The main building of the historic Hotel Okura Tokyo closed Monday for demolition and a rebuild after 53 years of hosting fascinating guests amid Japanese decorative beauty. The hotel’s guest list of dignitaries and celebrities has arguably been as impressive as its interiors.
The rebuilding work is aimed at meeting an expected boost in the number of foreign tourists ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On the final day, aficionados, patrons and members of the press snapped photos and crowded the main lobby, where a pianist and string ensemble played as the clock ticked toward the 11 p.m. close.
“In the past two months or so, many patrons visited our hotel and told me how sad they felt. I’m grateful for that, but the plan has been decided,” said Daisuke Koshidaka, senior front desk manager and a 26-year veteran of the hotel.
“This hotel is over 50 years old, but the new one will have the latest equipment, and we are confident guests can expect to have an even more comfortable stay with us.”
Despite international calls to preserve the 11-story edifice, which has remained largely untouched since its opening two years before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the operator is set to start demolition this month. It is joining the city’s frenzy of hotel redevelopment. The industry anticipates increased demand from visitors ahead of the second Tokyo Games.
The number of visitors to Japan in July reached a record 1.92 million, up more than 50 percent from the same month a year ago, pushing the total for the year above the 10 million mark.
Designed by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, the Okura was celebrated for its designs featuring traditional Japanese motifs and features. It has accommodated such luminaries as French actress Jeanne Moreau, Indiana Jones star Harrison Ford and former U.S. President Richard Nixon in its royal suite. It has also hosted a range of major international conferences.
Fans can name a range of features they will miss when the hotel meets the wrecking ball: hanging lamp shades modeled on the shape of ancient gems, known as Okura lanterns; round tables surrounded by five chairs like the petals of a plum flower in the main lobby; exterior walls reminiscent of namakokabe (sea cucumber walls) of old Japanese castles and residences.
Following word of the building’s planned demolition, calls arose worldwide for it to be preserved. Its distinctively Japanese appearance draws a striking contrast with the bland, modern high-rises of the surrounding Toranomon district.
British lifestyle magazine Monocle collected more than 9,000 names in an online petition titled “Save the Okura Hotel.” In an online article Thursday, headlined “Sayonara, Okura,” Monocle writer Fiona Wilson said: “Many people asked why we did care so much about a 1960s hotel.” One reason, she wrote, was that the building was “put together by a stellar group of architects and craftsmen during a particularly excellent time for modern design in Japan.”
“But it wasn’t only about the building,” she continued, “it was the alchemy of people, architecture and atmosphere that all seemed to come together so perfectly at the Okura: the 1960s design, the lift ladies in kimono, the sharp cocktail making at the Orchid Bar, the quiet hum in the Orchid Room restaurant, even the wonderfully old-fashioned bathrooms.”
The hotel is to reopen in spring 2019 as a 38-story high-rise with 550 rooms, compared with 408 rooms currently. Hotel Okura Tokyo Co. said the new hotel will inherit “Japan’s traditional beauty” of its predecessor while introducing cutting-edge functions.
It said about half of the hotel’s area — roughly 1.3 hectares — will be saved for greenery to provide an “oasis” and an evacuation area in the event of a disaster in the central metropolitan area.
While the main building undergoes reconstruction, the annex will continue operation.