Hotel Okura Tokyo: When the Ordinary is Made Extraordinary

As readers of this blog are aware, from time to time we look at different businesses that offer something of interest whether creative, unusual or just plain intriguing.

This post focuses on the Hotel Okura in Tokyo. Wrote Cameron Allan McKean in The Japan Times:

Hotel Okura Tokyo first opened its doors to the public on May 20, 1962, as the country’s era of rapid growth and modernization finally hit its stride. Alongside the bullet train and other large-scale infrastructure projects that were completed at the time, the hotel came to embody the growing ascendency of Japan, as the world looked to Tokyo for the ’64 Olympics.

As far as hotels went, there was nothing in Tokyo like the Okura when it was built. Indeed, there’s nothing like it now. Other luxury hotels did exist in the early ’60s, including the Imperial Hotel and the Hotel New Otani Tokyo, but the Okura was in a class of its own, thanks to the work of a design team led by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi. The team, following guidelines laid down by hotel President Kishichiro Okura, son of prominent entrepreneur Kihachiro Okura, sidestepped the minimal geometry and form-via-function aesthetics of Western modernist design to create a contemporary space rich with decorative indigenous Japanese patterns and traditional craftsmanship.

Despite regular renovations to the facilities, the Okura has physically deteriorated over the past five decades. But now, more than ever, it stands out from the rest as a singular space in a metropolis that is rife with homogenous structures. Even in its less-than-ideal state, it still manages to attract the world’s political and cultural elite, many of whom have become devoted to this “orphan child” of Japanese modernism, to borrow the words of Harvard architecture professor Toshiko Mori.

It’s somewhat astounding, then, that the Okura’s main building — the oldest and most-loved section of the hotel — will capitulate to the modernizing pull of the city when reconstruction begins this September. In 2019, a year before the Tokyo Olympics, the main building will return in the form of two mixed-use high-rise towers that will likely cost more than ¥100 billion.

The famous blue namakokabe (sea cucumber) tiles on the hotel’s exterior, reminiscent of rural storehouses and castles, will disappear. Taniguchi’s compact entrance, which opens out into a luxuriously spacious lobby, with its ikebana display changed each month by the Sekiso-Ryu flower-arranging school for more than five decades, will also disappear. The slightly fraying lobby chairs, the tatami mat-colored carpet, each patterned piece of hanging fabric, each decorative tile and every hexagonal lantern will be removed as the hotel is taken apart piece by piece.

Lovers of Japanese architecture and design have found it inexplicable that an icon as historically valuable as the Okura could be destroyed for economic reasons alone. Frustrated and disheartened, Monocle magazine began an online “Save the Okura” petition in 2014. “Change and construction are features of life in Tokyo and contribute to the city’s thrilling sense of purpose and energy,” writes Fiona Wilson, the Tokyo bureau chief of Monocle, “but should they come at the expense of the capital’s history and identity?”

“Craft is important,” says Akira Nishimura (the Okura’s manager) pointing out the partitions above us, lined with vertical strips of kimono fabric painted by ceramic painter Kenkichi Tomimoto. The walls around us are lined with light brown Tako Ishi stone, sourced from Gunma Prefecture; the afternoon light bounces off the stones’ uneven surfaces, creating shadows that resemble the dark brushstrokes of old Chinese landscape paintings. In the lobby, meanwhile, Nishimura points out the tables coated with Japanese lacquer sourced from the remote areas in Ishikawa Prefecture. Sadly, most of the original team who worked on the designs in ’62 — Saburo Mizoguchi, Kenichi Shigeoka, Tsutomu Hiroi, Seido Iwata, Jiro Agata — have since passed away.

To simply reiterate a time-worn cliche and state that the Hotel Okura “uses Japanese aesthetics” is a gross misrepresentation of what the hotel actually is. Behind each pattern and crafted object is a network of artisans working with techniques passed down over generations. This is what takes the hotel beyond so-called mid-century modernism.

It lessens the magnitude of the Okura to say it was built “in a style” such as beaux-arts, neo-classicism or the geometric functionalism of the “international style.” Take, for example, lacquer. Look at the tables in the lobby, with their deeply reflective red surfaces. These objects required a carpenter to create a thin wooden base, someone to gather the poisonous sap of the urushi tree, another to gather the fossil-rich earth used to give it strength and, finally, someone to mix the ingredients together and paint them over the wood in multiple layers, until it becomes thick and durable. It has taken a long time to create those tables, and every other crafted item in the hotel shares a similar history.

The Okura, in all its faded glory, represents the legacy of all those deceased artisans, and the generations before them who carried the torch of tradition.

When I heard that the Okura’s Main Building was to vanish, I moved a trip planned to Japan for this fall forward to this June in order to see the Okura before demolition begins in September. From a process standpoint The Okura runs extremely efficiently (as you normally expect of a Japanese hotel) but sometimes a business transcends the rational and conveys a style and aesthetic that takes the product or experience to another level altogether. For a few days I got to enjoy the spaces in The Okura, some nice dinners and breakfasts, and some Japanese whiskey at the bars. But mainly I took in as much of the craft and design as I could; below are a few of the several hundred images and video shot during my stay. Most times we’re not too observant of our surroundings; at least in the Okura, awareness is rewarded – even a simple air vent becomes a thing of beauty. I hope you enjoy.


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