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Originals

The Gem Polisher

Interview

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Words Allison Reiber DiLiegroImages Ko Tsuchiya

It can be easier to scrap the old and build from scratch, but that’s not how Tomoki Matsuyama operates. When he founded Onko Chishin, he set out to find hidden gems throughout Japan, polish them, and help their owners share them with the world. 

But just a month after opening, the Great East Japan Earthquake hit and changed his course forever. Tomoki opened Onko Chishin in February 2011 as a one-man consultancy, harnessing his hospitality experience to preserve ryokan—traditional Japanese inns—by helping them rebrand and boost their revenue. After the earthquake struck in March, Tomoki tasked himself with a bigger challenge: to help small hotels rebuild and reopen after the disaster. “By visiting every corner of the Tohoku region—all the stations on the Tohoku Shinkansen line,” he tells us, “I learned that local communities can be revitalized by introducing destination hotels.” And with that, Onko Chishin had a new mission.

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Tomoki started big: by transforming a former art museum built in Matsuyama by legendary Japanese architect Tadao Ando into Setouchi Retreat by Onko Chishin. From there, he opened Iki Retreat by Onko Chishin on the small island of Iki off of Nagasaki. Aside from their offbeat locations, a throughline of his hotels is their attention to local makers. “I have a deep respect for craftsmanship,” Tomoki tells us. “For producers, creators, chefs, storytellers, and shokunin (master artisans) who dye a place with their own unique color and tell a site-specific story.” Tomoki believes that preserving these stories—and uplifting the people who tell them—matters, and he’s committed to doing so.

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How did you choose the name Onko Chishin?

“Onko Chishin” comes from a famous classical proverb in Chinese and Japanese. It means to study the past thoroughly in order to gain insights that are useful for the present and future. Valuing old things and teachings to create something new is what we hold dear. In that way, the very existence of our company is sustainable.

Why did you build Setouchi Retreat by Onko Chishin inside the former art museum designed by Tadao Ando?

No one wanted to take on the project at first. It seemed like a neglected property, and with only seven rooms, the prospect of profitability seemed slim. However, seeing it as an opportunity to transition from consultancy to operations, I decided to take it on boldly.

What was it like to work with Tadao Ando on this project?

In the beginning, there were many ideas for turning this building into a hotel. When I brought them to Tadao Ando, he was diametrically opposed to the idea. He decided to keep the building as it is as much as possible, and that’s how the hotel became what it is today. There were instances where Ando-san’s decisive opinion completely overturned our previous considerations. It was a testament to his genuine charisma. It was incredibly challenging at first, but now it stands as the flagship of our innovative endeavors, and I’m glad we took it on. Overcoming such a difficult project has given me the confidence that I can tackle anything.

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What inspires you about ryokan?

I admire the preservation of tradition. The traditions upheld by ryokan have already become a part of contemporary Japanese culture, offering both locals and visitors alike an escape from the ordinary. They captivate not just foreigners but also Japanese people. I also admire onsen (hot springs), which let us experience the blessings of the earth through our entire bodies.

What is your favorite memory from staying in a ryokan?

It’s the multitude of encounters. From experiencing new ingredients to witnessing the ever-changing nature and the interactions with people, each moment holds a special place in my memory. Once I was amazed when I woke up to find the forest outside my room blanketed in freshly fallen snow—truly beautiful.

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“I admire the preservation of tradition. The traditions upheld by ryokan have already become a part of contemporary Japanese culture, offering both locals and visitors alike an escape from the ordinary.”

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Left side: Setouchi Retreat by Onko Chishin is a seven-room hotel, positioned on top of a verdant mountain.

The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred right after you founded Onko Chishin. What did this experience teach you?

I focused on supporting the hotels in the area so they could resume operation as soon as possible so that the area could be revived. By visiting every corner of the Tohoku region—all the stations on the Tohoku Shinkansen line—I learned that local communities can be revitalized by introducing destination hotels. It might come as a surprise, but what I learned the most was a “banker-like mindset,” the rigor of the world of lending and borrowing money. I believe that those who do not understand this aspect would struggle to become successful managers.

What is your motto?

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Who are your heroes?

Craftsmen and women. From architects, designers, and chefs to sommeliers, farmers, artisans, therapists, athletes, and storytellers—they are all heroes to me.

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The hotel showcases wine and spirits made by local craftsmen. Right side: A visit to the nearby Kyowa Sake Brewery.

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“From architects, designers, and chefs to sommeliers, farmers, artisans, therapists, athletes, and storytellers—they are all heroes to me.”

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A birds-eye view of the Setouchi dining room, flooded with natural light and large-scale artworks. Right side: Ceramics by Joshua Blue.

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Where in the world would you most like to live?

I’ve thought about this a lot and in the end, it would still be Tokyo. The transportation network is built to make the city more convenient, so there’s no question. If there was a Doraemon, or a “door to anywhere,” I wouldn’t mind living anywhere, but by then the concept of living itself would have disappeared.

What are you most proud of?

Founding Onko Chishin is what I consider my greatest achievement—it’s a manifestation of my life’s dedication. However, it’s still a work in progress. I believe the greatest accomplishments are yet to come. I find happiness in always thinking this way.

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“I believe the greatest accomplishments are yet to come. I find happiness in always thinking this way.”

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