Japan, Tokyo

The Okura Hotel – a journey into the past.

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The Okura hotel is an iconic Tokyo hotel. Since it first opened its doors in 1962, it has housed movie stars, sporting heroes, world leaders and royalty. To give you a few examples of its pedigree: President Ford (1974), President Carter (1980), President Nixon (1982), Prince Philip (1984), Prince Charles and Diana (1986), Presidnet Reagan (1986), Margret Thatcher (1992), President Clinton (1993), Gorbachev (2003) and President Obama (2009) have all been stayed. However, in my mind, the part of its heritage which I care about the most is that it has been, from the very first day it opened its doors, and ever year after, the Tokyo home to a most important guest: my father!

Originally the hotel was built by Yoshshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka two years ahead of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and heartbreakingly, for the 2020 Olympics, the hotel will be demolishing its original structure and replacing it with a glass tower, due to be completed in 2019. With this in mind, there was only one opportunity for me to visit the original hotel that my father was so fiercely loyal to for over the 40 years while he visited Tokyo for work. Thankfully, I was in Tokyo in 2014 and had the chance to stay at the Okura before to scheduled 2015 demolition. And, in a city so full of opportunities to walk in my dads footsteps, this would definitely prove to be the highlight!

So why is the Okura hotel so special? Well aside from its history and iconic design, it is a pretty cool hotel. It is full of beautiful yet unsterstated Japanese art and textiles, the lobby attendants wear kimonos, there is a beautifully presented Japanese woman whose sole job it is is to help you into the lift and bow to you, it brings nature into the hotel through seasonal foliage displays, it has a Go salon (japanese chess), it has a tea ceremony room, a Japanese Garden, gigantic koi, a shopping arcade, banquet halls and the list goes on! One of the best features of the hotel is the world famous lobby that has kept its original 1960’s design. A serene space where you can feel the history, it creates one of those rare locations where it becomes easier to imagine being in the 1960s than in present day 2014. One of my fathers favourite spots was the Orchid Room, which is where breakfast is served, as well as lunch and dinner, and as in the name, is full of beautiful orchids.

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So, to my experience of the Okura Hotel. I had emailed before our stay to ask to have a garden view room, as that is where my father used to stay. This request was met and checking in was very easy and, after 2 months of nomadic living out of a suitcase, we decided to book a massage for that afternoon (Click Here to book a room at the Okura in English). Our first port of call was to see the room, considering the age of the hotel, it was in spectacular condition! The room was very warm, with creme/beige colours and an origami crane and an origami turtle were waiting to welcome us. There was a good view over Tokyo and the hotel’s Japanese Garden below. The room was bigger than most Tokyo hotel rooms and the bathroom was the best I had seen so far, with a glass screen separating it from the main room. But the best part for me was walking into the hotel room and seeing something oh so familiar lying perfectly folded on the bed. Laying there was my Dad’s dressing gown that he wore every day in Spain during our yearly summer vacations. I had no idea that it was from the Okura, or even that it was a yukata, and even more surprisingly, that they were still using them to this day. It was a strange experience to have something so familiar to me and so inextricably connected to my father, lying there on the bed of a hotel room I had never been to before. Despite thinking that my Dad had at least three, I went to the gift shop to buy him a brand new one as a present from me, from Japan. When I gave it to him, he told me that he no longer had any as they were all to worn to wear, so he was thrilled to have a replacement.

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It was lunch time, so we headed to the Terrace Restaurant and sat outside to enjoy the garden and the koi, despite it being August and mushiatsui (very humid)! Everywhere you went in this hotel you got the sense you were somewhere special! J had the schnitzel and chips and I had a smoked salmon sandwich, our first western meal in months! Both were presented beautifully and were very tasty, it’s incredible how rich and this type of food tasted because our palate had changed. We finished just time time to head to the Tea Ceremony we had booked.

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The Okura has been performing traditional Japanese tea ceremonies in the hotel since it opened. There were around 10 of us at the ceremony. Before we started, the significance of the tea ceremony and how it was performed was explained to us. Then we watched this ancient form of hospitality, precision and ritual happen, connected to the past by constant repetition, bonded to buddhism in a message of spirituality meant to bring peace to our soul. Back in the present, we were nourishing our bodies as we drank the prepared tea and ate a small Japanese sweet. It was an excellent opportunity to understand the symbolism behind the different aspects of the ceremony and to experience such a cultivated, rather than curated, Japanese tradition. Afterwards we had the opportunity to sit in the old tea room (there is a ritual to entering the room as well) and enjoy the calm decor and try to translate calligraphy hanging on the wall (“ichi-e ichi-go” – one time, one meeting).

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Feeling very zen after the ceremony, it was time for a little bodily relaxation in the form of an in-room massage. This being my first massage in Japan, and knowing they do everything differently there, I didn’t really know what to expect. What should I wear or not wear, would they bring a massage table etc etc. It turns out I was right to be confused, the massage was done on the bed (a little stange) and fully clothed (again strange). It was quite a comic scene actually as J and I had massages at the same time, both clothed and both on the same double bed, performed by some very stern and extremely strong middle aged Japanese women. To be honest I didn’t really enjoy mine, it was too hard core for my taste, and even thought I was quite capable of saying ‘sumimasen, chotto tsuyoi desu’ a polite way of saying, “it is a little strong”, I was a little scared of the masseuse and decided to ride it out thinking that it was probably good for me anyway.

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We ate with a friend that night in an isakaya in Roppongi as a farewell dinner, as it was our last but one night in Japan. When we returned to the hotel we thought we would finish the night, and our 5 month trip off in style and go for a drink at the Bar Highlander, which is famed for having over 200 types of scottish whisky and ‘genuine scottish decor’. It seems odd that The Okura has a Scottish themed bar, but it has been a feature of the hotel since it’s origin and it looked like an excellent place to spend the rest of the evening. I immediately fell in love with the bar when I saw their special cocktail was champagne and umeshu, with a choice of either my personal favourite, Mumm Champagne or Dom Perinion. Really what was not to like! Feeling the Dom would have been a bit extravagant I went for the Mumm with umeshu and I knew that if it was being served at the Okura, this would be some damn good umeshu, which is a liquor made from Japanese plums. The drink was spectacular and if I could only drink one drink for the rest of my life it would be that one! J and I spent the next few hours in the bar reminiscing about our time in Japan.

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The next morning we went down to the Orchid room for breakast. I was excited as my father had told me so much about the enjoyment he had from having breakfast in this spot for over 40 years. The room was lovely and there were beautiful orchids dotted about the room. We had a table next to the garden and the whole room felt very serene. The staff were impeccable and the quality of the western breakfast was very high. We stayed in the Orchid room until they had made up all the tables for lunch except for ours, and at that point we felt we really should leave.

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One of the most entertaining aspects of the Okura is the fact that they have a little shopping arcade in the basement, this is not like the shops you get in modern hotels, this is a very old school set of shops, including jewellery hire, post office, suit shop, shoes shop, barber etc etc. You would never need to leave the hotel if you stayed here, everything you could possible want is on site! So after breakfast we headed there to post some mail and have a look around.

Before checking out we took a few moments to soak up the last of the Okura atmosphere, knowing this opportunity would not be possible ever again.

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CLICK HERE to book your stay at The Okura Hotel in english.

CLICK HERE for more information on The Okura Hotel.

The Okura in film and fiction:

1964 Ian Fleming Novel – You Only Live Twice. Bond stays at The Okura while in Tokyo.

1966 Carry Grant Film – Walk, Don’t run. The movie is set during the 1964 Olympics and opens with a scene at the Okura.