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Sayonara, Hotel Okura

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Readers of this blog know that we love everything Japanese; the culture, architecture, food, teas, origami, origata, you name it.  We love it so much, we can’t wait to head to Japan in 2016!  And while we also love contemporary culture, we think cultural history and heritage need to be preserved.  That’s why we were saddened to read that the iconic Hotel Okura in Tokyo will be reconstructed.  The best bit of the most loved hotel in Tokyo will be torn down by its owners to make way for a 38-storey glass tower.  The new 550-room hotel will reopen in 2019, in time for the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics the following year.

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Monocle describes it:  “Located in Toranomon on what had been a feudal estate, the Okura is an extraordinary testament to a key moment in Japanese design.  It was built two years ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 – with an annexe added in 1973 – by an exceptionally gifted and diverse group that included the architects Yoshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka, the folk artist Shiko Munakata and the potter Kenkichi Tomimoto.  Together they created a unique modern design that referenced the traditional colors, shapes and crafts of Japan.

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Visitors can walk into the main building of the Hotel Okura today and still drink in the atmosphere of 1960s Tokyo.  The lobby is much as it was: a perfect combination of wood, paper screens, and pendant lights. Tomimoto’s vast mural dominates one wall.  The signage is simple and concise.  The lobby attendants wear their kimonos with unselfconscious ease.  Even the displays of seasonal foliage, arranged by an Ikebana school, are agreeably understated.

hotel-okura-tokyo_0014hotel-okura-tokyo_0010If you were designing a hotel today, you might not think to include a tea ceremony room or a “Go” salon for players of Japan’s version of chess but the Okura has both.  It also has staff in tuxedos and bow ties, a Japanese garden and a bar where they’ve been making highballs since they were fashionable the first time around.

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It is hard to imagine a more elegant dining room than the Orchid Room where they cook up sole bonne femme and wiener schnitzel like it was 1964. There, as in the rest of the hotel, staff go about their business with an assured confidence that only comes with years of experience.

hotel-okura-tokyo_0003hotel-okura-tokyo_0016hotel-okura-tokyo_0004There is some comfort that the south wing, built in 1973, will remain but there seems to be little hope for the architectural jewel of the main building. Hiroshi Matsukuma, head of Docomomo Japan, whose mission is to look after modernist architecture, says he is “shocked” by the news but is at a loss as to what can be done. “It’s a masterpiece,” he says.  “It has a cultural and historical value that can never be reproduced again.”

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Read the full article on Monocle here.  We’ll visit the Hotel Okura in 2016  and write and update to the story.

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