As the pandemic-stricken world struggles to its (proverbial) feet, some old habits die hard. One doesn’t step into a queue without looking earthwards first. The all-powerful sticker – literally – draws a line in the sand: personal space is not a courtesy, but a given, especially when comprising said space might lead to calamity. And that last look into the mirror before leaving one’s home or car – that’s to check if your mask is on.

Restaurants, likewise, have had to make do with new rules. Dining rooms got a lot less cosy as warm bodies are replaced with mannequins, soft toys or cardboard cut-outs. Some establishments even threw out the dining room altogether, opting for a chair and a table in the middle of a field. But those are 2020’s ideas. It’s 2021, and Japanese ryokan Hoshinoya Tokyo – first established in 1914 – brings a fresh look to the pandemic-safe dining experience, even as Japan begins its way into the new normal.

Peace of mind is offered to guests by way of new-age chochin. These lanterns, traditionally made of paper or silk around a bamboo cane frame, are now wrapped in less than a millimetre of transparent vinyl. Instead of hanging outside izakayas or temples, they hang over guests, warding off any errant particles as guests converse freely during the meal.

The lanterns’ diameters are a roomy 0.75m to maintain the relaxed dining atmosphere; they’re also uncovered in the back for ease of access into the lanterns, as well as for guests to get some air. The private room where the dining experience is hosted will also be aggressively ventilated to keep guests safe. 

Naturally, the lanterns – which were made by Kojima Shoten, an established lantern manufacturer that’s been around since the 1800s – will be disinfected daily; the experience is only available to one group of diners a day. They’re also eminently pretty, and make for a very good photo-op indeed.

As for the grub itself, guests are treated to a fermentation-focused menu that marries Japanese produce with French techniques. After all, much of Japanese cuisine revolves around pickling, brining and preservation, as is evident in their seasonings like soy, miso and mirin.

That said, the food isn’t the centrepiece of the dining experience. Guests, illuminated by the soft glow of an overhead lightbulb within each lantern, take centre stage here. The lanterns provide a safe opportunity for long-separated family and friends to dine together risk-free. Elderly grandparents, for example, would be able to break bread with their grandchildren without the chance of disease transmission. 

In line with that goal, Hoshinoya Tokyo also eased up on their dining room rules – dining there is usually reserved for guests only. For the experience, guests are permitted to invite those not staying in the inn to dine with them – allowing them to share the table, without sharing a meal. Something to look forward to then, when travel to Japan begins anew.

Visit Hoshinoya Tokyo for more information.

Originally published in The Peak.