Destination: Japan: Tokyo
Mandarin Oriental Tokyo
Right in the heart of Tokyo, in Nihonbashi, just above the Ginza district, is another hotel that occupies the higher floors of a commercial tower, in this case one thought up by architectural innovator César Pelli. The bold, striking design apparently was inspired by the themes of forest and water, in the service of which natural materials were employed throughout. A water feature in the 37th-floor entranceway and the leaf motif throughout create a relaxed atmosphere; lavish use of wood and fabrics in the rooms, together with the design’s sense of harmony, also give the Mandarin a boutique feel. It is located right in the center of the financial district and slightly east of the Imperial Palace gardens. Rooms from $785.
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Park Hyatt Tokyo
Everyone who is anyone lays their head here for a night: passing-through movie stars, big-name musicians, corporate head honchos. This simply superb hotel was groundbreaking in so many ways, not least for being situated on the upper floors of an office building. The rooms are packed with all kinds of technology, including various gimmicks in even the smallest room, such as soothing fans that are activated by the touch of a button. You reach the hotel by switching from one elevator to another along a walkway, which sounds like a pain, but the hall’s book-lined walls make this a rather comforting and soothing experience after a hard day’s negotiating or sightseeing. Famously the setting for the film Lost in Translation, the Park Hyatt was where Bill Murray spent jet-lagged, sleepless nights chatting to Scarlett Johannsson, answering the whirring fax machine and propping up the New York Bar. Rooms from $680.
Trust the Hong Kong–headquartered group to snag the very best hotel site in town, flanked by the Imperial Gardens park and the lively bustle of Ginza. Oddly, for a city renowned for its service and love of luxury, it was not until recently overloaded with fabulous five-stars. The Peninsula, already a huge favorite with the Japanese, who know the group from its flagship Hong Kong property, has raised the bar way higher than previously with a state-of-the-art, boutique-in-feel hotel that is understated elegance at its most exquisite. A traditional Japanese lantern was the architectural inspiration for the 314-room Peninsula, and throughout the property, there are other subtle nods to the nation’s rich heritage. The wooden latticework in the lobby is reminiscent of decor found in the ancient capital, Kyoto, and the polished cherry wood reception counters and marble floors also showcase time-honored Japanese craft techniques. The rooms, among the largest in the city, feature generous use of cherrywood, chestnut, handwoven cedarwood panels and red lacquer. The cavernous bathrooms, fitted with granite, aim to replicate the ambience of traditional Japanese hot springs. As always in Peninsula hotels, high-tech devices, tested by the group’s specialist team of 20 engineers, are liberally employed and include Internet radio with 3,000 channels, a phone that can be synchronized to guests’ personal phones and another that works in-house and around Tokyo. Female guests will be delighted with the nail dryer the experts invented to put in every room! Scattered throughout the hotel are almost 1,000 works of art, including the lobby’s centerpiece bamboo sculpture, a Chinese dragon, a symbol of strength, harmony and good luck. All in all, the Pen is the place to stay in terms of location, luxury, exclusivity and novelty. Rooms from $600.
Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo
Shangri-La, inspired by the novel Lost Horizon, isn’t nearly as familiar a name in the hospitality industry in the West as in the East. There is only one SL property in North America—in Vancouver—but the company, founded in Singapore in 1971, is the leading luxury brand in the Asia-Pacific region, where the majority of its 72 properties are located. In China alone there are already 33 Shangri-Las—6 in Beijing—and among projects being planned for the future is an outpost in, appropriately, Tibet, the basis for much of author James Hilton’s mythic locale.
When SL entered the Tokyo market it had become crowded at the top with the opening of six new 5-star properties since the mid’90s. Arguably, though, in the short time since its debut, the Shangri-La has come out on top by taking an opposite tact from its competitors. Residing in the uppermost 11 floors of a 37-story tower in the still-developing Marunouchi business district (adjacent to Ginza), the SL is a full-scale hotel, with 200 rooms, 2 restaurants, a lobby lounge and bar, a club floor, spa, pool, ballroom and even a wedding chapel. But step out of the elevator into the 28th-floor lobby, and you might think you’ve arrived at a far smaller establishment; this is a lodging that isn’t trying to impress with scale or magnificence as much as to convey serenity and refinement. Tokyo Station, the city’s spectacularly huge and advanced mass-transit complex (3,000 train departures daily), is directly beneath; the Shangri-La is in one of the several commercial towers rising from it. And views from one side of the hotel include a never-ending procession of trains. But up here none is ever heard and all is calm in the extreme. I toured lobbies, restaurants and guestrooms at all of the Shangri-La’s peers: the Park Hyatt, in the Shibuya district, the scene-stealing setting for Lost in Translation; the Ritz-Carlton and the Grand Hyatt, both in the central Roppongi district; and the Mandarin-Oriental, Four Seasons, and Peninsula, all located near the Shangri-La in posh Ginza/Marunouchi. Each has its attractions, but from entry-point to top-floor the SL is the most cocoon-like and cosseting. Even when almost fully booked, as it was for part of my long-weekend stay, it looked, felt and even sounded like a small boutique property, a subtle and custom-tailored oasis above the core of a vast city.
Rooms here are definitely spacious, however. The lowest-category lodgings (priced around $550 during my visit) are still the largest in the city, at 538 square feet. But the color scheme, mostly shades of brown, beige and gold, with ruby accents, is more intense than those in the generally blonde-and-beige offerings at the other premier hotels and gives them more warmth, as do the densely textured fabrics. The mattresses cost $10,000 each. The thread count of the Frette sheets is 300 (and in the suites, 1,000). The marble is from Turkey and Mongolia, and there’s plenty of it, as the bathrooms include an enormous combination rainshower/bathtub space that by itself would be larger than most dressing rooms. But the accommodation doesn’t scream “opulent.” Like the slinky banquette stretched out beneath its huge window, it’s more sophisticated than that.
To get to the guestrooms, you do have to get past, in both senses of the phrase, all the chandeliers in the public spaces. The company’s signature design element to be perhaps too well-represented; all told there are 50 in the property. Even though some of these creations reference such delicate natural elements as ginko leaves and are quite beautiful on their own, taken together they can seem too-flashy in a setting that otherwise tends to understatement.
Focus your attention instead on other design features. These include a private museum’s worth of art, displayed at every turn in the halls and foyers (paintings, sculptures, and works in glass, ceramics, embroidery, gesso and wood, among other media). The two restaurants, one Japanese, one Italian, and both designed by Andre Fu, who created the super-chic looks of Hong Kong’s Upper House and Singapore’s Fullerton Bay hotels, are worldly gathering spots that further signal the Shangri-La’s commitment to living up to its name.
WHO SHOULD STAY: Those on the move: if you’re coming from Narita airport by express train; or going to be taking a bullet train to Kyoto; or planning to visit various parts of Tokyo by the city’s transportation system (thereby avoiding long and very pricey taxi rides), the SL has quite a convenience factor. Those prizing privacy and discretion will like it here too; overall it’s a high-style but low-key refuge.
WHO SHOULD NOT STAY: Anyone who doesn’t like heights. The Four Seasons, with fifty-seven rooms only among the smallest in the group, has guestrooms much closer to the ground. Also, anyone who wants a walk-in, traditional lobby: among the top hotels, only the Peninsula has one.
TIP: Book a room with Horizon Club access. You’ll pay more initially but not in the end if you take advantage of the array of food and treats set out during the day and the drinks served in the evenings. Two computers and a printer make this a handy spot for checking email and news or doing work. Also, by all means book a reservation for a teppanyaki lunch or dinner at Nadaman, the Japanese restaurant. Course after course created and cooked in front of you: seafood pancakes with dashes of yam, beet, garlic and ginger; Hokkaido scallops with anchovy, basil, white wine and garlic sauce; and brandy-seared cuts of Wagyu beef so tender each forkful dissolves in your mouth. It takes a lot to outdo suishi at one of Japan’s best restaurants, but this meal will do it!
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