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We arrive in Hakuba on the Shinano Express with a throng of hike-ready Japanese retirees. Thankfully, it’s clear who we’re here to meet. Sebastian Larsen — tall, swept-back brown hair — looks akin to the elder von Trapp children, albeit wearing Ray-Bans. Utilitarian ski resort that it is, Hakuba, just west of the city of Nagano, is not quite his natural habitat.
But we are not here to ski. Sebastian is here to drive us to the House of Finn Juhl, a new boutique hotel that, somewhat incongruously in a town best known for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, is dedicated to the celebrated Danish furniture designer. Finn Juhl (1912-89) sits with Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen in the pantheon of Denmark’s mid-century designers, but he is the one whom the Japanese venerate most.
“The Japanese love Finn Juhl so much that when they stay at the hotel, they ask special permission to sit on the chairs,” says Sebastian as we buzz past skiwear stores and a converted American bus selling burgers to tourists. Sebastian is the 18-year-old son of the head of production at Onecollection, a Danish furniture company that owns the sole rights to manufacturing Juhl’s designs. It is his gap year and he is chalet host for the season.
So how did this temple to Danish design end up in the Japanese Alps? The story is in part a tribute to Japanese shokunin, the mastery of an artisan skill. In 1998 Finn Juhl’s widow asked Onecollection, owned by friends Ivan Hansen and Henrik Sorensen, to make a single edition of a sculptural sofa known as the Model 57 to mark the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death. She was so pleased with it that she let the pair go back through Juhl’s archive and begin manufacturing selected pieces.
The difficulty came in finding craftsmen exacting enough to hand-make the wooden frames. While the 57 is an upholstered, metal-framed piece, Juhl’s best-known chairs, the 45 and Chieftain are carved wood and leather, with incredibly precise curves made for a body to slip into like a glove.
Hansen and Sorensen learnt through their Japanese agent that a furniture maker in north-east Japan, the Asahi Sofu Corporation, had the skills they needed. Its founder likened the craftsmanship of Danish furniture to the finesse of Japanese katana swords. On one trip over to visit the factory floor (above which two portraits of Finn Juhl hang), Hansen and Sorensen were taken to Hakuba by Motoharu Okazaki, their head of marketing in Japan and who, before entering the furniture business, worked for Hakuba’s mountain rescue. There, in an impulsive moment, the pair decided to buy a rundown hotel as a holiday house for friends. A proper look around gave them another idea: create a hotel full of Finn Juhl designs. A year’s worth of renovation later, the House of Finn Juhl opened in December 2016.
As we pull up outside, we discover, it being outside the main ski and summer seasons, that we are the only guests. Inside the house does feel rather like a showroom — quiet, white-walled, carefully curated. We tiptoe around it in slippers by Georg Jensen (fabric provider to the queen of Denmark) running our hands along teak chair arms and opening drawers and cabinets for the mere satisfaction of letting them click back into place. The craftsmanship is stunning.
Later, we venture up the mountain for a walk down the 1998 men’s downhill ski run. It’s steep on the knees but allows us to ponder the crumpled hills below. On our return, Okazaki — who prefers to be called “Harry” — has arrived. He co-owns the hotel with Hansen and Sorensen, and suggests a trip to a favourite local haunt for horse meat sashimi and Hakuban sake.
As we negotiate the slippery flesh with chopsticks, he tells us that the hotel could be the only one in the world dedicated to just one designer, a claim that research seems to back up. And while it may feel like a showroom for now, the more the furniture is used (“as Finn Juhl would have wanted,” he says) the more it will become a real “house”.
Back in the hotel’s basement bar, perched on Juhl’s 109 dining chairs and sipping wine from the 150-year-old Domaine Sogga in nearby Obuse, Harry explains why Finn Juhl and Japan are a good fit. “Japanese design is very similar to Denmark: simple and beautiful and functional. But only in Japan can you turn out 100 handmade chairs all the same.”
Alice Hancock was a guest of the House of Finn Juhl Hakuba (houseoffinnjuhlhakuba.com). Double rooms cost from Y30,000 (£200) in low season (April-October) and Y40,000 in high season, including breakfast and drinks. For information on getting to Hakuba, and skiing and hiking there, see hakubatourism.jp and seejapan.co.uk