Refusing to check out of the Hotel Okura

With the Tokyo landmark slated to close for renovation at the end of August, we trace the rich history of this icon and examine its overall impact on Japanese modernism


Staff Writer

Hotel Okura Tokyo first opened its doors to the public on May 20, 1962, as the country’s era of rapid growth and modernization finally hit its stride.

Alongside the bullet train and other large-scale infrastructure projects that were completed at the time, the hotel came to embody the growing ascendency of Japan, as the world looked to Tokyo for the ’64 Olympics.

As far as hotels went, there was nothing in Tokyo like the Okura when it was built. Indeed, there’s nothing like it now. Other luxury hotels did exist in the early ’60s, including the Imperial Hotel and the Hotel New Otani Tokyo, but the Okura was in a class of its own, thanks to the work of a design team led by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi.

The team, following guidelines laid down by hotel President Kishichiro Okura, son of prominent entrepreneur Kihachiro Okura, sidestepped the minimal geometry and form-via-function aesthetics of Western modernist design to create a contemporary space rich with decorative indigenous Japanese patterns and traditional craftsmanship.

Despite regular renovations to the facilities, the Okura has physically deteriorated over the past five decades. But now, more than ever, it stands out from the rest as a singular space in a metropolis that is rife with homogenous structures.

Even in its less-than-ideal state, it still manages to attract the world’s political and cultural elite, many of whom have become devoted to this “orphan child” of Japanese modernism, to borrow the words of Harvard architecture professor Toshiko Mori.

“Tokyo is by and large driven by economic forces and the majority of buildings are designed and built by large developers or construction companies, which makes Tokyo appear as a fairly unattractive and generic building landscape,” Mori tells The Japan Times. “Tokyo is one city in the world that requires a diverse repertoire of architecture and this includes keeping significant historical buildings and spaces. It enriches urban experience and will distinguish (the city) from any other fast-developing metropolis.”

To Mori, and many others, the Okura is “a valuable cultural asset … a timeless space where people can observe and experience an optimistic vision of Japan from that time. It is a creative collaboration of artists, artisans, designers and architects.”

It’s somewhat astounding, then, that the Okura’s main building — the oldest and most-loved section of the hotel — will capitulate to the modernizing pull of the city when reconstruction begins this September. In 2019, a year before the Tokyo Olympics, the main building will return in the form of two mixed-use high-rise towers that will likely cost more than ¥100 billion.

The famous blue namakokabe (sea cucumber) tiles on the hotel’s exterior, reminiscent of rural storehouses and castles, will disappear. Taniguchi’s compact entrance, which opens out into a luxuriously spacious lobby, with its ikebana display changed each month by the Sekiso-Ryu flower-arranging school for more than five decades, will also disappear. The slightly fraying lobby chairs, the tatami mat-colored carpet, each patterned piece of hanging fabric, each decorative tile and every hexagonal lantern will be removed as the hotel is taken apart piece by piece.

Lovers of Japanese architecture and design have found it inexplicable that an icon as historically valuable as the Okura could be destroyed for economic reasons alone. Frustrated and disheartened, Monocle magazine began an online “Save the Okura” petition in 2014. “Change and construction are features of life in Tokyo and contribute to the city’s thrilling sense of purpose and energy,” writes Fiona Wilson, the Tokyo bureau chief of Monocle, “but should they come at the expense of the capital’s history and identity?”

Tomas Maier, creative director of fashion brand Bottega Veneta, echoed those concerns by bringing together a cadre of architecture fans and experts to raise awareness about preserving the Okura, including the aforementioned Mori, a professor of architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. In a March interview with Architectural Digest magazine, Mori singled out the hotel’s use of traditional craft as the reason why the building is so valuable.

“It’s specific to this building,” Mori says. “There are references to traditional craft in other projects, but you don’t ever see actual handiwork blending in so seamlessly with modern architecture.”

Japanese emphasis

It’s an afternoon in May and Hotel Okura Tokyo’s managing director and general manager, Akira Nishimura, sits down at a corner table in the Orchid Room restaurant — his favorite part of the hotel. Above us, the strings of hexagonal bead lamps — inspired by ancient glass beads discovered in burial mounds from the Kofun Period (250-552) — are only slightly lit, and diffused light passes through paper screens.

Nishimura is the manager the hotel deserves: knowledgeable about contemporary design and architecture, and just as passionate about tradition and craft. He begins by discussing how the hotel relates to domestic history, but I attempt to veer him into the present, asking how the Okura fits into the canon of modernist design.

“No,” Nishimura says, “it’s completely different. This is not a Western hotel and was never intended to be a one.”

When people say the Okura is an example of “Japanese modernism,” Nishimura says, the emphasis should be on the former rather than the latter. To him, this is more of a traditionally Japanese space than an example of modernist design.

Kishichiro Okura wanted his hotel to embody the concept of wa (harmony), but Nishimura says that, in reality, the hotel’s president was more specific than that in his talks with Taniguchi and the other architects. “(He) said the image (of the hotel) should be the Heike Nokyo scrolls and that the century should be set in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573),” Nishimura says.

Kishichiro’s father was a spiritual man, and it’s likely he instilled in his son a respect for the country’s ancient cultural artifacts, which perhaps explains the fascination with the Heike Nokyo — a long, painted scroll depicting 33 volumes of the Lotus Sutra, which was completed in 1164 by a team of master artisans. The scrolls are filled with intricate paintings and patterns, many of which have been copied and placed throughout the Okura, in particular the intersecting hexagon motif that appears in lights and wallpaper.

The Muromachi Period was an era when Japanese culture flourished. It was the moment the tea ceremony and the concomitant notion of wabi sabi (rustic beauty) rose in popularity. Importantly, this was also the period when the “Jinno Shotoki” was published, which presented Japanese history from the perspective of the Shinto view of the world. As the period drew to a close amid this flowering of Japanese identity, European traders arrived in Japan — the Portuguese, followed by the Spanish and the Dutch. Complicating all this historical context, Nishimura adds, “Kishichiro was also a racing car driver.”

The race-car driving, scroll-loving Kishichiro was as interested in preserving Japanese identity as progressing into the modern age. As a relentless entrepreneur, he continued to build upon his family’s wealth until the Okura Co. became one of the largest in the country. Meanwhile, he also helped bring the motor car to Japan, and his family traded weapons to both sides of whatever conflict happened to be taking place at the time.

“Well,” Nishimura says, “at least that’s the rumor.”

Modern lineage

However, as I delved into the history of the Okura family, I found that its past — and that of modernist architecture — were becoming more intertwined.

Although the Okura is a space where you can experience traditional Japanese notions of beauty, it is also part of a global lineage of modernism that stretches back to the late 1800s. The nascent relationship between Japan and the West was flowering by the late 19th century, yet very few people outside the country had been able to have a direct experience with Japanese architecture.

That changed in 1893 when Kihachiro Okura, Kishichiro’s father, sent a group of craftspeople to the U.S. for the Chicago World’s Fair, a watershed moment for architecture. These artisans were sent to build a wooden replica of Byodo-in’s Phoenix Hall in Kyoto — a spectacular former residence and temple — for the Japanese pavilion. The shock of the Asian design was so potent that ropes had to be erected to keep the large crowds away from the workers.

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the great fathers of modernism, noted his distaste for the proliferation of “beaux-arts formalisms” — the neoclassical architecture style popular at the time — at the fair, and some researchers have made a case that the Japanese pavilion offered the alternative Wright was seeking, setting him on a new pathway toward what would become modernist architecture.

Three decades later, the same Okura who sent workers to the Chicago World’s Fair would be bringing Wright to Japan to design a new Imperial Hotel.

That hotel famously survived the 1923 earthquake, but in 1967 was demolished to make way for “the Orient’s biggest, most luxurious hotel,” according to a magazine advertisement at the time. “A unique blend of 21st-century facilities and 19th-century service — in the tradition of luxury begun 80 years ago.”

Understanding the cultural value of Wright’s building, the elder Okura had the entrance courtyard taken apart, driven hundreds of kilometers across Japan and reconstructed in an outdoor architectural museum known as Meiji-Mura in Aichi Prefecture. History seems to be repeating itself. Will the Okura’s features one day be preserved in a museum somewhere, while “the Orient’s biggest, most luxurious hotel” takes its place?

Legacy of craft

“Craft is important,” says Nishimura, pointing out the partitions above us, lined with vertical strips of kimono fabric painted by ceramic painter Kenkichi Tomimoto. The walls around us are lined with light brown Tako Ishi stone, sourced from Gunma Prefecture; the afternoon light bounces off the stones’ uneven surfaces, creating shadows that resemble the dark brushstrokes of old Chinese landscape paintings. In the lobby, meanwhile, Nishimura points out the tables coated with Japanese lacquer sourced from the remote areas in Ishikawa Prefecture. Sadly, most of the original team who worked on the designs in ’62 — Saburo Mizoguchi, Kenichi Shigeoka, Tsutomu Hiroi, Seido Iwata, Jiro Agata — have since passed away.

“Craftsmen are decreasing every year,” Nishimura says. “Our government should help with that, especially in places such as Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture).” However, younger generations have little interest in moving to a remote village in a far-flung prefecture with harsh winters.

To simply reiterate a time-worn cliche and state that the Hotel Okura “uses Japanese aesthetics” is a gross misrepresentation of what the hotel actually is. Behind each pattern and crafted object is a network of artisans working with techniques passed down over generations. This is what takes the hotel beyond so-called mid-century modernism.

It lessens the magnitude of the Okura to say it was built “in a style” such as beaux-arts, neo-classicism or the geometric functionalism of the “international style.” Take, for example, lacquer. Look at the tables in the lobby, with their deeply reflective red surfaces. These objects required a carpenter to create a thin wooden base, someone to gather the poisonous sap of the urushi tree, another to gather the fossil-rich earth used to give it strength and, finally, someone to mix the ingredients together and paint them over the wood in multiple layers, until it becomes thick and durable. It has taken a long time to create those tables, and every other crafted item in the hotel shares a similar history.

The Okura, in all its faded glory, represents the legacy of all those deceased artisans, and the generations before them who carried the torch of tradition. Don’t for a minute, however, think of the hotel as a museum.

Loyal admirers

One spring morning I take a seat beside the Rokkaku — the hexagonal heart of the hotel that contains the ever-changing ikebana display — and watch the hotel in action. There is a constant stream of guests, with accents from across the world drifting through the air. Others take up seats around me, quietly discussing business or their plans for the day, and bellboys rush across the tatami-colored carpet to carry luggage.

One guest, like me, is watching the world go by. Kenji Kitahara is a 34-year-old musician born and raised in Western Australia. Kitahara is in Tokyo to visit a wealthy friend that is living in the south wing of the Okura. “This is another world to what I’m used to (in Australia),” Kitahara says. “Part of my ritual when I stay is to go down to the pool at 6 a.m. and swim a few laps, then go for a sauna. You always end up talking to people, like jazz musicians who are playing at Blue Note.”

Miri Matsufuji, a 24-year-old photographer from Tokyo, arrives at the hotel. She is here to assist me with this article, but soon shares her own Okura story. As a present for graduating from university, her father bought her a membership to the Okura and a bottle of whisky at the Orchid Bar, another legendary space that will be relocated after September.

“My father didn’t have a lot of money or own property, but he could give us experiences,” Matsufuji says. “He thinks spending time in a bar such as this is great.”

The bartender doesn’t even ask for her name or membership card. He simply nods, fetches her bottle and pours her a glass on the rocks. She turns to whisper, “I don’t know how they remember me — I haven’t been here for a while.”

After the interviews, I wander the hotel’s many floors. I pass patterned facades and nishikibari (silk finish) decorative pieces made from a patchwork of ancient fabrics. I wander into the Heian room, now empty, circled by great colorful murals and head outside to look at the shimmering triangular uroko-mon (fish-scale pattern). Details such as these are everywhere, and constantly tether this “modernist” hotel to the country’s artistic past.

Eventually, I stumble across a kind of shotengai (shopping street) with stores catering to a wealthy and elderly clientele.

Teruyasu Ito, manager of the oldest store in the hotel, a tailored-shirt company called Tani Shirt Co., agrees to speak with me about “saving the Okura.”

“If we are talking about possibility then, yes, it’s surely possible. However, the reality is different: the building is too old.”

However, it’s not the building he will miss. “No, not the building, not the restaurants, not these shops,” he says. “It’s the staff. People are the most important part of the Okura.”

Preservation efforts

The hotel is indeed old enough to be officially protected as a cultural property, but once that designation is granted very few changes can be made, which would cripple a company working in the competitive service industry.

Spending the nearly $1 billion reconstruction budget on repairing the hotel’s interior seems like another solution, but that is further complicated by the fact that almost all the original craftsmen who worked on the interior are now dead.

The desire to save the Okura is interesting because it is part of a wider tug of war between who gets to determine what is valuable, and how it should be valued. It’s easy for onlookers to dream of Japan as a living museum, protected and safe from the dangers of modernity, but the violently rapid business cycles in Tokyo make that situation tragically unrealistic.

Philosopher Keiji Nishitani, in a lecture given during the 1970s, imagined Japan as a kite, buffeted by the winds of modernization, but stabilized by the string and tail of tradition.

“When a strong wind blows, the power of tradition must be put to work,” he said, “Japan … has a string attached to her. By giving the string a pull whenever difficulties arise, she has remained well-balanced and has avoided being lost altogether. … We cannot fly a kite if its tail is too heavy. It is of the utmost importance to strike a balance between these two inclinations — toward modernization and change, and toward tradition.”

The alternative is being stuck in a tree, as the world moves on ahead.

It’s a nice metaphor, but Toshiko Mori says the situation has changed — modernization does not mean succumbing to outside influences.

“The Japan of today is more like a bird with its own confident wingspan, and the power to influence others as well. In a mature and developed civilization such as this, (the country’s) attitude toward its own history must to be re-evaluated in order to recognize its assets — it is not possible nor dignified to continue to act as a developing ‘kite’ country,” she says. “It is not difficult to save the lobby, and it is possible to keep the facade of main building, too. The important issue of our day, as opposed to the ’70s, is to know how one can creatively manage to weave past and future.”

And she is right: Saving the essential elements of the Okura — the lobby, the facade — is possible, but it’s just not profitable.

In September, Nishitani’s “kite” (and Mori’s “bird”) will fly out a little further. With the tail shrinking each year, however, exactly how far is yet to be determined.

  • Pedro

    If the Okura Hotel is “renovated” by destroying it to make space for another glass office building, this icon will be gone. The Okura should be held above the waves of Japanese knock-down culture. This is the place where country leaders meet Japan’s Emperor!

    Will a glass office building be an improvement? Call it what it is – not a renovation – not a reconstruction, but a demolition, a resignation, an end to unique Japanese architecture and a masterpiece of art. Who would bother staying at a replacement glass building when more convenient glass hotels provide access to subways and neighborhoods with restaurants?

    • Minxy Minamoto

      I love this hotel and will be heartbroken if they demolish it.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Attended a conference in the Okura last year. We asked if we could get some sandwiches delivered mid-morning. These were not on the “list”. Cue lots of sucking of air. The manager was called. Then his manager. In the end 50 mins had gone by wondering whether they could get us sandwiches. No one could decide. In the end we sent our secretary out to Subway. They were still sucking air when she got back. By the time they could decide whether we were allowed to eat the sandwiches in the room we had paid for, we had finished the sandwiches. Definitely a Japanese hotel. Decision paralysis.

  • krr

    “especially in places such as Kanazawa Prefecture”

    Kanazawa is a city in Ishikawa prefecture…

  • RMB

    My favorite hotel in the world. I will miss it terribly.