Turning Anxiety to Calm through Time and Space Dilation
Two weeks before our intended stay at Aman Kyoto, we received an email from the hotel requesting our arrival and departure details, asking us if transportation to and from anywhere can be arranged ahead of time, whether certain foods disagree with our preferences or allergies, and if fresh linens should be on the daily cleaning agenda.
Surely not an uncommon practice for luxury hotels but — as I came to notice later — perhaps an introduction to this particular establishment’s use of time and space dilation to module the pace of the experience in creating an unforgettable user experience.
The email’s warmth, empathy, generous audacity to make me feel anxious to take a break from the grind of work — these turned on my design radar. Clearly, our journey of hospitality with Aman had already begun, at home, through my inbox.
I should admit this sooner rather than later: I am not paid to write this. Everything mentioned here came from my own observations during the 2-night stay at Aman Kyoto with my family.
This is by far the most expensive place I’ve ever stayed in and this reflection is totally spontaneous; I had plans to chill, to detox digitally, but the cool pace of the entire stay caught me off guard. I was inspired by the user experience on this historic property on a mountainside of Kyoto that is supposed to be a destination hotel but that became a sanctuary for my soul.
To be specific: I noticed the particularly unstructured treatment of time and the intentional setting of space helped create a cool blend of serenity within luxury.
Most of this reflection came from the three hours after check-in because I just got lost in the vibes of the woods and the onsen with impossibly clean windows.
Dilating time by removing indicators
From the moment we set foot on the hotel grounds, at the end of a neatly paved gravel mini cul-de-sac, time seemed all out of sorts. We were greeted by a lone staff, asking for our reservation name before guiding us through a wide wooden gate that opens on one side into an area paved with grey stones the size of your thumbnails that crunches harmonically underfoot.
We are then shown into a small pavilion — a reception area — with a round table to await check-in. There was no receptionist, nor a table behind which said receptionist might beam a smile. A set of cold hand towels seem to float out of nowhere on small, black trays that camouflages into the black wood decor in the background. We gave a staff our passports, waited a few minutes, before an Aman-special blend of Kyoto green tea, served cold, glided onto the table on wooden coasters laser-engraved with the hotel’s name. The aroma rose up to open up our olfactory senses without us having to spend the efforts into swishing the glass, telling us: not to worry, someone will come soon to check us in.
A staff came in with a big binder of information, and he began by showing a hand-drawn map of the hotel’s land area and pointing out the breakfast and dinner locales, requesting breakfast time, confirming the dinner reservations, and indicating our room’s relative position with regards to the hot spring, nature walk, and dining halls.
He spoke at a slow pace, leaving generous gaps (presumably for questions, which we asked) between sentences and key information about the hotel, and then led us outside along a natural-looking stone path filled with big flat-ish stones (we’ll come back to this later) that runs the main corridor of the hotel. We walked past the breakfast pavilion and the spa on our left, guest rooms on our right, up a slight hill to a quiet residential pavilion nestled into the corner of the land that forms a scalene triangle with a mountain and river. We were told that there is an afternoon tea snack for us that ends at 4:30 PM (it was just past 4 PM when we started walking) and I was excited for sugar. We still got time.
But I was worried about time. For the first time since setting foot in this resort, I noticed that I was, in my own way, on a schedule. To go enjoy the afternoon tea, to check out the onsen, to make use of my time there because we paid a lot to enjoy ourselves there. Ironic, isn’t it? To struggle with resting productively even though we made a decision not to leave the hotel during our stay.
I realized that, up until this point, there were no clear time markers on our journey. No clocks, no strict constraints on our schedule (besides breakfast), a check-in procedure that feels more like a family welcome than a checklist, no rushing to go to the room. We talked leisurely as we walked along the moss-covered, stone-paved main street running through the hotel pavilions. I had the time to take in all the details, and appreciate the place more fully, in all its shades of green and peace.
The host was helping us to settle in quite nicely, by treating time as abundant; it stretches into infinity and we’re just leisuring in its wake.
Dilating space by introducing serendipity, and suspense
The walk took a while. The irregularities of the stones on the main path forced us to pay attention at all times to where we are so we don’t misstep. This design choice was later confirmed by the head gardener (more on this encounter later) who took us on a tour, that the stones were arranged randomly but with intention to slow down our pace. This is about the spatial design affecting our experience.
Once in the room, the staff showed us the different drawers and closet space, the information booklets and the TV, the snacks and the drinks. He took his time (on brand), explaining each amenity with care and pride — slowly, with measured sentences, without any hint of memorization. And then the reveal — the bathroom! Oh my gosh, the separate toilet room, the big wooden tub for bathing, the giant shower space, the his/her/their sinks and wooden sliding panels that opens into the bedroom. The bathroom itself was almost as big as the bedroom, but all I could think of was the afternoon tea we’re going to miss. So we finished up and walked right out to the pavillion — rushing but not rushing — just excited for some traditional sweets after eating only rice balls and chicken karaage on the train.
Right outside the pavillion, we walked by a woman who turned out to be the head gardener there. She greeted us with a big smile and natural enthusiasm, and told us about the morning and evening garden tours that she could take us on. The conversation was rather serendipitous — were we supposed to find out about this tour in another way? If we hadn’t walked by her, we wouldn’t have known this information at all but thanks to her energy, I didn’t feel like it was kept from us either. Information is scattered at random, perhaps, to be explored and discovered in the space of the hotel. This meeting piqued my curiosity: what else was there to learn and do?
We walked into the pavilion and it was a scene from The Menu: quiet, soft orange lights highlighting the dark interiors and cushioned wooden chairs. I checked my internal clock at the door then, and waited at our table for the sweets and the most fragrant iribancha I’ve ever tasted. The sounds from outside was cut off by… something… and the demands of the ticking clock seem to melt away as we enjoyed the tea set. No one was rushing for last orders (I thought about it though).
Anyways, we went up to the spa after and the onsen happened to be available. I just sat in the heated spring water for what seemed like hours and felt utterly refreshed before a 2.5 hour dinner without, might I add, a menu to let us keep track of time or to set any expectations. When we went to the restaurant, we were led into a private room from which we can see the rest of the calm interiors. The food at the restaurant was served with elegance by the most helpful staffs and our stomach just said thanks. We savoured Kyoto sake and took pictures of every single dish (as one does). Needless to say, we enjoyed the meal very much. We went home in semi-darkness, enjoying the hotel’s sparsely-illuminated stone path in a totally different non-light.
Waking up to the pacelessness
The next day, we received a box of chocolate with a note from management about spending time in the hotel’s “secret garden”. So we did, with the head gardener we met. She shared with us the history of the land, the previous owners, how the hotel took decades to materialize and all of the choices are made with respect to the city, the place, and the previous owner’s vision for a garden.
It was a enchanting conversation through history as we walked up a hill just off to the side of the hotel’s main residential area, past some side paths, a pond, several pools of water. At the end of the path, we hiked a giant staircase arranged of large boulders similar to the main path, designed to look and feel challenging on the way up and flat on the way down. A metaphor for our lives, we were told, that when we conquer a challenge, the experience will seem easy in hindsight.
Would I have realized this lesson if it’s not been shared with me there? In that spot, after seeing how the rest of the hotel was designed? I suppose I would never find out.
The second day there I felt calm, at peace with the day’s lack of pace. I thought about the information that we can ask about but not explicitly told, like a pre-selected menu that meets our dietary restrictions or the origami sessions that we didn’t end up attending. I thought about the lack of checklists to go through, the soft landing into rest from the world outside.
I wrote most of this reflection while looking out of an open window with crickets or other noisy bugs outside since morning. The window faced the side of a green hills that occasionally brought in a cool breeze, the sunlight dampened by the trees. I was at peace, away from time and comforted by the contours of a chill space. So what if I can’t do it all? I could just sit and enjoy nature and not go eat. Even if I had only 48 hours here, I can always just come back.
Later that night I wrote three poems inspired by the plants on the rock walls. Just before check out time we met two couples who stayed at other Aman properties, who also thoroughly enjoyed their time there. It’s like inspiration and connection just opened up when there is a space for them.
Months later, as I am reflecting on this reflection in the middle of the Bangkok metropolitan area, I thought about that vibe of not feeling like I have to doing everything all the time besides losing myself in space and time. I thought about the luxury of that feeling, that somehow money was able to secure.
For what is luxury today, but the ability to be on a different frequency than the rest of society.