Urban planning can be a zero-sum game. A case in point is Yokohama. The city redeveloped the waterfront to create Minato Mirai (Port of the Future), where visitors shop in boutiques, revolve on a Ferris wheel and whoosh in one of the world’s fastest elevators to the top of Japan’s tallest building, the Landmark Tower.
But Port of the Future materialized at the expense of the port of the past, Yamashitacho, to the south, where the Marine Tower is shuttered and the Hikawa Maru, the passenger liner turned floating museum, only recently reopened after being salvaged from bankruptcy by the shipping company Nippon Yusen.
Yet Yamashitacho remains the place for the old salts or the water gazers, those people who feel a frisson in a sea breeze and whose pulses quicken at the sound of a ship’s whistle.
In the beginning were the hotel and the Bund. The Grand Hotel, then the nation’s premier hostelry, sat at the eastern end of the Bund, the seafront esplanade built at the request of the residents of the foreign settlement, established in 1859 by treaties between Japan and the Western powers.
The hotel, along with other buildings, collapsed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The debris was swept into the sea to create Japan’s first reclaimed seaside park, called Yamashita, in 1930.
Adjacent to the former site of the Grand Hotel, Yokohama built a new lodging for foreign businessmen to arrest the shift of the silk trade to Kobe. Completed on Nov. 25, 1927, the hotel was named the Hotel New Grand.
The architect Jin Watanabe (1887-1973) designed the hotel in the modern revival style. While its facade was nondescript, its interior wowed.
Spun through the revolving door, a guest stood at the foot of a ceramic-tiled staircase leading up to the lobby.
Watanabe achieved a first by placing the lobby on the second floor. Tokyoites arrived to view this marvel. They ran their eyes up the stout mahogany pillars, traced celestial nymphs in flight in a mural above the elevators, gazed at the temple lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and — through the cathedral-like windows — watched the ships in the port.
Other surprises awaited in the main dining room, the Phoenix, modeled after a Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) temple, with square pillars the girth of hoary cedars, two large hanging lanterns, and a niche for a Buddhist image.
On the lobby’s south side they found the Rainbow Ball Room, so called for the ribs of spectral illumination in the vaulted ceiling adorned with reliefs of song birds among banks of clouds. A brace of phoenixes trail green and white plumage over the arch of the stage.
After the arrival of the Swiss Saly Weil as the hotel’s first head chef, metropolitans came for the dining experience as well as the novel architectural design.
Weil fomented his own revolution. Familiar with the atmosphere of hotels in Paris’ boho quarters, he opened an informal grillroom in the New Grand. Patrons could order from an a la carte menu, or order no dish at all and just drink and smoke at their table. All of this was novel for a hotel in Japan.
In The Cafe, formerly the Grill Room, I ordered a house-special spaghetti dish, first created by the hotel after World War II. This toothsome dollop of pasta left me unsated for ¥1,700. But I lingered, drinking in the view of Yamashita Park through the bay window: lovers strolling and mothers pushing prams beside trim hedgerows; a water-taxi framed in the weeping branches of a willow; the Hinomaru fluttering at the stern of the Hikawa Maru; columns of water geysering from the base of the “Guardian of Water,” a sculpture of a Native American woman shouldering a water gourd; tricolors girdling the trunks of ginkgoes. The flag’s significance dawned on me as a goateed musician playing a chanson on an accordion strolled past my table — Yokohama was celebrating French Month.
I dropped by the bar for a tete-a-tete with hotel veteran Tomoaki Suzuki. He is the industry’s Iron Man, having never missed a day of work since first donning a bellhop’s cap 59 years ago.
His first year was 1949, when the hotel was under the U.S. Eighth Army’s thumb. Suzuki and his fellows scrubbed the lobby’s tiled floor in the morning, and in the evening were still working, serving burgers and club sandwiches to Occupiers in the Rainbow Ball Room.
The hotel was released from Occupation in 1952. Suzuki recalls the hardships, but also the inculcation in higher standards of hygiene and safety by the Eighth Army.
The 1950s were the last hurrah of passenger ship service. Every morning a bellhop used letter tiles to form ship names and schedules in a large glass-enclosed bulletin board. Suzuki remembers predawn trips to vessels just docked to unburden arriving guests of their trunks.
The register books have long since disappeared, but newspapers and other sources disclose there were among the Hotel New Grand’s guests actors Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, slugger Babe Ruth and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Jiro Osaragi (1897-1973) was a writer in semiresidence; he began writing in Room 318 in 1930. He would work until ship lights sequined the darkening waters, then descend to the bar, where there would be a harbor pilot named Kruger with a German Shepherd. In his cups Kruger pretended to juggle.
Leaving the bar, Osaragi roamed the night streets. He braved Chinatown’s Ponkotsu Yokocho (Bop-on-the-Head Alley) — a place packed with robbers and opium dens. When a brawl erupted, a drifter from Kobe named “American Jack” would dash from a restaurant with a meat cleaver in his hand. Osaragi calmed Jack down by treating him to half a dozen beers.
In Room 318, Osaragi placed his escapades over the template of Yokohama in foreign-settlement days to produce the novel “Muteki (Foghorn).” There, he also wrote works in his popular “Kurama Tengu (Kurama Devils)” series, for which the room is named.
Bidding goodbye to Suzuki, I drifted to the second-floor lobby.
The revision of the unequal treaties in 1899 disestablished the Yokohama foreign settlement, and its atmosphere and physical setting vanished in 1923. The settlement, with its prerogatives for foreigners, was a humiliation, yet it exuded an old-world charm, also felt by Japanese. Architect Watanabe tried to recapture that charm in his design of the lobby.
Such were my thoughts as through the large windows I watched the red and green lights of craft crossing the harbor.
Hotel New Grand: 10, Yamashitacho, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi 231-0023, Japan. Tel: (045) 681-1841