Over the last century architectural design in Tokyo has been in a constant state of metamorphosis. A stroll through the country’s largest city confirms this; few structures in Tokyo predate 1980. Reasons for the structural turnover vary, but sanitary issues, safety concerns, staying competitive, and high cost of an earthquake-proofing retrofit are the most common.
One building that survived for more than fifty years was the Hotel Okura Tokyo, built for the 1964 Olympics. It served as an important part of a revival that re-introduced Japan to the international stage.
The Okura was designed by visionaries, it hosted luminaries, and proudly served dignitaries. Nearly eight hundred rooms served as a time capsule of 1960’s Japanese design and hospitality service. However in September of 2015, developers will demolish the respected original to make way for a new and improved Okura 2.0.
After the Second World War, Japan faced the daunting tasks of rebuilding its infrastructure and international status. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a landmark event, serving as a symbolic rebirth of Japan and introducing its return to the international stage.
A government with a strong desire to dazzle allowed Japanese architects to flourish. With boundaries relaxed, mid-century architects transformed the city’s skyline with a modernist backdrop.
Contributing to the cause was the Hotel Okura Tokyo, located in Toranomon of the Minato Ward. The hotel was the flagship of the Hotel Okura Company, Ltd., founded in 1958.
On May 20th, 1962, the grand opening was celebrated with a traditional blessing through a Shinto-style opening ceremony.
Two months after opening the outdoor pool was completed. Just eight months after opening, 80 year-old chairman Kishichiro Okura passed away.
Hotel Okura Design
Japan’s first modernist hotel was the work of a design committee comprised of architects Yoshiro Taniguchi, Hideo Kosaka, Shiko Munakata, and Kenkichi Tomimoto.
Committee chair Taniguchi (1904-1979) was a graduate of the University of Tokyo and served as long-time professor of architecture at Tokyo Tech. His resume includes Tokyo’s National Gallery of Oriental Treasures, it’s National Museum of Modern Art, and the Imperial Theater.
The design group opted to combine traditional Japanese colors and patterns with modernist design elements, easily discernible in motifs throughout the building.
Exterior walls resemble a style known as namakokabe, which literally translates to “sea-slug walls.” This unflattering moniker was assigned due to the resemblance between the wall’s protective strips of plaster and the sea slug.
Interior treatments were applied with a peaceful unity in a show of respect to of wa, the Japanese cultural concept of harmony. Lobby chairs and tables were arranged to appear as blossoms with five-petals.
Giant gem-like fixtures known as “Okura Lanterns” offered an attractive lighting option, agreeable with the lobby’s paper shoji screens. Wavelike patterns grace the lobby walls, made of stones once used in the Akasaka Palace.
photos courtesy hotelokura.co.jp
Bars, Restaurants, Entertainment
The Okura exuded a class, partially attributable to its clean and subtle design. But it was things you don’t see often today, like a standalone tea room and a staff dressed in tuxedos, which made the hotel really stand out.
If the Okura’s design was simple, its options for beverages and dining were anything but. Variety was plentiful – overboard, even – with nearly a dozen bars and restaurants allowing guests to stay for weeks without eating the same dish twice.
The Emerald Room was a grill room that offered live music and dancing. The Continental Room served more than 90 varieties of European dishes and was one of the first restaurants to introduce Tokyo to spaghetti alle vongole and Spanish paella.
When the hotel opened, there weren’t many restaurants that served European cuisine in Tokyo. The Continental Room enjoyed a run of nearly thirty years before closing in 1990.
The cozy Highlander Bar is a whiskey lounge with rich woodwork. It has somehow avoided change, and until the end served cocktails that have long fallen out of favor elsewhere in the world.
The Starlight Lounge offered a panoramic view of Tokyo and live nightly jazz. In 2000 this room was renovated and reopened as the Chinese Table Starlight, where it serves nouvelle chinois dishes in an informal setting.
Considered a men’s bar, the Oak Room accommodated those who play cards and smoke pipes. It had English themes including a wall painting depicting a pre-fire London along the Thames.
The Camellia Corner Coffee Shop (now Dining Café Camellia) is located in the South Wing. It offered a variety of smaller dishes and snacks an informal, sunny atmosphere.
The Orchid Bar is a true mid-century masterpiece. Wood panels adorn the dimly illuminated walls; smoked-glass ashtrays were lined up along the counter. On the other hand the Orchid Room was a breakfast restaurant, serving up delicious morning meals for guests.
Hotel Okura’s culinary chef d’oeuvre was arguably the La Belle Epoque restaurant. Here, traditional and nouveau French Cuisine was carefully assembled and served in an elegant setting coordinated by particular master chefs.
For local fare, the Yamazoto Japanese restaurant was another attractive option for guests.
When it opened, the Toh-Ka-Lin restaurant in the Hotel Okura was named by Japanese Foreign Minister to China, Zentaro Kosaka (1912-2000). Fun fact: His calligraphy was used as the logo of the restaurant.
photos courtesy hotelokura.co.jp
Etching a Place in History
Hotel Okura Tokyo hosted its first dignitary five months after opening. Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos stayed at the Okura in October of 1962 when in town to meet with Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako.
From September 7th-11th, 1964, 2,500 people attended the International Monetary Fund (IMF) General Meeting, held in the Okura’s Heian-no-ma Room (pictured below).
A fifth anniversary reception was held on May 19th, 1967. To celebrate reaching the five-year mark, hotel management organized an opulent feast laid out in the Okura’s Heian-no-ma room.
The celebration also featured a large globe with “Pearl of the Orient” emblazoned on its sides and a scale model of the hotel made entirely of sugar (pictured below).
The Okura was an immediate success and soon featured a wait list for bookings. Expansion came in the form of the 388-room South Wing, opened on November 26th, 1973.
This 13-floor addition increased the Hotel Okura’s total number of rooms to 796, and included a 20-meter heated indoor swimming pool. The year-round pool was bathed in beams of natural light streaming in through its series of skylight windows.
Okura also played host to technology introductions. When JVC introduced the world’s first VHS videocassette recorder in 1976, the company selected the hotel for its official launch.
“the 60-year-old doorman at Tokyo’s Hotel Okura, makes the bell boys practice smiling and bowing in front of a mirror. He also makes them pick up the cigarette butts that waiting taxi drivers have thrown in front of the hotel.”
In the 1980’s a major room renovation occurred, however some feel the results did not turn out well, bowing too much toward westernized tastes and not embracing Japanese design culture.
Fortunately the renovations did not reach the common areas; the bar, restaurant, lobby, and elevator landing were untouched.
photos courtesy hotelokura.co.jp
The Okura was the preferred hotel of the nearby American embassy for decades. U.S. presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama have all stayed at the Tokyo landmark hotel.
Other dignitaries and royalty to enjoy a sojourn at the Okura include the Dalai Lama, French President Jacques Chirac, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
“It’s not just the building. It’s the lighting fixtures, the furniture… you see this concept of Japanese design history PLAY OUT ACROSS THE LOBBY.”
– Don Choi, Cal Poly associate professor of architecture
Tearing Down History
In what came as a surprise to many, in May of 2014 the Hotel Okura Company announced it would reconstruct the main building of its flagship Hotel Okura Tokyo.
The project was estimated to be completed by spring of 2019, in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. More than ¥100 billion ($980 million U.S.) would be spent to add leading facilities and increase the main building’s room count from 408 to 550.
A lush garden nearly four acres in size will sit in the center of the site, a beacon of a green oasis in Tokyo. Commercial business renting options will be many, with an expected eighteen floors of available office space available for lease.
In an honorary gesture Yoshio Taniguchi, son of original Okura architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, was pegged for the hotel’s re-design.
“The lobby will be reborn as one appropriate for the present day while its characteristics are maintained. We will also design a plaza that will be surrounded by the two (new) hotel buildings and the Okura Museum of Art…We are aiming to make a design that can REMAIN FOR THE NEXT 50 YEARS AND 100 YEARS.”
– Yoshio Taniguchi, architect
The company’s May press release announced the planned closing date as the end of August 2015 with the start of demolition of the 11-floor main building to begin the following month. Preliminary estimates predicted its replacement to be completed by February of 2019 with a spring 2019 grand reopening. If all goes to plan, this would be in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The addition will feature a 41-floor high-rise and a 16-floor mid-rise tower, giving the Okura modern office space and more than 500 total guest rooms. Next door will sit what developers call a “metropolitan oasis;” this green tract occupies half the property, giving Tokyo another park-like retreat more than three acres (1.3 ha) in size.
Okura Closing Youtube Video (courtesy Japan Times):
Hotel management says the original building’s age makes it difficult to stay competitive, and redevelopment is necessary for the hotel to maintain its five-star rating.
Okura rooms have been updated, however by modern standards they are comparatively cramped, and the bathrooms somewhat lacking in top-shelf amenities.
“The plans for renovating our flagship Hotel Okura Tokyo will assure its top position IN JAPAN AND ASIA-WIDE.”
– Toshihiro Ogita, president of Hotel Okura Co., Ltd.
The retro lobby with olive-green carpet and modernist chairs was appealing for a time, but without re-decoration for fifty years, it had become a bit stale. Even the room’s views had worsened over time, as taller buildings have been erected around the Okura for decades.
Travelers were voting with their wallets. Management felt compelled to act.
“We will rebuild the main building as its AGE HAS MADE IT DIFFICULT for us to keep on offering time and space appropriate for a top hotel.”
– Hotel Okura Tokyo public relations official
To Hotel Okura management, these issues were significant hurdles that must be overcome if the hotel was to remain competitive. But to visitors, these were its main attraction and what made the hotel the time capsule it is. This was the Hotel Okura conundrum.
It is not the only structure in Tokyo faced with a dilemma; Kenzo Tange’s Kagawa Prefectural Gym (pictured above right) was closed because the cost of making it earthquake-compliant was prohibitive. Tange’s saw-toothed Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka, constructed of aluminum and glass in 1982, was recently demolished. Hibiya’s pre-war Sanshin Building and Hiroo’s 1915 Hanezawa Garden were other recent losses to redevelopment.
“In East Asia, the mainstream attitude toward old buildings is more or less like ours about old clothes. The idea is that once something built gets old and worn, it loses value, becomes unsanitary, and should probably be replaced. MOST OF TOKYO TODAY ONLY DATES BACK TO THE 1980S FOR THIS REASON.”
– Eric Mumford, architecture professor & author
Perhaps the most egregious example was the demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-Revival Second Imperial Hotel, finished in 1923 (pictured at left).
It was razed in 1968 to build a corporate office tower.
The Hotel Okura Tokyo, built with 1960’s infrastructure, similarly lagged the safety standards set by newer buildings. Retrofitting the old building was technically possible, but financially impractical. To management, it was an acceptable loss.
“The facilities are getting old. This hotel was built 53 years ago. The plumbing is getting old and the building is not up to the latest standards for withstanding earthquakes.”
– Masaki Ikeda, Hotel Okura president
Remembering the Original Okura
The Internet yields no shortage of articles penned by passionate Okura cognoscenti, lobbying for the saving of what is often called a “masterpiece of Japan’s modernism architecture.” The “#MyMomentAtOkura” movement on the web and social media (Twitter/Instagram) has asked people to share their experiences at the hotel. Design magazine Monocle ran their own Save the Okura petition.
Hotel management were opportunists and offered a “see it while it lasts” special with rooms going for $4,000 a night during the original Okura’s final week of operation. Generations of guests shared memories during “The Grand Stage” event, followed by a traditional Noh theater performance and lobby concert.
“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. 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.”
– Daisuke Koshidaka, senior front desk manager
One of the Okura’s memorable features was an interactive geometric Seiko time zone map of the world, comprised of Japanese prints and canvassing an entire wall (pictured below).
This 1960’s wonder displayed the local time of different cities when pressed. Part of its overall charm was the lack of updates (the map still showed the city of Leningrad.)
“..the Okura symbolized Japan’s return to international society after the war.”
– Hiroshi Matsukuma, professor, Kyoto Institute of Tech.
Future generations interested in seeing the original Okura can always watch the 1966 Cary Grant film Walk, Don’t Run.
The movie is set during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and opens with a scene at the hotel (trailer below shows a scene in the lobby).
The original Okura may soon be gone, but there’s little doubt its legacy has already been firmly established. Elements of its design will continue to grace classrooms and mood boards around the world for generations.
We offer a tip of the cap to all those who made the Tokyo icon what it was. Few mid-century hotels can boast to have influenced as many guests, and impacted as many designers around the world, as the Hotel Okura.