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How Tokyo’s tower hotels are scaling the heights

Amid the culture, traditions and luxury touches of the city’s hospitality scene, the view trumps everything, writes Mark O'Flaherty

There’s a commonality to the most luxurious Tokyo hotels that goes far beyond Toto electronic toilets and bowing staff at the lifts. It’s a city with a hotel culture more defined than anything in New York or London. If you could sum it up as you would a bottle of wine on a menu, it could well be a mixture of almost unnerving, futuristic attention to detail, layered with a light-filled, soaring, minimalist, cathedral-like core, seasoned with a subtle but arresting waft of cigarette smoke.

It would also be the priciest bottle on the carte. If the palace hotels of Paris are defined by grande dame architectural curlicues, gold macarons that match the carpets, marble and crystal, then Tokyo is about lobbies in the sky. It’s next-generation luxury, albeit with a few uniquely Japanese quirks, and it seems like it’s rapidly taking over most of the skyline.

The area around Tokyo station is where most of the new tower hotels can be found. Otemachi is a neighbourhood that suffers rigor mortis outside office hours, but it’s
a perfect base for business travel. It already has the Peninsula, which glows in the shape of a giant traditional lantern on the edge of Ginza. On the other side of the station is the predictably meticulous Four Seasons Marunouchi, which has a striking art collection and offers one of the city’s best spots to order the perfect martini – sitting at the bar,
in front of one of London sculptor Yasemen Hussein’s giant copper, bronze and steel pieces. The experience feels profoundly elegant.

There are newer properties raising the bar. The Aman Tokyo took over the top six floors of the 38-storey Otemachi Tower. For many of its loyal regulars, the lobby at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is the gold standard for the city – as immortalised in that film with Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and scores of racist stereotypes. And it’s still great. But the Aman goes beyond lofty. It has some of the presence of the old Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan – almost rationalist fascist in its grandeur and austerity.

The Aman is big on architectural wow. On the downside, there is – this being Tokyo – a smoking area, and the food in the fancy European restaurant is a little tortured. But everything else is off-the-charts perfect – the bedrooms carry through the same stark lines and luxe materials as the communal areas, with sweeping volumes and giant tubs overlooking the glowing megalopolis and helipads. Then there’s the spa, where you can bathe within what feels like a Richard Serra sculpture; a super-modern onsen open to the sky.

For something really sepulchral, in the way that only the Japanese can really execute stark, look no further than the Hoshinoya around the corner, which opened in 2016. This ‘ryokan in the sky’ is a masterclass in Japanese style and manners. There is, as with many other tower hotels, little fanfare at the ground floor – although the bucket of water to keep the doorstep constantly wet is a lovely traditional ryokan touch. Instead you are relieved of your shoes, which are put into one of the ornate wooden cupboards that line the hallway, and given slippers.

The rooms are almost too beautiful, like a Kyoto ryokan reproduced 100 years in the future, on condition of it being as expensively executed as possible. The graphic qualities of the materials and the lighting design in the communal areas are all astonishing. Close to the lift is a communal lounge area for that floor’s guests.

Tea is, predictably, a big deal and Japanese breakfasts are served with great ceremony in your room. Downstairs, the restaurant is either the most beautiful and calm interior you’ve ever been in, or something with all the charm of a secondary processing cell at JFK immigration, depending on your tastes. The food is fusion, but the French element is subservient to the Japanese. The presentation is uniformly ravishing – food styling as fine art.

While the Hoshinoya is big on the ryokan ‘private home’ schtick, one wonders how solo businessmen, who must account for a lot of its business, feel about the ‘residents only’ rule enforced everywhere apart from entrance hall and basement restaurant. You certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable walking towards the lift with a bag of takeaway.

 

The ambience is much more laid-back at the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, which also opened in 2016. The lobby is on the 36th floor, and the décor by Rockwell Group Madrid is far from minimal – this is modern jazz brought to life, full of strong and hot graphic textiles, curves and furniture that suggest Palm Springs more than Akasaka. The double-height bar and lounge has killer views and isn’t afraid to lose some floor space to make the most of it. Tokyo hotels are kindred spirits to the Rainbow Room in New York and the Shard in London.

This being a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel, you can’t so much feel the loyalty reward points being spent as hear them: there are more American accents in the bar than at any of the aforementioned properties.

The one thing Tokyo tower hotels have in common is the view. They all look down on the city, and on a clear morning you’ll probably see Mount Fuji along with your eggs benedict.

Weirdly, with a few exceptions, the restaurants in Tokyo’s hotels aren’t that great. The dining culture dictates that private rooms are the status quo for doing business in, which kills a destination restaurant somewhat. The exception is Sushi Sora at the Mandarin Oriental, which is one of the best places for nigiri and sashimi in the city. There are eight stools, the chef’s rituals are magnetic, and each mouthful is a revelation.

Through the meal you’re aware of Tokyo, glowing below and beside you, the Tokyo Skytree observation tower a rare landmark in the distance. From up this high, the city looks serene and silent. Which of course it absolutely isn’t. And that’s why the Tokyo tower hotel is so magical. You can eat, be naked and shower, sleep or just press your face against the glass, and look out and down, and all you feel is a kind of… Zen.

Mark C O’Flaherty travelled with Finnair, which flies between London and Tokyo via Helsinki daily (economy from £680 return, business from £2,809)

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