The news that the Hotel Okura in Tokyo will be redeveloped in time for the 2020 Olympics has been greeted with dismay by surprisingly far-flung and influential group of admirers — an indication of the status of clientele that has patronized the hotel since it opened in 1962, U.S. President Barack Obama recently among them.

Monocle, the style magazine for suave globalists, has launched a passionate campaign to save the building, while the New York Times has elevated the news to its editorial page, noting with more resignation than indignation, the “end of an era.”

Designed by Yoshio Taniguchi with a team of distinguished artists and craftsmen, the lobby of the main building is a peerless exemplar of early 1960s Japanese modernism, with shoji screens, geometric pendant lamps and low chairs grazing on a lush Serengeti of tatami-toned carpet, like “primeval moss on a far-northern island” in the words of the narrator of Haruki Murakami’s novel “1Q84.”

The lobby is the hotel’s highlight — most of the guest rooms themselves were renovated in the early ’80s and are banal in comparison — which is also the impression given by renderings of the generic glazed tower projected to replace it.

Aficionados of the atmospherics of mid-century Tokyo are advised to soak up the ambience now, before it disappears, like so much else of that period, into wistful remembrance.


Inner beauty: The Andaz Hotel interior uses walnut wood from Hokkaido.
Inner beauty: The Andaz Hotel interior uses walnut wood from Hokkaido.

Andaz Hotel for the ‘creative class’

The Okura redevelopment comes in the context of the most recent resumption of Tokyo’s hoteru sensō (“hotel wars”), pitting international chains against local hotels of storied reputation, which was kicked off by the five syllables of “omotenashi” (to entertain guests wholeheartedly) of Tokyo’s successful Olympics bid.

The most visible of recent foreign entrants is Andaz Tokyo, a brand of the Hyatt Hotel chain, which opened its first Japanese property in Tokyo in June. Occupying the top six floors of Toranomon Hills, the Mori Building Corp.’s latest mega-project, the hotel targets a well-heeled internationally mobile creative class.

Fittingly, its sleek interiors are the product of a collaboration between two denizens of this class: New York-based Tony Chi and Tokyo-based Shinichiro Ogata, using local materials such as washi paper and Hokkaido walnut wood as a gesture toward local authenticity.

The Andaz brand, according to its PR, “is deeply rooted in local culture” and aims to provide “a truly Japanese-inspired experience to both guests and locals that will help them feel deeply connected to the heart and soul of Tokyo.” But being encased at the top of a 52-storey crystal behemoth, stacked with high-end offices and condos, makes such gestures little more than comforting abstractions of the earthbound places and cultures that inspired them.


Coming to Japan: Aman Resorts

An Aman resort in the metropolis

The question of how to distill the characteristics of localities that have accreted over generations into resonant places for contemporary nomads is the great challenge of hotel design. One hotel brand that has pursued this goal with a singular vision is Aman Resorts, under the leadership of Adrian Zecha, who was born in Java of Indonesian-Czech parentage.

To create his celebrated early resorts in Bali, Amandari and Amanusa, Zecha sought out the talents of other culturally hybrid creators, Peter Muller and Kerry Hill, emigre Australian architects with deep roots in South-East Asia. In their subtly different ways, first Muller, and later Hill, incorporated the patterns of traditional Balinese village and temple architecture into the design of these exclusive resorts, creating a plane of serenity at once detached from, but convincingly “deeply connected to,” their cultural locations.

Aman is now about to enter the Japanese market, with the opening of Aman Tokyo rumored for sometime later this year as part of the Otemachi Tower recently opened in downtown Otemachi. Concrete details are scant, but what is noteworthy is that this will be the first Aman property embedded within a generic mixed-use high-rise tower. This format has seemingly become inescapable for hotels in dense urban cores — exemplified by the Andaz, and almost identical to that proposed for the new Okura Hotel. How this brand — so invested in the notion of refined authenticity — will resolve the dilemmas of its setting will be fascinating to observe and, if successful, could help gird the loins of those unfortunate designers charged with replacing the irreplaceable.


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