After months of anticipation, it’s finally time to say goodbye to Hotel Okura in Tokyo. The main wing of this much-loved hotel, built in 1962, will close next week, ahead of its demolition. We’ve been talking and thinking about the closure for a long time now. When we first heard the news of the redevelopment, we set up an online petition, more to raise awareness than with any realistic possibility of saving the building. The reaction was heartening. More than 9,000 people from all over the world added their names, some leaving their personal memories of the hotel, others expressing their shock and pleading for the plan to be stopped.
Many publications and newspapers picked up on the story; I found myself in the odd position of explaining to Japanese journalists why we were so bothered about the demolition and why they should care too.
Many people asked why we did care so much about a 1960s hotel. There were many reasons. The quality of the building was one aspect: the Okura was put together by a stellar group of architects and craftsmen during a particularly excellent time for modern design in Japan. Modernist buildings have few supporters in Tokyo but they are becoming increasingly rare; and as office areas such as Marunouchi and Yurakucho are redeveloped, they are disappearing fast.
But it wasn’t only about the building; it was the alchemy of people, architecture and atmosphere that all seemed to come together so perfectly at the Okura: the 1960s design, the lift ladies in kimonos, the sharp cocktail making at the Orchid Bar, the quiet hum in the Orchid Room restaurant, even the wonderfully old-fashioned bathrooms. It was always thrilling to enter the lobby and see the security detail for whichever world leader was in the building.
Some people met the news of the demolition with a shrug of the shoulders, seeing the Okura as nothing more than a tired building, badly in need of updating. Those people argue that a shiny new building will be a better representative of modern Japanese hospitality.
There is talk of extracting elements of the old building and incorporating them into the new building but the individual parts of the Okura all work in unison. It will be difficult to give those isolated pieces the same resonance in their new home. The architect of the new building, Yoshio Taniguchi, whose father Yoshiro built the original hotel, has a heavy responsibility.
To me a visit to Hotel Okura has always been what I and many other travellers are looking for: a unique experience that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Tokyo bureau chief.