Tokyo’s mid-century modern icon is back

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 25, 2019.

A Heritage Wing guest room at the Okura Tokyo.

The hotel’s swimming pool is part of a two-floor fitness and spa complex.

Yamazato Japanese restaurant.

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Step into the newly reopened Okura Tokyo, and you might be forgiven for believing in the existence of time travel.

That is because the lobby, where John Lennon or Steve Jobs might have relaxed when they stayed, was demolished four years ago, to the dismay of patrons of the iconic hotel. And now it is back, seemingly plucked from the past. During the hiatus, craftsmen recreated and restored the gold-hued space adorned with discreet touches, from the sound-absorbing floor to the pentagonal pendants strung from the wooden ceiling.

The Okura’s ¥110 billion (RM4.28 billion) reincarnation recently is both a homage to the past and a defiant leap into the future. Two new buildings were erected, including one with 18 office floors. Clad in glass, the structures are not easy to pick out from the growing forest of skyscrapers, and leave no trace of the original hotel’s worn-out charm. But inside, designers and architects have recreated the ambiance of the old hotel, with modern rooms, event spaces, and restaurants demanded by the well-heeled these days.

“It was one of those rare experiences that transported you to another time, from the quality of lighting to that slightly musty, humid, cigarette-infused scent that was always hanging in the lobby,” says Tyler Brule, editor-in-chief of Monocle, of the original lobby. The lifestyle magazine led a campaign in 2015 to preserve the original hotel. “No matter how busy the lobby was, there was this hushed quality.”

Yoshio Taniguchi, who designed New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is the son of the Okura’s original architect, led the charge, which included measuring the light and sound qualities of the original lobby before it was disassembled. The lattice for the shoji paper windows, assembled without nails, the silk wall tapestry with four-petal flowers, and the chairs and tables arranged like plum blossoms, are utterly familiar, yet new or restored.

“We focused most of our effort on the lobby,” says Shinji Umehara, 60, general manager of the Okura, who started as bellboy in 1983. To comply with building codes, an elevator was hidden in the steps for a wheelchair lift. Sprinklers were tucked into the ceiling’s design. “There were many sleepless nights.”

The original Okura opened its doors in 1962, just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that introduced Japan to the world as an economic power. In the same spirit, the hotel’s owners — descendants of a baron who amassed a fortune in the 19th century — made the decision to tear down and reopen the hotel in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For the games next year, the International Olympic Committee will take over every room in the hotel, according to Umehara.

The entire complex, which includes the two new buildings, an older wing and a museum, is located right next to the US Embassy. The hotel has hosted every president since Richard Nixon, with the exception of Donald Trump, who was elected to office during the renovation. Whenever Trump chooses to visit Tokyo again, chances are he will stay in the Okura’s Heritage Wing, the smaller of the new buildings. Its size — there are just 17 floors and 140 rooms — makes it easier for the Secret Service to secure the entire structure.

Inside, however, the US president may find a place that is noticeably different from his Trump-branded hotels. Designed throughout with Japanese motifs, the Heritage Wing is meant to offer a more culturally flavoured experience, from hallways that evoke bamboo forests to oak-floored guest rooms with touches borrowed from traditional inns known as ryokans. With its own separate reception area featuring wall panels from the original hotel and a chandelier of raindrop-like glass, the hotel-within-a-hotel is a departure from the more western parts of the establishment.

Heritage rooms start at around US$930 and are wide rather than deep, allowing for more windows. The granite bathrooms, with Villeroy & Boch sinks, come with toiletries from Bamford and Three. Each has a US$400 Dyson Supersonic hair dryer, in a special only-for-the Okura dark grey.

“I recommend getting to know our staff,” Umehara says, when asked how to experience the reopened Okura. “The employees are the ones who best know the hotel. If you want to find the places that offer the best views, the best rest, where it is green and where there is water, they will tell you.”

In fact, getting lost was almost one of the old Okura’s features. Kimono-clad attendants at the elevators were ready to point guests in the right direction. After just a few days, they would remember your floor and send you there, before you even noticed.

The rebuild also gave the Okura a chance to upgrade its old facilities. The fitness, spa, and 25m pool take up two floors in the larger building. The Yamazato restaurant is back with walls of Japanese cedar and cherry-wood tables.

At the lowest levels of the Heritage Wing are 19 banquet and meeting rooms, including the cavernous Heian no Ma, which has hosted everything from International Monetary Fund meetings to Group of Seven summits over the years. With a seating capacity of about 2,000, the hall is decorated with handcrafted ornamental Japanese paper in shades of blue, green, red and white. The original ringed-leaf design door handles were restored and reused from the old hotel.

Even with the extensive rebuild, a relic of the older Okura still exists, just across the street. The South Wing, which opened in 1973, remains open for business. With rooms starting at about US$325 a night, the building still retains some of original flavour of the old hotel. The museum, which holds the baron’s Oriental art collection, was moved 6.5m to a new location.

Within the newly built 41-storey Okura Prestige Tower, the 368 rooms and suites are designed with more of a Western flavour. Starting at around US$650 a night, they still use plenty of wood, and the bathrooms are brighter, clad in white marble. There is more carpeting in the rooms and hallways.

“The original Okura was a reminder of the arrival of the jet age — there was a romance and fixation that we have of that era,” Brule says. “Now we have a gleaming glass tower. Yes, it has the wonderful script logo of the Okura on top of the building. But it could be any other tower.”

Indeed, from the spare-no-expense facilities to adding 100 new rooms, the rebuild comes at a risk. That is because the US$570 billion global hotel industry is sensitive to economic swings. Although Japan had the highest hotel occupancy rate in the Asian region last year, at 84%, that will not always be the case. By including offices, the Okura will have a cushion for when times are bad.

“You can’t make a project on this scale with 100% hotel rooms,” says Mari Kumagai, head of research at Colliers International Group Inc’s Tokyo office. “Hotels are a cyclical asset, so the offices are necessary for stable income.”

Mixed-used real estate makes sense because the area surrounding the Okura is about to be reshaped over the coming years. The just-announced US$5.4 billion city-within-a-city project by Mori Building Co will be just a 10-minute walk away when it is completed in 2023. It will have shops, restaurants, 213,900 sq m of office space, 1,400 residences, a hotel, an international school, and the city’s biggest food court.

With office buildings going up and a new Hibiya subway line station set to open within a couple years, rents may climb higher, Kumagai says. Compared with Tokyo’s Marunouchi area, home to financial firms and the top-tier Palace Hotel and Aman Tokyo, office rents in the Okura’s Toranomon-Kamiyacho neighbourhood are, on average, about 31% lower, according to Colliers.

While the Okura’s anodyne office-building exterior might make it less of an architectural landmark, what really counts is what is inside, according to Davide Agnelli, managing director of design consultancy IDEO’s Tokyo office.

Back in the new Prestige Tower, there is a spot that offers an uncannily familiar experience. Right outside the elevators that bring guests up from the banquet floors, the low height of the ceilings before they open up into the lobby is exactly the same as the old hotel. That is not a coincidence, the general manager says.  

Around the corner and down the hall is the reopened Orchid Bar, a storied gathering spot for travellers, politicians, and business executives. Its original tables and chairs, reupholstered, are back, as well as the bottles of Macallans dating back to the 1930s. A single dram of vintage costs US$300 to US$500, depending on the year. The bar will still hold personal bottles of whiskey for patrons, as well.

Also lending a new air of exclusivity are specially blended bottles of Fujisanroku whiskey in Edo kiriko cut-glass, at US$8,350 each. Only 72 will be sold, according to bar manager Shunichi Hagi. One thing, though, will be missing from the Orchid Bar: The lingering smell of cigarettes and cigars. There are strict new anti-smoking laws passed by the city ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

Walking though the reopened Okura, sitting in the lobby — the all-around experience can be confusingly classic, and that is really the point. — Bloomberg