Imperial Hotel Tokyo: The Jewel of the Orient

Photography By Imperial Hotel

After colourful times of change and episodes of transformation, including one by the famed Frank Lloyd Wright, the Imperial Hotel’s story is one that’s filled with drama, trials and unforgettable history.

The Imperial Hotel facade

The story of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel began in 1883, an era when Japan was beginning to open its doors to all things new — new customs, ways of thinking, lifestyle, culture and arts. Foreign influences and interactions with the outside world had long been resisted, but the end of the 19th century brought about a palpable and swift modernisation.

Distinguished foreign visitors came in waves, dinners became banquets, trade flourished, and hotels proliferated throughout the city to cater to guests from abroad. But, these hotels were small and seldom met the international standards.

Then foreign minister Marquis Kaouru Inoue had a vision to build a grand hotel, one that would be extravagant and worthy to be a place of entertainment and rest for dignified guests seeking luxury. He commissioned Yuzuru Watanabe to design the Imperial Hotel, a monumental work of architecture for its time but also a monumental manifestation of Japan’s desire to be seen as modern and eagerness to adopt the Western way of life. It was a symbol of the new Japan.

The Imperial Hotel stood where the current Imperial Tower is, south of the Imperial Palace grounds. The wooden hotel building had a German Neo-Renaissance facade and its interior was furnished with opulent selections from abroad.

The main lobby, glowing in golden light

But even with 60 guestrooms and 10 luxurious suites, which measured to about three times the size of other hotels at the time, the Imperial Hotel’s capacity fell short of the rapidly growing influx of visitors.

Fast forward 33 years later to 1917, the original hotel building was refurbished and expanded according to the design of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who held a fascination for Japanese arts. The high-profile project resulted into the hotel’s eponymous nickname “Wright Imperial” or “The Wright Hotel”, which to this day is considered to be one of the architect’s greatest legacies, perhaps his most impressive work in Asia. Upon completion, the hotel was so highly regarded that people overseas came to know the hotel as “The Jewel of the Orient”.

The Wright Hotel’s design concept crosses occidental and oriental styles, with a focus on the Mayan Revival style. Wright chose a number of materials, including exposed bricks, reinforced concrete, ornamental tiles, and Oya stone, a kind of Japanese volcanic tuff with grey and green hues, which were carved to loosely mirror Mayan reliefs.

The main edifice was a pyramid-like structure that sat in front of a courtyard and a pool, flanked by the accommodation annexes on either side to create a strikingly symmetrical facade. Shortly after the Wright Hotel was completed, just before the opening ceremony, the 1923 Great Kantõ Earthquake hit Tokyo and caused a fire. Though the neighbouring buildings were destroyed, the hotel survived almost undamaged thanks to Wright’s genius engineering to ‘float’ the foundation in mud using reinforced steel.

The Old Imperial Bar in vintage decor

However, what you see today isn’t the hotel designed by Wright. After World War II ended, the hotel’s main lobby was dismantled and moved to the Meiji-mura Museum Village. A great effort was put in the restoration and preservation as a record of history. Meanwhile, the hotel was demolished in preparation for another extended renovation.

After 17 long years, the Imperial Hotel’s final transformation completed. The hotel reopened in 1970 with a total of 700 rooms. The previous accommodation wings were replaced by a 31-storey tower that stands today.

The current design spells modern luxury and comfort, but still holds an east-meets-west concept. The pool, once used to put out a fire that almost engulfed the hotel, was removed during the renovation and replaced with a Japanese rock garden. The main lobby is also a departure from Wright’s shallow ceiling — it’s glamorous, grand and glowing in golden light from an opulent chandelier designed by famous Japanese sculptress Minami Tada. It hangs above a large flower centrepiece that is specially rearranged seasonally.

The lobby lounge sits by a large wall sculpture named “Reimei” or “Twilight”, also by Minami Tada. This “Wall of Light” is made up of lines and lines of reflective crystal glass blocks that add colour and brightness to the area.

Guests staying on the 16th floor or higher get to enjoy the premium tower floor services, starting with a dedicated floor attendant who serves as your personal concierge from morning until night. What’s most impressive is how dedicated they are to serve you, bowing to send you off to start your day and to greet you when you come back.

Of the room types, the Frank Lloyd Wright Suite is the jewel in the crown. The 195-sqm suite is a thoughtful ode to the architect who designed what was once called the most beautiful hotel in the world. The interior is a reproduction of Wright’s Imperial, with prairie style furniture and light fixtures designed by Wright himself. The walls of the spacious unit are leanly adorned by Wright’s drawings, while the living room showcases a miniature of a 1923 Imperial Hotel fresco. The lounge chairs and sofa in the room are paired with Wrightian wooden table lamps — all made possible by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Arizona.

Tucked away under the lobby level is where you should conclude the night: the Old Imperial Bar. Once graced by famous celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant, the bar still spews the same old-time appeal. It’s relaxingly somber, bearing more design elements by Wright. Rest in a plush leather seat and savour fine sakes or the hotel’s own single-malt whiskies while basking in the classical elegance of a bygone era.

Having experienced centuries of history, surviving disasters both natural and man-made, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo is a landmark that retains Japan’s spirit of tradition and modernisation, welcoming guests to a different time of Japan both now and when it opened its doors for the first time.

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Natasha Gan
Natasha is a writer and a digital marketing professional currently based in Toronto, Canada.
Imperial Hotel