Phoebe Amoroso

One night at Shiroiya Hotel: creativity, cuisine & community in the heart of Gunma

I’m someone who is prepared to travel for art. In the past year, I’ve found myself hopping between installations on Naoshima, Teshima and Shodoshima, wandering around art museums in Porto and Lisbon, and posing with street art in Amman and Singapore. Staying in an artwork, however, is quite a different prospect and an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Inside space of Shiroiya Hotel

I’m someone who is prepared to travel for art. In the past year, I’ve found myself hopping between installations on Naoshima, Teshima and Shodoshima, wandering around art museums in Porto and Lisbon, and posing with street art in Amman and Singapore. Staying in an artwork, however, is quite a different prospect and an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Shiroiya Hotel opened in 2020 in Maebashi, the capital of Gunma prefecture, which lies about a couple of hours north of Tokyo. A former ryokan that operated for more than 300 years, its latest reincarnation is a mix of intriguing architecture and art where no two guest rooms are the same.

The project came about thanks to a local man with a vision — Hitoshi Tanaka, the founder of JINS, a nationwide glasses company. Over the past decade, he has been working on several local entrepreneurship and town revitalisation projects. Shiroiya Ryokan closed its doors in 2008, but five years later, Tanaka embarked on a mission to transform and reopen it as a hotel for the modern era. He reached out to friend and star architect Sou Fujimoto, who took on the challenge of redesigning the main building, which would house artworks by several renowned artists.

Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive whether the project would speak to me. A fan of art though I am, I’m hardly knowledgeable, and part of me wondered if all these big creative names would produce something too conceptual, a concrete structure that would remain ironically intangible.

I needn’t have worried. Shiroiya Hotel far transcends categorisation as an “art hotel”. Seamlessly weaving culture, cuisine and creativity, the site boasts saunas, fine dining, a bakery and even a Blue Bottle Coffee. The centre of town is a mere stroll from the front door, where newly opened cafes, shops and coworking spaces show that Maebashi is determined to reverse the nationwide trend of the youth flocking to larger cities and carve out its own distinct identity and community.

I visited in early November, just as the leaves were turning a little red outside. The air was crisp and fresh, and I had no idea what to expect. Here is how my stay unfolded.


Exterior of Shiroiya Hotel in Maebashi city

Arriving at Shiroiya Hotel, I am struck by how much the building stands out and yet remains sympathetic to the surrounding street. It’s a white four-storey concrete structure adorned with concept artist Lawrence Weiner’s work — four bright yellow signs that bear colourful text statements like “FROM THE MOUNTAINS” or “FROM THE SEA.”

The hotel’s name is scrawled in red neon, and just beneath is an alleyway that leads to the entranceway. In fact, the alleyway provides a shortcut through the entire plot to the street behind, inviting passers-by to do exactly that, simply pass through as they wish. This opening up of the space, I’m told, is intended to invite local people onto the premises and anchor Shiroiya Hotel more as a community space, rather than just a hotel frequented by art-seeking outsiders.

Exterior of the Green Tower (Shiroiya Hotel)

We enter the Heritage Tower, the former main building which Fujimoto has gutted to create a soaring atrium that stretches upwards. It’s criss-crossed by concrete steps and a spiral staircase, replete with tumbling greenery and a scattering of artworks. The first floor is home to the reception desk, the RESTAURANT, and the LOUNGE, which all seamlessly blend into an open-plan space that begs to be explored at leisure.

The upper floors house 17 of the 25 guest rooms, but I learn that I’ll be staying in one of eight rooms in the Green Tower. This adjacent structure is one that grows, seemingly impossibly, out of grassy hummocks. It’s as if Hobbit Village became Hobbit Town — I’m half-expecting a mythical creature to pop up its head and welcome me.

I step into my room for the night and it’s love at first sight. Entitled “Interstellar” by Kengo Kito, it features a wall of sprawling, connected colours — as if someone had drawn endless chalk swirls and waves — punctuated by circular lights, lit in red, blue, yellow and green. I spend a lot of time running up and down, admiring it in happiness, and I definitely do not jump on the bed.

Shiroiya Hotel doesn’t allow guests to choose their room at the point of booking, aside from the concept rooms by famous artists. Yet Minako Morita, public relations manager of Shiroiya Hotel, tells me that they always do their best to match the room to the guests.

“Your room is the most divisive,” she tells me, amused by my delight.

We’re on a tour of the artworks of the main building and the four concept rooms. Italian architect Michele De Lucchi has designed a room covered in Japanese itabuki wooden shingle, while Leandro Erlich’s room is framed with brass plumbing pipes. I marvel at British artist Jasper Morrison’s design, a room panelled in wood — walls, floor, ceiling — with a bathroom featuring a hinoki cypress bathtub. It’s impressive, but I still love my room the most.

We work our way across different storeys and levels, looking down and admiring the geometric patterns of the staircase and walkways punctuating the expanse of the atrium. It almost seems to play tricks on us.

“It’s reminiscent of an Escher print,” says Morita, referencing the Dutch graphic artist famed for mind-bending works like Relativity (1953).

Looking down form the top floor of Shiroiya Hotel

The atrium space is accented by Erlich’s pipes, this time in the form of LED lights, which are said to represent “the veins of an invisible life form,” one that has existed from long ago, reflecting both Shiroiya’s past and local history, and the modern developments. Later that evening, when the lights are gently glowing, I slip through the space as if traversing a new cyberpunk reality.

Blue illumination during the evening in the lounge


As a food writer and guide, I was undoubtedly and unashamedly most excited by the prospect of some fine dining.

Dinner for the evening is served at the RESTAURANT, overseen by Hiroyasu Kawate of Michelin-starred Florilège in Tokyo, and executed by Gunma-born head chef Hiro Katayama and his staff. The concept combines French techniques with local ingredients and some Japanese culinary twists, with all courses are expertly paired with drinks, thanks to the talents of sommelier Yoshimitsu Kojima.

Akagi beef at The Restaurant in Shiroiya Hotel

We begin a seasonal, regional journey where each course stands its own, offering intriguing yet approachable and utterly delicious dishes. A bite-sized cumin-inflected pumpkin tart is topped with local cheese; Maebashi hirame (flounder) arrives encased in bacon and cabbage and drizzled with parsley oil; a smoking chunk of Akagi beef is sliced open to reveal tender pink perfection; a mushroom risotto delivers a potful of umami and autumn.

It’s clear Katayama knows how to have fun. There’s a soft bread roll filled with truffle-tinged scrambled egg that elevates the humble snack. Then, a couple of Gunma classics are creatively transformed. Okirikomi, a kind of vegetable hot pot with hand-kneaded flat, wide udon noodles, sees those noodles turned into a creamy mousse, and the veggies topped with punchy oil of chilli, leek and konbu. Finally, the local sweet yakimanju — a kind of steamed dough coated in a miso sauce and grilled — is presented as a single mouthful on the end of a long spoon.

Yakimanju presented as a single mouthful on the end of a long spoon.

For those wanting to continue the evening, there’s the hideaway Bar Matcha-Tei, designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto and architect Tomoyuki Sakakida, which only opens Friday and Saturday nights. However, there’s no need for a fancy night out; casual dining can be found at the LOUNGE, an airy, all-day dining space that aims to attract the locals, not just the guests (I’ve made a mental note to try the much-advertised Shiroiya burger next time). Shiroiya Hotel also boasts an on-site patisserie and bakery. I highly recommend stocking up on bread before heading home — I cram my bag with shiopan (salted, soft bread roll), a raisin loaf and a pumpkin-butter pastry. Caffeine lovers will also be delighted by an adjacent Blue Bottle Coffee.


A stop at a Dorayaki shop at the nearby shopping street

To understand Shiroiya Hotel, it’s essential to understand it as part of a wider vision for the town. Duly, we’re given a tour shortly after we’ve checked in.

Maebashi was once a prosperous city due to its flourishing silk industry, but has since declined. Technically the capital of Gunma Prefecture, it’s fighting to re-establish a modern town for both residents and visitors. It has been successfully growing its art reputation over recent years. We pass by the modern art museum Arts Maebashi and the sleek, modern Maebashi Galleria, that echoes the concrete-meets-greenery style of Shiroiya Hotel. We stroll the charming footpath along the Hirose River, pausing at the statue Taiyo no Kane (“Bell of the Sun”) by famed artist Taro Okamoto.

What stands out most, however, is the newly opened spots that punctuate the town. It feels as if we’re strolling through a trendy suburb of Tokyo; I already feel so at home. We pass Grassa, a fresh pasta restaurant from Portland; we tuck into fat, spongy dorayaki pancakes from Nakamata, a sweets store housed in an attractive glass-brick building; we sip takeout coffee from Laugh Coffee next to coworking space Comm. There are hops growing alongside the street, which, we’re informed, are now being used as botanicals in a local gin. Then, there’s another surprise — Donryu Yokocho, a narrow alleyway filled with tiny bars that have been spruced up, freshly adorned with lanterns, and relaunched as modern drinking spots tinged with Showa era nostalgia.

As we’re wrapping up the tour, we encounter artist Kenzo Onoda, whose artwork “Parade (on film)” adorns the ceiling of the Heritage Tower elevator — colourful patterns, digitally created yet printed on tiny squares of analogue film and illuminated as light boxes. To me, they seem like psychedelic miniature stain glass windows. Onoda greets us all warmly, and maybe because I’m already feeling so at home, I beam at him like a long-lost friend. He passes me a small tile of film, like those on the elevator ceiling, and I clutch it like colourful treasure. As soon as I’m back, I head to the elevator and hold it up to the light, comparing it with its cousins.

Later that night, after dinner and drinks, I slip out to the Donryu Yokocho. It’s past 11pm and many places are already closing down for the night, but one small space welcomes me in. I sit chatting and laughing with the barwoman and a local man at the counter, sipping an oolong tea and picking at stewed aubergine.

Tanaka’s vision for Maebashi is crystallised under the slogan “Where good things grow.” Staying at Shiroiya Hotel for just one night, I found a whole garden of good things growing and being nurtured by a vibrant local community.

Final Thoughts

Shiroiya Hotel is a choose-your-experience affair. It’s for architecture, art and fine dining lovers, those seeking a unique hotel experience, or those simply looking to enjoy some time off the tourist trail.

I’ll be going back to Maebashi to delve into its art museums, taking a trip to the slightly further afield Hara Museum Arc, and to venture out into the beautiful nature around the nearby Mt. Akagi. But I’ll also be making time to simply coffee-shop-hop and hang out.

This article was supported by Shiroiya Hotel. Details about the Hotel can be found here.


Address: 2-2-15 Honmachi, Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture

Tel : +81 27 231 4618(7:00-22:00)

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Contributor:  Phoebe Amoroso

Hailing from the UK, Phoebe is a Tokyo-based multimedia journalist with a focus on culture food and travel. She can often be found eating, cycling and exploring, sometimes all at the same time.

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