Ninety years ago in 1922, the Kiyomizu Elementary School first opened its doors to welcome a new generation of Kyoto school children into an era of modernity. The reinforced concrete construction stood representative of Japan’s breakneck efforts to modernize and integrate hallmarks of European design on a national scale, a minor monument in stark contrast to the traditional architecture that still paints Kyoto with an enduring historical climate. The building still stands intact atop of the Higashiyama hillside in Kyoto, not so different from its storied past that a former student might still recognize numerous hallmarks of their alma mater, operating today with a purpose no longer so much academic as leisurely.
Transformed into The Hotel Seiryu Kyoto Kiyomizu in 2020, the school has been reborn as a luxurious example of adaptive architectural reuse, welcoming guests seeking the best of Japan’s historical capital mere footsteps away from some of the city’s most famous landmarks.
The Hotel Seiryu Kyoto Kiyomizu was once filled with the unbridled energy of children going to and from class, and it’s natural to conjure those echoes of the building’s past resonating through the hotel’s respectfully updated 4-story main building. That’s in no small part due to Tokyo-based Aoyama Nomura Design (A.N.D.)’s light hand in the building’s conversion. Led by Creative Director Ryu Kosaka, the firm kept many of the school’s original European-influenced historical charms for eyes to investigate and fingers to trace – Spanish tiles, large beams, wooden spandrel walls, arched windows, double-width tiles, and scalloped detailing. Most poignant are the smoothly worn wooden rails running across the hotel’s staircases, and other small telltale nicks and pockmarks documenting the building’s schoolhouse years inhabited by countless generations of students.
All in all, the results are a laudable example of the greenest form of architecture, reusing much that was already there as a respectful reinterpretation of the city’s history.
To update the school into accommodations worthy of its luxurious intent, A.N.D. tactfully added numerous modern details, each curated to complement the building’s past without venturing into saccharine nostalgia.
Contemporary art and furniture are intermixed with elements of vintage provenance coordinate to imprint the hotel’s reception, common rooms and hallways, restaurant, and bar with a sense of history that feels fresh rather than museum-like. New modern sections were constructed to house the hotel’s reception, staff facilities, and to host an expansive lounge where guests are afforded all varieties of complementary bites and beverages throughout their stay.
The 48 guest rooms themselves are more openly updated to a contemporary finish, with a warmly modern-minimalist aesthetic embracing large expanses of wood and gilded wall treatments, with all the modern bed and bath amenities expected of a 4-star hotel. Similarly, guest services are exemplary upon arrival, characteristically Japanese in detail and care, while still being completely navigable by first time visitors who might still be practicing their arigatou gozaimasu (think: formal, but always friendly).
Nestled away just a short walk from Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most famous and celebrated temples in Kyoto, the ambiance across the hotel is relaxed and appreciatively serene, a stark contrast to the throngs of crowded streets of tourists that surround the property, making it an ideal home base for exploring the numerous temples, shrines, museums, gardens, and Kyoto’s shopping and dining district.
The rooftop bar serves various libations and small plates, complemented by a postcard worthy view of Hokanji Temple “Yasaka Pagoda” and surrounding historical Kyoto (including the enormous Ryozen Kannon giant Buddha in the distance). It makes for an ideal vantage to plan out the next day’s excursion destinations.
While traditional ryokan inns and stylish contemporary hotel options are aplenty to choose from across Kyoto, The Hotel Seiryu Kyoto Kiyomizu stands as a satisfying compromise between history and modernity, a destination specifically imagined to “imprint memories and connect to the future” with the satisfying spirit of a yearbook in architectural form.
What: The Hotel Seiryu Kyoto Kiyomizu
Where: 2-204-2 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan, 605-0862
How much: Starting at $611 for a Standard King with breakfast included.
Highlights: While all 48 rooms include spacious bathrooms and well appointed beds, the rooms affording a view of Hokanji “Yasaka Pagoda” are arguably the most scenic to fall asleep and wake up to. The hotel’s own Restaurant Library serves both Western and traditional Japanese breakfasts with a sizable collection of art, design, and historical tomes to nose through (we highly recommend the traditional menu for its beautiful presentation and delectable seasonal flavors). And you don’t have to venture far if you want other dining options: Benoit Kyoto, an Alain Ducasse French + Japanese restaurant adjoins the hotel site, situated just across their shared driveway.
Design draw: Kanjiro Kawai’s House, the preserved residence of the modern Japanese potter and ceramist is a short and scenic 10-minute walk away, with the POJ Studio brick-and-mortar store and the Kyoto Ceramic Center both nearby. If you light up at the mention of “lamp,” be sure to check out the lighting shop, Miura Shomei, where you’ll find where all those Western mid-century designer’s found their inspiration from.
Book it: The Hotel Seiryu Kyoto Kiyomizu
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