Last Call: Tokyo Iconic Okura Hotel Meets the Wrecking Ball

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A Tokyo Icon Faces the Wrecking Ball

Tokyo’s iconic nod to Japanese Modernism, the Hotel Okura, will bid farewell to its last guests next week and face the wrecking ball, despite petitions from around the world to save it.

The 1960s-era hotel, which has welcomed international dignitaries and inspired a throng of admirers eager for preservation, will close its doors Aug. 31 to make way for a gleaming new hotel rebuilt in time for the 2020 Olympics, at a cost of about 100 billion yen ($836 million).

“What’s odd about the Okura is that it’s a perfect embodiment of ‘60s Modernism, and it represents that very first wave of new development in the region,” Tyler Brule, editor in chief of Monocle magazine, who spearheaded a campaign that included a petition with almost 9,000 signatures, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “For this reason alone, it deserves to be preserved.”

The petition generated enormous press and focused a spotlight on architectural preservation, “or lack thereof,” Brule said. Monocle printed linen-bound books and presented them to every Okura board member to encourage reconsideration of the hotel’s destruction, he added.

Since it opened in 1962 across from the U.S. Embassy, on the grounds of a former feudal estate, the Okura has welcomed U.S. presidents such as Richard Nixon and Barack Obama and was featured in the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.

Facebook, Instagram

News of its demolition spurred Facebook pages and an Instagram hashtag by Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, to save a building that evoked the elegance of an era in a nation accustomed to tearing down and rebuilding.

Andrew Lindsay, 44, is one such devotee. On a trip to Tokyo in June, the Seoul-based Deutsche Bank AG executive spent a day taking pictures of the hotel.

“It had this perfect mid-century Modernist architecture with a Japanese feel to it,” said Lindsay, chief operating officer of Korea at Deutsche Bank, who first stayed at the Okura on a business trip in 2002. The New Zealander has visited Tokyo twice in the past year and posted the photos on a “Save the Okura” Facebook page.

Fans are mostly lamenting the loss of the Okura’s public spaces: the wide-open lobby with its hushed tones, signature pendant lights, lotus-flower table-and-chair arrangements, and a map of the world with lit-up timezones, as well as the hotel’s watering hole, the Orchid Bar.

Elegant Lobby

“The elegance of the lobby, the shopping boulevard on the lower level, the coat check woman and newsstand attendant in kimono, the smoky, lovely Orchid Bar,” Monocle’s Brule said. “All of the public areas are superb.”

Tokyo is racing to add more accommodation ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games. Aided by a weaker yen, visitors reached a record 11 million this year to July, 47 percent more than a year earlier, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

The current 11-story Okura opened in time for Tokyo’s first summer Olympics in 1964.

“I felt quite strongly that it was worth saying to people, ‘Do you realize this bit of Tokyo’s history is disappearing, and before long we’ll have a forest of glass towers?’” Fiona Wilson, Monocle’s Tokyo bureau chief who came up with the idea for the petition, told Bloomberg Television.

New Hotel

The new 41-story hotel is slated for 2019, before Tokyo stages its second summer games. Okura’s largest shareholders are Japan’s biggest contractor Taisei Corp. and biggest developer Mitsubishi Estate Co.

The main lobby of Hotel Okura Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan.
The main lobby of Hotel Okura Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan.
Source: Hotel Okura Tokyo Co. via Bloomberg

Yoshio Taniguchi, son of Yoshiro Taniguchi, the designer of the original Okura, is part of a group drawing up plans for the new hotel, which will feature a tea ceremony room and Japanese garden, like the current one. The new structure will increase the number of rooms to 510, from 408 in the main building now.

Wear and tear made it increasingly difficult to provide “top-class comfort,” Okura spokesman Ryutaro Suzuki said.

The furnishings and interior decor, such as the Okura’s signature pendant lights, murals and paper screens, will be assessed as to whether they can be preserved once they are removed, Suzuki said.

Tokyo is no stranger to pulling down and rebuilding its structures every few decades. In the last few years, Palace Hotel Tokyo and Capitol Hotel Tokyu were among those from the 1960s that were demolished and rebuilt as high-rise complexes.

‘Orphan Zone’

Buildings from that decade in Japan “fall in the middle of what I call the orphan zone: It’s not new enough, it’s not old enough, and there is a lack of focus of looking at this particular era as something which is very significant and that could be important,” Toshiko Mori, the founder and principal of New York-based Toshiko Mori Architect who has been involved in the campaign to save the hotel and is a friend of Bottega Veneta’s Maier, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Some of the old Okura feel will be kept alive in the South Wing, an annex designed in the same Modernist style that opened in 1973, which will remain for now.

Lindsay, an avid photographer, said he has tried to squeeze in an hour to walk around the Okura’s lobby on every trip to Japan.

“The Okura isn’t one single thing. It’s a sum of individual pieces,” he said. “This sort of renewal has been going for years. This is the reality of modern life.”

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