Is Simplicity The Ultimate Luxury?

VACATIONERS checking into the luxurious Miyako Hotel in Kyoto next month will be able to take advantage of an unusual new amenity: the no-frills room. Beginning Oct. 10, the hotel will offer four rooms that have been stripped of the most basic accessories. Guests will find no telephones, no clocks, no television sets or radios. Not even the morning newspaper will be slipped under the door, making the information blackout complete.

The rooms will have furniture, of course. And just to keep them from seeming too Spartan, they'll still feature such conveniences as refrigerators stocked with beverages, plus buttons for calling room service. The whole idea, hotel officials say, is to encourage guests to relax by helping them escape from the demands of their everyday lives.

With rates ranging from $299 to $355 a night, the Miyako's bare-bones rooms hardly represent the Japanese equivalent of Motel 6. Nor are they likely to signal the wave of the future in accommodations, since more and more upscale hotels are adding rather than subtracting amenities. The latest include hookups for laptops and faxes to turn rooms into traveling "business centers."

Yet for guests eager to pull the electronic plug on the outside world, the "hotel no-tel," as it has been dubbed, just might find a ready market. No more frantic calls from the boss. No more bleak headlines and information overload. Nothing, in short, to mar the serenity of historic Kyoto.

This kind of temporary escape carries a certain appeal, even for non-travelers. In an increasingly complex world, the greatest luxury may be, not an abundance of pampering devices and state-of-the-art gadgets, but simplicity. In theory, at least, trimming away excess in all its forms symbolizes a 1990s mentality - lean and crisp. Even many of the rooms photographed for upscale decorating magazines appear pared-down these days, displaying a new respect for simpler, less cluttered living.

The Japanese experiment prompts an intriguing question: If it's possible to simplify life even in a luxury hotel, could the Miyako's no-frills approach be adapted closer to home, helping people to strip their daily lives of other amenities they do not want?

One back-to-basics wish list could include the following suggestions:

No-frills elevators. Turn off the Muzak, please.

No-frills magazines. Leave out the perfumed inserts and the subscription cards forever fluttering to the floor.

No-frills TV weather reports. Never mind the ingenious charts, the blinking radar screens, the "computer-enhanced" maps, the prolonged chatter about cold fronts in the Rockies. Skip the statistical overload and just give the forecast, clear and simple.

No-frills electronics and appliances. Accessory overload has become standard. But can't someone invent a VCR that even an adult can program and a microwave with just a few less options?

Simplicity has its limits, of course, and the back-to-basics trend can go too far. What airline passenger, wedged for hours in a narrow seat with no leg room and served only a tiny triangle of cheese, two crackers, and a cookie for "lunch," has not longed for an upgrade to first class, where creature comforts and frills presumably still exist? And what patron of self-service gas stations would not welcome a return to the time, not so many years ago, when an attendant would actually wash the windshield an d check the oil and water?

Austerity holds more charm when it is voluntary and temporary. After a tour of a no-frills Japanese garden, something cries out for the luxuriant color and fragrance of flowers - lots of them.

If the choice lies between the overstatement of luxury and the understatement of asceticism, most of us will take our chances on the plus side, such as opting for hotel rooms with remote-control TV, turned-down beds, and chocolates on the pillow. Still, there is a point at which being pampered is the equivalent of being treated like a child.

So give at least a four-star rating to the manager of the no-frills hotel rooms, who appreciates that pleasure in fact depends upon selection and choice, upon understanding that less can still be more.

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