A pebble’s throw away from the Akasaka Mitsuke subway station, the Hotel New Otani (which happens to be in the midst of celebrating 35 years as one of Tokyo’s premier hotels) might just offer the solution to savvy travelers’ “been there, done that” blues.
You could start by getting married in the chapel (English available, no excuses) and then spend your honeymoon exploring the vast main lobby. A stroll through the New Otani’s elegant shops featuring exquisite Japanese artwork, jewelry and other luxuries, could easily push you to make a quick call to the Visa hotline, begging them to raise your card limit.
For a more cultural experience, the hotel boasts an art museum, after which you can take a moment to reflect (on your looming credit card bills) in their sun-drenched atrium. Finally, embark on an international eating extravaganza at one of the hotel’s 34 restaurants.
But you don’t have to be on vacation to enjoy the New Otani. If all the options seem a tad overwhelming for your first time out, you can still just get an excellent cup of coffee.
Typically, people don’t think of stopping at a hotel for a cup of coffee. However, in Japan when coffee was hard to come by after World War II, it was considered very fashionable and highbrow to be seen taking one’s coffee at a hotel, and the New Otani provides a great excuse to revive the trend.
The New Otani offers a charming glimpse of both the Japan that once was and the new Japan that is hurtling into the future. Nowhere is that better reflected than in the aptly named Garden Lounge. Lit by amber glass chandeliers, its interior is warm with earth tones. An enchanted mood is set the moment you set foot on its rich-hued carpet, which features an ancient design found in the Shosoin warehouses (which stored precious artifacts during the Nara Era, 710-784), modified by the New Otani’s own interior designer, Yoshio Shibata.
While you enjoy a cafe au lait or traditional English tea with scones, the Japan of coffee-table books comes to life just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, where your eyes, widening with wonder, slowly take in the vast panoramic view of the 400-year-old Japanese garden — the jewel of the New Otani.
One would think the Garden Lounge was part of the “old” Otani. But according to Megumi Matsui, the New Otani public relations spokesperson, “new” was part of the hotel’s name from day one, clearly indicating the desire to always be on the cutting edge. This explains why their latest addition to the coffee experience, Satsuki, is such a hit.
Originally named Azalea for one of the flowers adorning the garden, Satsuki has the proud distinction of claiming three generations of faithful guests. However, in order to keep those guests (not to mention the growing international crowd) happy, the hotel has had to go the extra mile and a half.
“Guests are really picky these days about everything,” says Matsui, “and if things aren’t just right, they’ll go elsewhere.”
One element that keeps customers returning to Satsuki is its unique neo-Japanesque interior, also designed by Shibata. He found innovative uses for wood, Belgian marble, byobu (folding screens) and strategically placed bamboo that create an atmosphere at once modern-day Tokyo and bygone Japan.
Of course, ambience is only part of the experience. New Otani staff members researched all the coffee shops in town for two months to find out what beans “cut the mustard.” Even top management debated on the best taste and brewing methods, finally deciding on a mix of Indonesian, Kenyan and a “secret” New Otani blend: a rich flavor that is lower in caffeine (all the taste without the shakes). The Satsuki blend is then prepared — cup by individual cup — in the German-made “Bistro” coffee-maker. With four machines at the ready, you never have to wait long and you can have the satisfaction of knowing your java wasn’t made three hours earlier, strained through a filter that’s been doing double duty since last week.
If your kissaten encounter is not complete without a sweet, Satsuki does not disappoint. In fact, with two pastry shops just left of the entrance, you may never actually get inside the coffee shop proper. In addition to its own Patisserie Satsuki with delicious fresh breads, tarts and cakes, the Pierre Herme Patisserie (the first of its kind in Japan) features award-winning creations by the former chef patissier at Fauchon in Paris.
Although the pastries aren’t wearable, the current “spring collection” is certainly presented that way: placed under glass, like fine jewels, set off by recessed halogen lighting and angled just so. And not to worry: If you have to pretend that you’re dieting for your coffee pals, just sneak back into the patisserie the instant they whip out their cell phones — these heavenly goodies are available for take out. My choice, the Ispahan, a dreamy concoction of rose cream, raspberries and lychee, sandwiched between rose macaroons, set off with a glistening ruby rose petal, was so beautiful I was afraid to eat it. But with the help of a refreshing iced caramel cafe, I somehow managed to get it down.
With special dessert sets introduced every season, the lure of a perfectly maintained ancient garden and the sheer fun of experiencing the sleek and the new, Hotel New Otani’s Garden Lounge and Coffee Shop Satsuki offer the kissaten connoisseur a range that is hard to find in one location.
Take Exit D from the Akasaka-Mitsuke subway station. The Garden Lounge and Satsuki are located on the lobby floor of the main building. Open 6 a.m.-midnight.