamura family, have managed this hotel for more than one thousand years, the emphasis on Kyoto’s cultural roots and extensive history remains steadfast. By minimizing the presence of technology, guests are encouraged to escape the raucous city and experience the surrounding natural beauty of Kyoto. From the design of the hotel’s façade, to the authentic landscape of the garden, to the traditional cuisine and furnishings, the Ryokan Higashiyama engenders a culturally rich atmosphere that provides guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in Japanese traditions in a comfortable, vitalizing environment.