In late August, one of Tokyo’s grandest hotels, Hotel Okura closed its doors and its main wing will be demolished to make way for a $980 million reconstruction. The new hotel will open in 2019.
The move was met with howls of protest around the world. The original hotel was hailed as a modernist treasure. “It’s a masterpiece,” lamented noted architecture writer Hiroshi Matsukuma. “It has a cultural and historical value that can never be reproduced again.”
The hotel first opened its doors in 1962 at a pivotal time in Japanese history. Eager to distance itself from its militaristic past, the country put on a new internationalist face to the world. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were meant to be a sort of coming out party for a new, thoroughly modern nation. The Hotel Okura was designed in this same optimistic spirit.
Architect Yoshio Taniguchi said that he intended the hotel to be crisply modern though imbued with “a firm dignity impervious to fleeting fashion.” Five decades later, the hotel’s interiors still seem striking, elegant and wonderfully atmospheric. Taniguchi recruited master artisans Hideo Kosaka, Shiko Munakata and Kenkichi Tomimoto to craft the hotel’s look. The hotel’s murals, furniture, exterior facing, even the light fixtures, all draw upon elements of traditional Japanese design, re-imagined for the jet age.
“It’s the lighting fixtures, the furniture. What’s exciting is that you see this concept of Japanese design history play out across the lobby,” said Don Choi, professor of architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “You wouldn’t see that in Paris or New York. That attention to detail makes it a complete work of art.”
Hotel Okura has played host to several US Presidents, from Ford to Obama, along with other international luminaries from the Dalai Lama to Mikhail Gorbachev. Even James Bond spent the night there in You Only Live Twice. Haruki Murakami later featured the place prominently in his beloved tome 1Q84.
For 50 years, the hotel has continued to operate largely unchanged. Even the menu for the hotel’s restaurant, the Orchid Room, serves up the same fare they had back in 1964 — from crepes suzette to wiener schnitzel. The place was the Kennedy era dipped in amber. For the 21st century visitor, that was no doubt much of its charm.
Monocle Magazine has produced a lovely video elegy to the hotel, which you can watch above.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.