TRADITIONALLY, visitors to Japan have had two choices. Stay in a Western chain hotel like a Hilton or opt for a Japanese establishment. The first option is safe but dull. There is something quite galling about returning to a slice of America or Europe when you’ve spent the day soaking up Eastern culture.
Nor is going for a Japanese chain, or one of the countless boutique hotels, a particularly easy experience. It is tricky to book online, with many of the websites written in Japanese only, while the rooms are, for the most part, much smaller than you might expect.
Then there are the little things: Japanese hotel rooms are fitted with the kinds of comforts a local might expect – electric toilet seats and traditional tea making facilities – but if you wanted to make a cup of coffee in your room, you could forget it.
In recent years, however, things have changed. The best Western chains (like Hyatt and Peninsula) are now designed with Japanese style in mind, while some high-end hoteliers in Japan have begun catering for Western travellers.
Here we’ve picked five hotels from Japan’s most visited cities – Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – that offer, as cliché would have it, the best of both worlds.
BARELY three years old, the Peninsula has already established itself as one of the great hotels of Tokyo. In a city known for its gaudy neon, this hotel is an exercise in how elegance need not be understated and it starts as soon as you walk through the door (or before that even, if one of the hotel’s vintage Rolls Royce cars happens to be waiting outside).
The lobby is a vast circular room, decked in Japanese wood with a magnificent chandelier consisting of over a thousand LEDs hanging in the centre. Afternoon tea is an unexpectedly popular activity in Japan and the Peninsula’s lobby might be the best place in the city to enjoy it; the current menu takes it’s inspiration from Jo Malone fragrances.
Given that space is at a premium in Tokyo, it’s impressive to find the very centre of the hotel given over to a stunning art installation. The Void is a series of silvery, fibre-optic sculptures suspended inside a 70 metre “black hole”, visible from every floor of the hotel.
Even more impressive, though, are the views. Situated opposite the Imperial Palace, the main residence of the Emperor of Japan, the hotel provides beauty and heritage at every turn.
Mistui Garden Hotel Ginza Premier, Tokyo
THERE is no doubt about it, the Mitsui Garden Hotel Ginza Premier in Tokyo is Japanese through and through. Like many Tokyo hotels, it is housed in the upper section of a soaring tower block – the entrance is accessed by an unremarkable elevator that’s shared with a photocopying firm. Once you arrive, however, you quickly realise there are advantages to having a lobby suspended 16 storeys in mid-air rather than the ground floor.
The near-panoramic views of the Tokyo skyline – including the famous Tokyo Tower – and the twisting nexus of futuristic roads, is breathtaking; the Piero Lissoni-designed interior almost pales in comparison, but not quite.
The rooms aren’t exactly tiny, although they’re small by Western standards, and are jam-packed with technical wizardry, luxury fabrics and glossy surfaces. Located on the edge of Japan’s fashionable Ginza district, the hotel is somewhat off the beaten track, although it does provide an opportunity to drop in on some of Tokyo’s more neglected areas. Nearby Shiodome, a futuristic skyscraper-packed district that is home to some of Japan’s biggest corporations, makes Canary Wharf look positively antiquated. You’re also perfectly located for a visit to the Tsukiji fish market, a must-see for any Tokyo visitor. A perfect example of high-end hotel living, Japanese-style.
Dojima Hotel, Osaka
OSAKA is often described as an industrial city, meaning beauty can be in short supply. It makes you grateful for the charms of Dojima, a chic boutique hotel in a sea of international chains.
The interior rarely strays from its palate of black, brown and neutrals, giving a subtle sense of luxury. Art books line the walls in the reception, reinforcing the Dojima’s designer credentials.
The rooms are small but well designed; in some rooms the doors between bathroom and bedroom can be opened to create a bigger, possibly more unsettling, space. Unlike many Japanese hotels, it’s not geared towards tourists (though the staff are excellent and more than happy to help).
Locals congregate in the downstairs bar, the Diner, which takes its influences from Europe, with French pastries and a customised take on the pizza.
At the top of the building is a more intimate affair, the small members bar Dojima Club. All dark wood and low lighting, it’s got an authentic feel and has a large selection of cigars and whisky. While Japanese whisky might once have suffered the same reputation as English wine, it’s now enjoying international recognition and is well worth trying.
The Screen Hotel, Kyoto
AMID the temples, shrines and palaces of Kyoto is The Screen hotel, a true oddity. A vibrant, jarring place in one of the quietest parts of town, The Screen is proud to be different. With just thirteen rooms, each one done by a different designer, it boasts of its “creative culture”. After the sleek professionalism of other Japanese hotels, The Screen takes some getting used to.
I was given the “most avant-garde” of the rooms. It was black. Black walls, black carpet, black ceiling, black furniture. The intention was to create a “silent, soothing room” but with a near absence of natural light, it felt like a solitary confinement cell designed by Karl Lagerfeld.
The emphasis on design works better elsewhere in the hotel. Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan and the hotel incorporates flashes of the city’s history throughout the hotel, from an old bamboo water fountain in the lounge to fans in the lobby and reworked traditional motifs in the restaurant. Even the restaurant is a mix of influences, fusing Japanese and Western cooking styles. Despite the clash of styles, something about the hotel works. It might have multiple personalities, but it’s certainly good company.
Hyatt Regency, Kyoto
LIKE Kyoto itself, there is nothing showy about the Hyatt Regency. Due to the city’s strict building laws (there are virtually no high-rises) the hotel is housed in an unremarkable five-storey building on the edge of town. Step inside and you'll find a tranquil, quiet lobby, more reminiscent of an opera house foyer than a bustling international hotel.
The décor is stylish but understated: a giant piece of fretwork, the shapes cut to resemble a Japanese kimono, serves as a low-hanging ceiling; the furniture, all beiges and creams, is low-slung and inviting.
The rooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a stunning traditional garden, are similarly unflashy. Save for the de-rigeur electric toilet seat (a staple of all Japanese hotels), there is little in the way of gadgetry. At first, it’s hard to believe you’re in a five-star establishment, but stay a while and you’ll find that everything is dripping with solid, unpretentious quality. Be sure to visit the excellent Touzan restaurant and indulge yourself with a traditional meal of kaiseki ryōri, Kyoto’s take on haute cuisine, a tasting menu of beautifully prepared morsels made from seasonal ingredients (ours included wagyu beef, rolled eel, scallops and marbled cod). Happy to leave the glitz and glamour to Tokyo establishments, this hotel is a triumph of restrained elegance.