Zentis, Osaka, Japan
A member of Design Hotels, Zentis Osaka is the debut hotel for a new lifestyle brand from the owners of the renowned Palace Hotel Tokyo. It was designed by Tara Bernerd & Partners and opened in July 2020, although it is only now, as visitors return to Japan, that it is getting its global reveal, says Kate Crockett
Arriving by night in a Japanese city is highly disorientating – and Osaka is no exception. This work-hard, play-hard city is Japan’s third-largest, and is no less in-your-face than Tokyo and Yokohama. Which is why it is such a relief when my highly polished, black taxi swings open its automatic door under the glowing sign of Zentis, a new select-service hotel in downtown Osaka.
Just 15 minutes by shinkansen (bullet train) from the ancient capital Kyoto, Osaka is a popular add on for visitors travelling Japan’s classic ‘Golden Route’ from Tokyo. But is also a destination in its own right, for business but also tourism – for its food scene, its castle park, and, increasingly, its art and cultural institutions. The city is easily accessible from Kansai International Airport and is a major embarkation port for cruises around Japan. But tonight, like many others, I have arrived in Osaka from Tokyo by way of the famous Tokaido shinkansen, to Shin-Osaka station, just 15 minutes by taxi from Zentis.
Zentis occupies the first 13 floors of a new, glass-and-brick tower on a quiet street off Yotsubashi-suji, the main road to Osaka Station. Close by is the Dojima River and Nakanoshima, the islet home of the Osaka Science Museum, the National Museum of Art, Osaka and the new Nakanoshima Museum of Art, which opened in February 2022. Its location borders the Dojihama business district and the entertainment neighbourhood of Kita-shinchi, making it convenient for travellers who, like me, are in Osaka on business but wish to squeeze in some leisure too.
Set back from the road, the entrance to Zentis is flanked by lanterns, while up-lighting illuminates a forest garden of mature maples that wraps around the front and one side of the 16-storey building. A welcoming glow emanates from the double-height-glass reception and lobby where two immaculate staff man a green-marble concierge desk framed by a trio of artworks on washi (Japanese traditional paper). Immediately striking is the surrounding profusion of wood panelling, exposed brick, timber beams, ceppo stone, structural ironmongery, and shelves of art books, vases and commissioned objects.
‘Craftsmanship and industrial heritage are key to the local culture in Osaka’, explains Tara Bernerd of Tara Bernerd & Partners, which was behind the interior design. ‘We have sought to encapsulate both through the mixture of materials and the contemporary approach with which we applied them to this project.’ Bernard says she made regular, immersive visits to Tokyo, Osaka and the Japanese countryside throughout the project’s development, and ‘we have played on the local character in our design approach’.
Beyond the concierge desk is a laid-back and lofty, all-hours social lounge, with a geometric encaustic tile floor, set to a Tara Bernerd & Partners design within a border of polished concrete to give it the illusion of a rug. Benches are upholstered in honey-coloured, antique-glaze cowhide, while banquettes feature Cheviot Herringbone fabrics from Lizzo, alongside pops of locally sourced fabrics for contrast. There’s a large, live-edged, cypress-wood sharing table, and chairs with backs upholstered in textured, green fabric from Nobilis. A double-sided, glass fireplace finished in limestone flanks the surrounding garden terrace and provides a focal point for the space.
In keeping with Bernerd’s concept of a welcoming English residence, the 24-hour honesty bar is well stocked with snacks, juices, water and local craft beers, including Osaka Dojima Beer, from the Kotobuki Brewing Company. Look up and spiralling overhead is a sculptural ‘Blenheim Blue’ limestone staircase with cantilevered elements of a bench seat on one side and shelves on the other, which leads to the double-height bar and restaurant, UPSTAIRZ.
‘I am especially proud of the design of the staircase,’ says Bernerd. ‘As it winds its way upstairs, so its open treads vanish into the beams of the ceiling, with the handrails themselves seemingly reaching back down underneath the treads.’ She adds, ‘The choice of the stone itself [was] lightly inspired by Osaka Castle.’
I take the lobby lift – neatly framed by more shelves of books and artefacts – up to my room. Zentis has 212 guest rooms, ranging from 25sqm to 57 sqm, including 169 Studios (including one accessible room), 41 Corner studios and two Suites. Rooms are compact, with king-size beds, twins or Hollywood twins, a bathroom with rain showers, as well as separate soaking tubs in the Corner Studios and Suites. There’s a 4K TV, a small wardrobe, sofa, and table and chair, but also a distinct sense of space and flow.
‘We place an enormous emphasis on the layout of all our projects, to optimise the functionality and usage of the space,’ continues Bernerd. ‘For Zentis Osaka, we approached the more sustainable room dimensions as an opportunity to get creative. We imagined the guestrooms like a traditional Japanese bento box and devised interlocking layouts to optimise on the limited floorplate and create a functional yet inviting sanctuary for guests.’
The idea is simply that each room contains everything you need for a comfortable stay, with nothing extraneous – rather like the complete meal that is contained in a single bento box. The spaces are snug but elegant and ingenious; slide open the soft-close draws and boxes and you’ll find Osaka-made cotton pyjamas, slippers, a kettle, drip coffee, green tea, earthenware mugs and plates, a shoehorn and brush, valuables safe and a dehumidifier, as well as plenty of room to house your belongings.
Beside the bed is a weighty, specially commissioned shigaraki-yaki pottery table from the famous kilns of Shiga prefecture, north of Osaka, glazed in deep indigo for the Studios and Corner Studios. The two, 13th-floor Suites – one of which has a distant view of Osaka Castle from across the rooftops – each feature the shigaraki-yaki table in beige, while all guestrooms showcase one of two sweeping shodo-style artworks above the bed, created by local artist Masami Ehara.
The Osaka property is the first of the new Zentis brand for its owner Palace Hotel Co. Ltd, of Palace Hotel Tokyo, Japan’s only Japanese-owned hotel with Forbes five-star status. Project developer Mickey Nakane of Media for Space facilitated the collaboration between Palace Hotel Co. Ltd, Japanese architectural firm Kajima Design and Tara Bernerd & Partners. There are plans to roll out the brand in other Japanese cities but for now the influence of the Palace Hotel brand on its younger sibling is felt in Osaka most acutely in the spirit of omotenashi – Japan’s famous, guest-centric spirit of hospitality.
The bar is a great example. My late-night arrival, and raging jet-lag, demanded a nightcap, and the friendly, English speaking team – all neatly dressed in white lab coats –were on hand with herbal-inspired cocktails made with infusions from their array of experimental botanicals all around the Italian marble bar. The front of the bar features fluted izumo tiles, while the comfortable bar stools are covered in a honey-coloured cowhide. Barender Nori raved about the American Bar at The Savoy as he shook and poured a signature ‘Riverside Garden’ gin cocktail, with elderflower liqueur, soda and green shiso leaf, over a perfect sphere of ice. Also in abundance were many fine Japanese whiskies.
The adjacent, 250sqm restaurant, UPSTAIRZ, seats 116 in an impressive double-height space with open kitchen, that is hung with mid-century inspired light fittings and upholstered in blue Lizzo fabrics with mustard fabric piping. The palette compliments and softens the exposed brickwork, timber beams and Crittall windows. There is an additional private dining room, with inlaid glass screens for privacy, inspired by traditional Japanese screens.
The cuisine itself is an exciting addition to Osaka’s vibrant food scene. The kitchen is overseen by Executive Chef Shinya Otsuchihashi, the chef behind Michelin one-star CRAFTALE in Tokyo, and the dinner menu features Japanese and French dishes made with ingredients sourced from across the country, from Hokkaido scallops to Kagoshima Wagyu beef and white fish from Okinawa. Breakfast and lunch feature à la carte options, but we recommend the UPSTAIRZ Breakfast, a French-inspired feast of Japanese ingredients. Take it on the first-floor terrace, surrounded by the garden canopy, alive with birdsong – it’s a welcome oasis in the centre of urban Osaka.
One of the most unlikely, brilliant spaces at Zentis Osaka is the guest laundry: Room 001 on the first floor, next to a bijoux gym with Life Fitness machines and weights. Inside, are large, self-service washing machines and driers, as well as a change machine, with natural detergent manufactured by hand by Kimura Soap, whose heritage dates back to. While your washing is on, there is plenty to distract, including a desk space with charge points, leather chairs, a (free) Nespresso machine, microwave, soft drinks vending machine, as well as shelves full of manga, travel guides to Osaka and photo books about the old city. There is even an array of complimentary perfumes to try, or you can request a shoe shine from The Shoeshine Guild while you wait.
A next-day laundry service and shoe shine are, of course, available via the usual hotel room service, but Room 001 is a good example of how this hotel pushes the limits of the ‘limited service’ model. Characterful and thoughtful, it is very much in keeping with Zentis’s attentive, yet informal, blend of home-grown hospitality. Not unlike the twinkling lanterns that illuminated my late-night arrival, this personal touch leaves me with a warm glow – and a firm desire to return.