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Categorized | Property

Tokyo’s Hotel Okura says polite goodbye

Posted on August 31, 2015

Violinist Ryosuke Suho plays the violin during a "Finale Concert" at the main lobby of Hotel Okura in Tokyo, Monday, Aug. 31, 2015. The Hotel Okura, a favored Tokyo lodging for U.S. presidents, movie stars and other celebrities, is closing the doors of its iconic, half-century-old main building after the concert to make way for a pair of glass towers ahead of the 2020 Olympics. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)©AP

Violinist Ryosuke Suho plays the violin during a finale concert in the lobby of Hotel Okura in Tokyo on Monday

Even with the end in sight, its future measured in minutes and its lobby swarming with nostalgia junkies, the noise volume in the Tokyo’s iconic Hotel Okura barely rose above a murmur.

    For more than five decades, the low-lit, low-rise hotel in the heart of the Japanese capital has had this effect on visitors: normalising the sotto-voce exchange, discreetly imposing discretion, draining brashness from the world outside with dun carpets, thick whisky tumblers and wood panelling and seducing with its aura of the 1960s.

    But none of this has ensured the Okura’s survival in its current form. Earthquake-proofing standards have been tightened, cheap Y3,000-a-night business hotels and high-end competitors dominate the Tokyo market and Japan’s relentless tradition of demolish and rebuild is claiming another citadel.

    At midnight on Monday, the lights of the lobby went dark and Okura staff, with unflinching politeness, asked the last of the visitors to leave. Outside, a ripple of applause followed the extinguishing of the front lights as the concierge strung rope across the revolving front doors for the last time and bowed.

    Petitions, mostly signed by non-Japanese, had attempted to save the hotel from the bulldozers — it has long been a favourite with diplomats from the US embassy just around the corner.

    “Japan renews everything all the time, but it would be good if just a few things could remain in place forever,” said Tatsuko Fujii, a Tokyo resident who had previously written to the Okura management to demand a stay of execution. “They may preserve some of the furniture and put it in the new place, but it can never be the same.”

    But most locals, despite a last heave of sentiment on its final night, appear to accept that the Okura must follow the rest of Tokyo down a path that has built higher and stronger with every passing year.

    Japan renews everything all the time, but it would be good if just a few things could remain in place forever

    – Tatsuko Fujii, Tokyo resident

    Constructed two years ahead of Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics and designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi, the Okura was a prominent symbol of the city’s post war revitalisation.

    For foreigners — a historic guest list that includes seven US presidents, film stars and blue-chip corporate leaders — it has been the epitome of a Japan imagined from afar: impeccably mannered, obsessively aesthetic and stubbornly eccentric.

    For Japanese, it was a place where the best of Japan continued to be done better than anywhere — an irresistible relic from a moment in history when the country put wartime defeat in its past and regained the old conviction that it was world class.

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    The Fast Lane

    Let’s save a masterpiece

    This picture taken on August 29, 2015 shows the main building of Japan's iconic Hotel Okura in Tokyo. Tokyo's sixties-era modernist masterpiece Hotel Okura, host to US presidents, royalty, celebrities and spy James Bond, turns off the lights of the main building on August 31, more than a half century after its opening heralded Japan's post-war coming out party. Despite an outcry from architectural preservationists, the fabled property shuts its doors for a four-year makeover that will give way to a gleaming high-rise hotel, the latest heritage building to see the wrecking ball in the ultra-modern Japanese megalopolis. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

    The Okura in Tokyo — the last great 1960s original in that city  and one of the most loved modernist hotels in the world — is to be ripped down

    On Monday night, in the hours before the pentagon-leafed chandeliers of the Okura’s main wing were finally dimmed to black, hundreds of Japanese came for a final glimpse.

    Some were close to tears. Some recalled breakfast visits taken as children to the café. A former hostess had come to relish the memory of drinks with clients in the thick air of the Orchid Bar in its 1980s bubble heyday. Two brothers, now in their late 50s, recalled the day that their father sold the family textile business with a handshake over a table in the hotel’s sushi restaurant.

    The demise of the Okura’s main building, along with its modernist lobby, its retro corridors and now badly outdated guest rooms, will make way for a $1bn modernisation project, timed for completion ahead of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics and masterminded by Yoshio Taniguchi, the original architect’s son.