One night in the 1930s, the writer Junichirõ Tanizaki and a couple of his friends were boating on the lake beside Sumadera Temple in Kobe, Japan. It was autumn, and the group were there to observe the emergence of the harvest moon, having brought refreshments in lacquered boxes for the occasion.

“The margin of the lake was decorated brilliantly with electric lights in five colours,” Tanizaki would later write in his treatise on aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows. For a man who delighted in the ambiguity that reigns in darkness and murk, it was a disappointing night. The moon, as it turned out, could only be glimpsed “if one strained one’s eyes for it”.

Tanizaki was writing in a period of his country’s history where Western influences seemed to be tugging at the fabric of Japanese design. Lightbulbs proved especially irksome for the author. At the Miyako Kyoto hotel (now owned by Westin), Tanizaki complained, “The ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head…‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling, the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted. One of these balls of fire alone would suffice to light the place, yet three or four blaze down from the ceiling.” Yet, for all of Tanizaki’s forlorn predictions about the banishment of subtlety in favour of brash innovations like the electric lightbulb, few of them have been borne out. An innately Japanese aesthetic has endured, whether in its temples, cuisine, household objects or anime, to cite a few examples. In many cases, any exterior influence remains imperceptible to the casual observer.

When I design architecture, I always try to inherit what we already have; that is, climate, view, history, culture and human action.

The same remains largely true of the Japanese cruise sector. It is a relatively small market compared with the US or China. In 2017, it was estimated that more than 250,000 passengers from Japan would sail on cruise holidays.

As such, excepting foreign competition in the form of Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises, the Japanese market is serviced by a handful of local, low-capacity operators specialising in providing a high-end cruising experience. And it was this market in which the Guntû embarked upon its maiden voyage with Setouchi Cruise late last year.

The vessel – all 3,013t of it – is most definitely a cruise ship, but hardly appears as one. For one thing, the Guntû is small; at 81.2m in length, and capable of a cruising speed of only 10kt, it is about as far as one may get from the bold, statement-making vessels that ply the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. But with its satellite mast, squat and pointed bow, the vessel resembles a ryokan (inn) that is fending for itself at sea, as if thrown into the water by a storm in a fit of absent-mindedness.

Designed with nature in mind

The Guntû was designed by the architect Yasushi Horibe, who is better known for building houses than anything intended to float. Born in 1967 in Yokohama, Horibe is a graduate of the department of environmental design at the University of Tsukuba’s School of Art and Design. Establishing his own practice in 1994, he won the prestigious Yoshioka Prize for his Gallery in Ushiku in 2002, before winning the Architectural Institute of Japan Prize for the Charnel House in Chikurin-ji in 2016.

Continuity is an all-important theme in Horibe’s work. When the architect was commissioned to design a country house in the mountain resort town of Karuizawa, it is not clear whether he anticipated the resulting design would so clearly blend with the surrounding forest. The house would be built around the largest trees on the plot, or would absorb them. Where there were no trees, Horibe made sure that his client would feel that there should be. The walls and floors were lined with wooden panels, while the main saloon had five fixed wooden columns lined with rattan, which pushed the ceiling upwards like poles in a tent.

It was precisely this commitment to rooting his designs in the shape of the surrounding landscape that entranced Setouchi Cruise. “My belief is that natural and cultural scenery are significant and invariable,” says Horibe. “The client felt sympathy for that, I think.”

With its compact size and room for only 19 cabins, the architect did not have much room to play with on the floating hotel. Nevertheless, Horibe made the most of the space allotted to him. He started by removing as many barriers as possible between the cabins and the outside world, using enormous bay windows and shoji doors to frame the rocky coastline.

“When I design architecture, I always try to inherit what we already have; that is, climate, view, history, culture and human action,” explains Horibe. “You can see the result of my challenges [for] how to show a view from the Guntû, [where I cut] out scenes with pillars and eaves, as in old Japanese temples.”

These windows lead out onto an exterior patio, where guests are encouraged to relax as the vessel gently putters by the nearby fishing villages. Below deck, guests can enjoy other luxuries, whether in the on-board beauty salon, lounge, spa and six seat sushi-bar that sources fish from the waters nearby. Horibe and his colleagues spent months meticulously preparing every aspect of the ship’s design. Wood features overwhelmingly in the design of the Guntû, layering the walls in every cabin. What ceiling lights there are remain round, small and unobtrusive. Tanizaki would be proud.

“I was happy because I know our team got the quality we sought,” says Horibe. “The most impressive moment was when the Guntû moved onto the sea for the first time. I had never experienced such a feeling; I felt sure of our success when the Guntû adapted herself to the scenery of the Seto Island Sea, without any sense of incongruity.”

Circular journey

The term ‘guntû’ refers to a local species of crab that is native to the bay. Small and blue, they are also tenacious, and have been known to cut through fisherman’s nets with their claws. When eaten on their own, they do not prove to be a satisfying meal; however, locals find them quite divine in flavoursome broths, stews or miso soup.

It was with this feeling in mind that the ship operator named the vessel after the local delicacy. Like the crab, the boat rarely, if ever, touches the shore. While this preserves the exclusivity to be had on the voyage, this is also down to practical considerations; the vessel is too large to berth nearby any of the tiny settlements that dot the local shoreline. Fortunately, this problem was worked through during the design process. “We can land [at] unknown, small villages and picturesque spots with tender boats,” says Horibe.

We Japanese find beauty and peace in just the way things are. Looking back, the Guntû may express this feature.

Passengers aboard the Gwwuntû are free to explore a tantalisingly beautiful part of Japan. It was here, amid misty inlets and 700 tiny islands that poke above the waves, where innumerable samurai clashed during the Genpei War. Today, the area is home to several isolated settlements and abandoned fishing villages, drained of their youngest inhabitants by the lure of the big cities far away from the bay. Departing from Onomichi City, a typical trip will round several islands and include visits to Naoshima – famed for the avant-garde Benesse Art Site – and fishing communities dotted around the area. On board the Guntû, guests can expect sushi from fresh catches made in the local area. They are also free to join festivities on the yakata boat, a small vessel launched from the Guntû for moon-viewing trips.

It remains to be seen whether the Guntû will become as much a creature of the Seto Inland Sea as its namesake. Horibe certainly hopes that it will be, just as his other terrestrial creations have blended in with the forests and mountains that surround them.

“‘To make good use of itself’: I think that is a key characteristic of Japanese culture in cooking and architecture,” he says. “We Japanese find beauty and peace in just the way things are. Looking back, the Guntû may express this feature. We made her to tell the beauty of the Seto Inland Sea.”