The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, or “Teikoku Hotel,” has occupied the same privileged location, across from Hibiya Park and minutes from the Imperial Palace, for over a century. There’s nothing “backstreet” about it, but when offered an opportunity to view the hotel’s most prestigious accommodations — the Frank Lloyd Wright Suite — I resolve to also explore the metaphorical backstreets of this grand establishment.
Originally built to accommodate foreign guests of the Meiji Emperor, the Imperial Hotel first opened in 1890. The three-story structure designed by architect Yuzuru Watanabe in the Second Empire style featured a mansard roof and frilly ironwork, as well as interior walls embellished with Japanese paintings of flora and fauna.
Razed in 1917 by one of Tokyo’s frequent fires, the replacement building reflected the lavish imagination of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His design mingled Mayan shapes and Japanese sensibilities in a geometric ziggurat of carved layers that embraced a massive lily pond at its entrance. Wright’s sketches reveal that the buildings spelled out the hotel’s initials, the letters “I” and “H.”
Concerned about fires and ground stability at the site, Wright included the pond and a “waiter’s tray” foundation, meant to float the hotel through earthquakes, as safety precautions. His foresight ensured that the Imperial Hotel was one of the few structures left standing in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which struck hours after the hotel’s grand opening, Sept. 1, 1923.
Wright’s hotel suffered minor structural damage in the quake, but continued operation for decades after, until ensuing quakes, the trials of World War II and inevitable sinking of the hotel’s shallow foundations caused “The Jewel of the Orient” to be deemed unsafe. It was dissembled in 1968. To honor Wright’s work, elements of the hotel’s entrance and lobby were preserved and reconstructed at Meiji Mura, an outdoor museum in Aichi Prefecture.
The current hotel’s 1970 vanilla architecture nonetheless conveys historical dignity and grace. Endless taxis ply the porte-cochere, guests assume a hushed comportment inside and the glass-block “Wall of Light” created by sculptress Minami Tada imbues a subtle elegance to the sunken tearoom in the main lobby.
Here, I meet the Imperial Hotel’s president since 2004, Tetsuya Kobayashi. Trim and energetic, Kobayashi proudly guides me through the improvements he has made. We pass through a gauntlet of locked elevators and security doors, over plush, silk-knotted rugs, and finally arrive at the hotel’s piece de resistance, the Frank Lloyd Wright Suite 1401. From the moment Kobayashi swings open the carved oak doors, I know everything’s going to be all Wright.
Assembled with the cooperation of the Arizona-based Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West in 2005, the 214-sq.-meter two-bedroom suite incorporates Wright-designed furnishings, relief carvings in Oya stone (a soft volcanic material from Oya in Tochigi Prefecture) and sweeping views of Hibiya Park. At ¥420,000 per night, I am not likely to inhabit this honey-colored designer’s dream again soon, so I admire the Wright stuff: a chevron chair from the hotel’s former Peacock Room, a beautiful Butterfly Chandelier reproduction and six high-back chairs that seem to enclose the dining room table like Japanese kōshi (traditional lattice doors).
Before Kobayashi zips off to another meeting, he instructs his staff to help me meet people behind the scenes at the hotel. His marvelous staff, I discover, can intuit your intentions by the direction your shoe shifts.
This makes me glad that the first person I’ve requested to meet is the hotel’s shoeshine expert. Director of International Public Relations Ignatius Cronin steers me down to the hotel’s first basement floor. There, 80-year-old Kin-chan — “That’s what I’m called!” he insists — diagnoses my boots as “starving!” Putting my boots on the shoeshine pedestals, I marvel as Kin-chan feeds them with a dab of Kiwi polish and a blur of action men half his age couldn’t manage. “I learned how to do this in Fukuoka, as a roomboy at the U.S. GI base when I was 18,” Kin-chan tells me. The self-professed “shoe maniac” averages 15 pairs of spit-polishes a day, each lasting 15 minutes, starting at ¥800. I ask him which are the hardest shoes to shine. “Brand new ones,” he quips.
But what Kin-chan really wants to talk about is old movies. “Did you ever see ‘Easter Parade’ or ‘Summertime’?” he asks, still polishing. “Back then, actresses like Betty Davis and Katherine Hepburn, they weren’t just pretty faces, they were great actresses, and they had substance.” As Kin-chan chats, the reflection of his smile appears in my boots. “They’re sated now,” he pronounces. I thank him, and promise not to let my shoes go hungry again.
Upstairs again, Cronin leaves me with Chef de Cuisine at Les Saisons, Thierry Voisin. Voisin, 48, is frankly hotter than a brulee blowtorch. “I cook with my heart,” he gushes with French elan, “and the people I serve aren’t customers, but rather people that I love.” Can I get a table right now? Sure, he laughs and describes his menu, mid-segue from late-winter truffles into a spring marriage of lobster and mango. The former head of Michelin-starred Les Crayeres in Reims, Voisin has been with the hotel since 2005, and loves Japan. Part of the pleasure, Voison suggests, comes from learning new things every day. “It took me five years to get used to all the Japanese ingredients available here,” he says, “and I still don’t use natto (fermented soybeans)!”
After meeting Voisin and his staff of 28 charming chefs, I need to cool off, so I ask to meet the man behind the hotel’s intricately carved banquet ice sculptures. To shake my hand, Kenzo Hirata, 69, removes his from their protective plastic bags and gloves. I note his chilblains, but this self-taught, award-winning carver of the ephemeral just shrugs. “It’s year-round Alaska for me,” he remarks, regloving and taking a chainsaw to a raw hunk of ice. Switching to chisels and drills, Hirata calmly claims he can carve anything, from saxaphones to rampant lions, in about 20 minutes. “Each piece only lasts about two hours,” Hirata says with chilled detachment. He douses his current work with a hose, revealing a perfectly translucent sea bream rising out of the waves. This he stores in a freezer room filled with carved fruit bowls, panels of cherry blossoms, butterflies and peacocks. The literal and figurative strength it takes to make such short-lived art, as Hirata has for the past 25 years, melts my heart.
Feeling like a visitor from the cast of Julian Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey,” I next chat briefly with bellboy Shigetaka Hirosue, 27, and VIP service specialist Mina Tamaki, 26. Both are bilingual and charming, but understandably nervous to be interviewed by a journalist in such shiny boots. Hirosue, who attended high school on the British Columbia island of Salt Spring to acquire language skills, reveals that as he wrangles heavy luggage, he must also interpret the body language of guests carefully to assess when to speak or not. The mere fact that a guest asked for him by name once, he says, fills him with pride.
For her part, Tamaki has memorized the most polite and arcane expressions in Japanese, and trained how to perform the perfect 30-degree and 45-degree bows. Her challenges include conveying VIP guests to their quarters in a timely fashion — a trick when the hotel is crowded with vying VIPs — and she changes the fresh rosebuds in the elevators three times a day.
Finally in the hotel’s bowels, I meet Hidekuni Ishii, assistant manager of the Laundry Office, a genuine Iron Man. “I love ironing,” says the 41-year-old, swinging the heavy industrial flattener with ease. “I’m ambidextrous, so it’s easier for me than most.”
The first step of his job, Ishii explains, is to examine the 200 to 300 white shirts sent for cleaning each day. He checks for stains, damage, missing buttons and forgotten items in pockets, then determines the proper method of care. “We get all kinds of ethnic clothing,” Ishii says. “Bras, too, which is a bit awkward, but if the hooks are out of alignment, we adjust them with pliers.”
In warm gusts of dry-cleaning chemicals, I follow Ishii as he demonstrates intricate stain-removing tricks. “Only sumi ink is indelible,” he confides, with spotless expertise.
Finally, I sleuth out the hotel’s mezzanine- level Old Imperial Bar, cavern of 1923 Wright decor in shades of aged whiskey. Each setting at the bar is an Art Deco play of light and shadow, and toward the rear, a portion of one of Wright’s original walls gleams, a wink from the past. Imperially impressive.
Kit Nagamura will take a break from Backstreet Stories in April.