The busy port of Yokohama has had a grand hotel since 1873 but the original was destroyed in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. The city and its residents, though, were determined to build a new hotel. “People thought it would be a symbol of hope and rebuilding,” says hotel staffer Momoko Nakajima.
The town’s mayor Chuichi Ariyoshi led the effort to raise the ¥1.2m needed to get the Hotel New Grand off the ground. The architect, Jin Watanabe – who went on to design the Tokyo National Museum in 1938 – built a five-storey concrete building with a mélange of influences from Asia and Europe. The first general manager and head chef were flown in from Paris and 3,000 people, including dignitaries and ambassadors, attended the ribbon-cutting in 1927.
The hotel’s 47 rooms have since been renovated but the original lobby, staircase and banqueting rooms remain blissfully trapped in time. There are Italianate tiles on the staircase, plus Japanese Oya-stone-and-mahogany pillars in the lobby. There are generously sized sink-in chairs, built by Yokohama Furniture to accommodate larger (read western) guests, and a frieze of embroidered kimono fabric above the lift by fêted Kyoto maker Jinbei Kawashima II.
The Rainbow Ball Room, where the opening ceremony was held, still has thick wooden doors and delicate shikkui plasterwork cornicing on the ceiling. The Phoenix Room, the scene of the reception party, is also intact, with its high ceilings and intricate lanterns that riff on Japanese designs with a distinctly European feel. It’s fitting grandeur considering the guests that have graced the hotel’s halls since opening: Charlie Chaplin stayed here, as did General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the Allied occupation of Japan after the war and charted a course straight to the New Grand when he landed in August 1945. The general set up his first office in room 315, which has been known ever since as MacArthur’s suite (and still has his desk, chair and portrait).
The city owns the land and the building, while the hotel’s chairman Shinzo Hara looks after the business side of things. “We’re fortunate to have the full support of the city,” says general manager Koichiro Aoki. An 18-storey hotel tower with 193 rooms – all with harbour views – was added in 1991 and in 2016, Shimizu Construction (the antecedent of which had built the original building) reinforced the old structure to strengthen it against future earthquakes.
The hotel still attracts a trickle of architecture buffs, while the locals come for the yoshoku: old-school western-influenced cooking. Swiss-born Saly Weil, the hotel’s first head chef, is credited with creating some of the classic yoshoku staples as we know them today. The current head chef, 66-year-old Shigeru Usagamai, is continuing the tradition; he joined the hotel as a kitchen hand in 1973 and never left.
The hotel celebrated its 90th anniversary last year. Aoki, who spent three decades at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, knows he has to be on his mettle in these competitive times for the hospitality industry. “It’s not enough just to have history in this business,” he says. “We need to safeguard the hotel’s heritage while also updating facilities and services to keep us in good shape for the next 150 years.”