The question of how to turn a fluorescent-lit, dingily-painted Kyoto school into something entirely new, but still connected to education, led to one clear answer: an ‘edu-hotel’.

The 29-room Hotel Kanra, which opened late last year, sports a mission to help guests understand its historic Japanese home, weaving subtle lessons through design.

Inspired by Kyoto’s famous classic machiya, or long and narrow shops, guests rooms are similarly shaped. The concept is also reflected “by the use of natural materials such as volcanic stone, cedar, and paper — all of which express Kyoto tradition.

As one might expect from the designers responsible for Tokyo’s first boutique hotel, Claska, guest rooms and public spaces skillfully merge Japanese motifs with contemporary style through the use of timeless touches like sliding doors, washi paper hangings, tatami mats and, everywhere, clean lines.

Rooms feature minimalist white bedding and blond woods, and their linear layout evokes those of Kyoto’s shops. Guests walk along a passageway lined with a wash-basin and a writing desk. Beyond the bed, a tatami-matted area awaits.

Colors and textures — the greens of moss and matcha tea, the bumpiness of rocks — connect with the city’s visual vocabulary.

Through it all, gentle instruction is at work. One good example is the variety of grid patterns used on sliding doors. In Kyoto, explain the designers, customers can tell what kind of business a store is by the grid design, so this is a subtle cultural lesson.

The work of local artists, too, is important, since Kyoto remains a center for craftsmanship.

Photos courtesy of the hotel

Lighting designer Chiaki Murazumi created the white fabric lamps that glow gently in the lobby.

An artisan named Michiko designed, then photographed, the pressed flower images that adorn guest room walls. She’s also responsible for the ikebana arrangements that lend flare to bathrooms.

Most eye-catching is a lighting installation that hangs from the ceilings of the lobby and first floor restaurant, The Kitchen Kanra.

Designed by Tokyo-based American artist Alexander Reeder, the angular panels are programmed to respond to the season and time of day, as well as the sounds and movements made by passersby.

With a full slate of courses available — on everything from cloth wrapping to Kyoto dialects — and a charming in-room notebook detailing such traditions in every room, the hotel takes its educational mission seriously.

For guests, “back to school” has a most welcoming ring.

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