Rebirth of the Okura

A New Facelift for Hotel Okura Tokyo

South Wing lobby © Hotel Okura Tokyo
South Wing lobby © Hotel Okura Tokyo
16 JUN 2015
by

“Memories and thoughts age, just as people do. But certain thoughts can never age, and certain memories can never fade”.
― Haruki Murakami, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

When Cary Grant walked up to the reception of the then Hotel Okura in 1964, the reception refused him a room amidst the frenzy thrill during the Tokyo Olympic Games—as revealed in the unforgettable scene from the 1966 film, Walk Don’t Run, that drove the prestigious hotel to the attention of the international screen.

Just two years before the grand 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Baron Kishichiro Okura realized his dream to build an architectural icon of Japanese modernity and rich tradition, flowing through the fine window screens, bright hanging lanterns, rustic wall finish, geometric carpet patterns, mural paintings, decorative accessories, and inner garden layout. This successful myriad of beauty and delicacy in the art, design and impeccable service of Hotel Okura Tokyo has hosted unaccountable foreign dignitaries from heads of states to princesses and kings: Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Carter, Bush, Clinton, Obama, Lopez Mateos (Mexico), Chirac, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince Philip, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Queen Beatrix, King Carl Gustaf, among a few, and a long line of celebrities all over the world.

In the next fifty-three years, the unparalleled icon that has become one of Japan’s most important legacies of the avant-garde in the history of Japanese architecture will soon witness a new face from September 2015, in a huge reconstruction move to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Perhaps, it is a case of two catalysts precipitating two similar incidents? An anticipated call for rebirth?

The clattery buzz about the hotel restoration has stirred mixed reactions from historians, architects, and loyal clients across the globe, as well as Tokyo residents who have all developed infectious admiration for and attachment to the elegance of the establishment. Hotel Okura Tokyo, however, claims that the “new look” shall render an even more bewitching structural design that will replace the Main Building with two glass towers, and transfer some original sections to the South Wing during the renovation process.

If you have not experienced the Okura magic, now is the time to walk through the 1960s-inspired lobby, one of Japan’s most enchanting hotel showcases, designed by architects Yoshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka, artist Shiko Munakata, and potter Kenkichi Tomimoto. The “kirikodama” hexahedral patterns of the famous Okura lanterns originate from necklace motifs of the 3rd to 6th centuries, and hang like royal jewels from the ceiling. The “hishi-mon” diamond pattern comes from designs used in the Imperial Court during the Heian period. The “koshi” latticework frames the wall screens, and emits a fragile silhouette of light both during the night and day. In the South Wing, a mural of traditional birds created by Munakata is transformed into a folding screen by Taniguchi. These are just a few of the colorful symbols of Japanese cultural tradition that weave the threads of the hotel’s wondrous ambience.

Hotel Okura Tokyo: The construction of the Hotel Okura Tokyo aimed at world-class beauty, embodying traditional patterns and joinery dating back to the sophistication of the Fujiwara regime of the Heian period and the extravagant Momoyama expressions. The hotel also commemorates the art of Korin Ogata from the 17th century. The hotel uses these traditions in the patterns and materials, which are blended with the tone of Western design to exude simplicity and elegance. But, it is not only the beautiful architecture that has kept the hotel shining for years, but also the hotel philosophy of “Best ACS": Accommodation, Cuisine, and Service. We always aim for the best in these three categories. Apart from this, our guests enjoy a “public culture” because Baron Kishichiro Okura had always conceptualized a “hotel where people, culture and the arts meet and interact".

This is the strong Okura philosophy—a free space where our guests can relax and participate in our different activities. For example, we opened a culture school with a Go (Japanese game board) salon and wine academy, and organize charity events that promote music, art and international exchange. For many years, this reverence for culture and the arts has acted as a strong pillar for the Okura’s reputation, and we commit to hold on to this pillar to contribute to a prosperous future society.

For a country like Japan that is quite immune to cycles of building and rebuilding, having faced ordeals with earthquakes, fire, bombings and typhoons, the reconstruction of Hotel Okura Tokyo can be viewed as a slow-moving train towards change—passing through temples, shrines and other historical monuments that have likewise, seen cutting-edge transformations due to the inevitable need to cope with “modernization”*.

Hotel Okura Tokyo: In September, guests can continue to savour the best delights of our three major restaurants: the “Yamazato” (Japanese); "Toh-Ka-Lin” (Chinese); and the “Sazanka” (Teppanyaki), which will all be relocated to the South Wing, as well as the Go salon and the wine academy. We expect our philosophy of community and culture to remain unchanged. The new building will be equipped with better facilities and the latest functions, without tarnishing the traditional beauty that Hotel Okura Tokyo has always been noted for.

Change is challenging for many. When Hotel Okura was built in 1962 in time for celebrating the Tokyo Olympic Games two years hence, Japan and the world faced the innovative structure with sheer excitement, yet a raw understanding of how tradition could synthesize successfully with modernity during a period when the country was just gradually opening its eyes to the rest of the world. The result, however, was magnificent. Five years from today, the next Tokyo Olympic Games will once again, trigger similar shades of excitement and wonder, perhaps delivering tradition to a supreme height of consciousness that enables a nation to grasp a wider and more universal vision of future modernization.

Walk, Don't Run
Year: 1966.
Setting: Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
(Background 1960s music)
Scene: Cary Grant standing at the hotel front desk
Hotel Okura reception staff to Cary Grant: "Very sorry, Sir, you're two days early. Tokyo Olympics, you know! So sorry, Sir!"
Cary Grant may have been two days early, but forty-nine years late to perceive what may just be one of Tokyo's greatest reformations of all times.

With special gratitude to Hotel Okura Tokyo.