The story of the Imperial Hotel‘s triple reincarnation in Tokyo reads like a film script, full of drama, disasters, earthquakes, fires, conflict, rivalries and resolution.
When in Tokyo, an antidote for “Lost in Translation” ennui is the Imperial Hotel. You enter a golden, glowing mini city across from the Imperial Palace into a two-story high, football field-size lobby lounge where all of Tokyo seems to meet.
Scarlett Johansson may have made another Tokyo hotel famous, where Bill Murray’s line was lonely: “The good news is the whiskey works.”
Fifty years earlier, Marilyn Monroe had a much better line. When a reporter asked what she wore in bed, she replied, “Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”
The Imperial Hotel has been Tokyo’s home to stars, celebrities and film production crews for years. Douglas Fairbanks visited in 1931, Charlie Chaplin in 1932, Bob Hope in 1950, Cary Grant in 1953, Alain Delon in 1963, Marlene Dietrich in 1974, and of course DiMaggio and Monroe in 1954. Recent guests have been Jodie Foster, Pierce Brosnan, Jean Reno, Luc Besson, and Keanu Reeves.
“I want my shirts laundered like they do at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo,” Reeves ad-libbed in the film “Johnny Mnemonic.” The laundry service is indeed incredible. When Kokihifumi Rental House President Yasuo Okuyama heard I was staying here, he smiled and said, “The Imperial has the best laundry in Tokyo.”
In the same “Johnny Mnemonic” scene, Keanu says, “I want the club sandwich.” Indeed, he was most likely thinking of the famous Imperial Clubhouse Sandwich, introduced in 1931 by Bunjiro Ishiwatari, eighth executive chef of the hotel. Today there are sixteen restaurants and bars in the Imperial, all superb.
The original Imperial building opened in 1890. It was the first western-style luxury hotel in Japan. As Japan moved from Shogunate to modern Meiji era in 1868, European experts were summoned. German technology was held in high regard. Carl Zeiss established an office in Tokyo, and German influence continues in the vocabulary today, as in “Lensmeister” (Master Lens Technician) and “Makuhari-Messe” (Convention Hall near Tokyo Disney World). German architects were invited to draw up the initial plans for the Imperial Hotel, while Japanese architects were sent to study in Germany.
Eventually, architect Yuzuru Watanabe designed the 60-room 3-story hotel. It was constructed of wood and brick, with a stucco exterior painted to look like stone and a Western-style facade. It burned down in 1922.
In a speech at the Architectural Institute of Japan, Imperial Hotel Manager Tetsuzo Inumaru once said, “The kitchen is the heart of a hotel.” The Imperial opened about the same time Auguste Escoffier and César Ritz were organizing the kitchen of the Savoy Hotel in London. Chefs from the Imperial were sent there to train under Escoffier. Culinary excellence continues at the Imperial and in Japan to this day; there are five more Michelin three-star restaurants in Tokyo than in Paris.
By 1909, the original Imperial building was already considered too small and in 1915 the management hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new one. Wright had built residences, but this was to be his first hotel, his first large structure. He was inspired by Kyoto, symmetry, and curiously for a hotel in Japan, Mayan temples. Construction was steel-reinforced concrete, brick, and Oya stone tiles. Oya stone is volcanic, very porous and has a tendency to crumble with age. But it was hotel as art.
Like some film productions, Wright’s project doubled in budget even before the first brick was laid.
Wright designed everything from foundation and facade to the furniture and fixtures. Because the hotel was built on landfill over a former palace moat, he decided to “float” the foundation on a cushion of clay instead of anchoring to the bedrock, and to connect sections with flexible expansion joints. When the hotel opened on September 1, 1923, it withstood a 7.9 magnitude earthquake the same day: the Great Kanto Earthquake. Although the Imperial still “floated,” it was never again “on an even keel,” and eventually would have to be rebuilt a third time.
The painful decision was taken in 1967 to demolish the Frank Lloyd Wright Imperial and replace it with the high-rise we see today on the same site. Portions of Wright’s Imperial were saved and rebuilt at The Meiji-mura open-air architecture museum in Inuyama, near Nagoya.
The new Imperial Hotel, Take 3, was completed in March 1970, with 17 floors and 777 guest rooms. The Imperial Tower was added in 1983 as a mixed-used office-shopping-restaurants-swimming pool-hotel building.
If you’re a mogul on an imperial budget or a Frank Lloyd Wright fanatic, consider booking the Frank Lloyd Wright Suite. At 2,100 square feet, you can bask in the glory of Wright replicas, Oya volcanic stone tiles, stained-glass windows and a magnificent view of the Imperial Palace from its two bedrooms, living room or office.
The rest of us can relive Frank Lloyd Wright in the saved pieces of his designs on display in various parts of the hotel, or while sipping a Yamazaki 18-year old single malt served over a single sphere of totally clear ice in the Old Imperial Bar, with its 1923 style, Oya tiles, Wright lighting and vintage decor.
During my stay last month, the Imperial was celebrating its 125th anniversary. A guide said, “It is a source of pride that the hotel still stands, keeping its spirit of tradition, the same now as it was when the first guests were welcomed through these doors so long ago.” It’s a wonderful welcome and a wonderful hotel.
My thanks to Mr. Akitaka Minamata and Ms. Risa Wakatsuki of the Imperial Hotel in preparing this article.