At first I think it’s a train going by. Then I remember I’m 45 floors above street level.
The table trembles slightly. The chopsticks jitter on their rest. Then, as the sensation stills, so quickly that I wonder whether it’s just been jetlag making me feel a bit swimmy, a stentorian voice booms over the restaurant tannoy: “An earthquake is about to happen… now.” A little too late, but probably better than hearing the warning first and sitting nervously awaiting impending disaster. “The Ritz-Carlton building is earthquake-proof. There is no need to run away.” I returned, not entirely reassured, to course five of my kaiseki dinner, tweezing petals of blowfish sashimi from the plate as I attempted to get my head round the waitress’s counter-intuitive reassurance that I am safer high up in a very tall building than near ground level. It’s fortunate, then, that I spend much of my time in Tokyo eating, drinking and sleeping on floors numbered in the high twenties, thirties and forties. Because that’s where the the best hotels in Tokyo can be found.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to return to reception to have my keycard reactivated after it’s got demagnetised or cancelled after midday
For example: there’s no ground-floor reception at the Park Hyatt Tokyo; instead, you ascend to the 41st floor, to a serene space with a colour scheme all ivories and leaf-greens, reminiscent of the Beverly Hills Hotel. This hotel is classic luxury writ large: through the library, there’s a wonderful semi-secret dining space, Ex Libris, that resembles a carriage from an Orient Express of your imagination, while the hotel’s best room, the Tokyo Suite, contains the biggest bath I have ever seen, a dark green marble dais with a tub the size of a plunge pool (and from which you can, on a clear day, see Mount Fuji on the horizon).
The hotel, celebrating its 20th birthday in 2014, had a publicity boost in 2003 for its starring role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson share the screen with the top 14 floors of Shinjuku Park Tower, the glass-roofed swimming pool on the building’s 47th floor, and its New York Bar and Grill. The hotel was, reportedly, initially unreceptive to the movie project, and the crew and actors were forced to film in the public spaces during the unpopulated early hours. The result, however, didn’t just put the hotel on the map, it changed the perception of the Park Hyatt brand worldwide. It was a global marketing coup.
Marvellously, the New York Bar and Grill hasn’t changed in décor or layout since its establishment (a recent renovation, which took a neat 40 days, simply replaced the furnishings with identical new versions), so, having recently rewatched Coppola’s film, I felt like I was walking into a simulacrum of a simulacrum, a restaurant styled after a film set based on a restaurant: there was even a deep-voiced chanteuse singing a 2003-vintage Norah Jones “classic”. Having had my fill of kaiseki meals by this point on my tour of Japan – I never want to eat chestnut puree again as long as I live – it was a great relief to gorge here on not just one variety of steak but two: one piece of “masculine” Hokkaido beef and one of a finer, thinner sirloin from Yonezawa, in the south of Japan. Food aside, one highly agreeable detail of a stay at the Park Hyatt is the hotel’s use of keys, rather than keycards, for room access: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to return to reception to have my keycard reactivated after it’s got demagnetised or cancelled after midday (and often on a day I’m not actually due to check out), so this is a very welcome anti-innovation.
I road-tested the Conrad’s new Concierge App on my HTC One before checking in to the Conrad Shiodome. Here’s an innovation that will, at some point, be most welcome. Being able, on a whim, to tackle things relating to a future hotel stay whenever you have data access is definitely something I’d use in future, if I needed to. But I rarely use a hotel concierge in any case. I did, however, request a buckwheat pillow before my arrival, which was ready and waiting in my room. I always forget to fill out pre-arrival request details, so having the Concierge App to play with in the car en route to the hotel is handy. But for all the pretence of checking-in online before you arrive, until hotels start using bar code entry to rooms (and if you can do it with airlines and Eurostar, why not for hotels?), you’ll still need human contact.
The Conrad is a near flawless hotel, regardless of smartphone frippery. Its location – particularly if you are using the Tokyo Metro – is excellent. And the views across the harbour are beautiful. I particularly loved the breakfast space, with its floor to ceiling glass and vertiginous views out over the city. The buffet was vast, and the staff attentive – particularly when, on my visit, one guest became bothersome by being overly loud on his mobile phone. The rooms feel box-fresh and Business-class plush. I couldn’t find fault with anything in my suite at all, and would stay here again in a heartbeat. Flaws? Well, yes, there’s still smoking in the lobby bar (a shame, as its lofty space is a beauty), but not in the restaurants. The blue-themed Chinese dining room is spectacular, and the formal kaiseki option is splendid, with dishes given just enough western spin to make them a little more interesting and refined than their ryokan counterparts.
10 minutes’ drive away, on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Sushi SORA (pictured, top) serves the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. Despite what every other sushi restaurant outside Japan would like you to believe, there is a great deal more to this stuff than “raw fish on cold rice”; here, offbeat and highly seasonal varieties of fish (most of them species you’ve never heard of) are pressed into palmfuls of room-temperature rice seasoned with vinegar and sugar, and passed over one by one. Handmade and passed hand to hand, this is like no other sushi even in Tokyo. Another cliché: there is definitely something soothing and meditative in watching sushi be prepared; that deft, neat knifework, the precise licks of wasabi applied to the rice; I was delighted, too, to see chefs grating the lurid green root on a microplane designed for that sole purpose. (In the spirit of entranced diners everywhere, I went to Kappanburi-Dori – “Kitchen Town”, an unending precinct of catering shops – the next day to buy myself one, confident I’ll probably never use it.)
There’s a beautiful bar, on the floor below the restaurants, accessed by one of those wondrously wide staircases that makes you feel like a film star as you descend it. Prime placing is at a big U-shaped sofa in one corner of the bar, on which about forty people could sit without invading anyone’s personal space. (It’s also safely far away from the – urgh – smokers… Sorry, Tokyo, that needs to go.) I weighed up my ambivalence over sake with my enthusiasm for yuzu and ordered a yuzu no hana cocktail that combined both (and was delicious), then settled back and looked out over the city and the black sky. In the distance, you see the planes coming in to land at distant Narita, one after the other, distant gold specks marking out a parabola, coming down into the city of lights.
They do things differently at the Palace Hotel Tokyo. Here – in one of several hotels in the financial district – their kaiseki restaurant, Wadakura, is on the sixth floor (my bedroom was on the 28th), as are the various hotel bars, one of which is staffed entirely by women. Lots of questions here: it’s explained to me that the female-only staff, a recent change here, is intended to make the bar a more welcoming environment for female visitors, a reply which to me seems to raise more issues than it resolves, while the low-rise restaurant environment is intended to ensure you have a more level view of the buildings around you, rather than just a near-vertical angle onto the roof of the neighbouring Imperial Palace. Which is all well and good, but with every other tower hotel I visited boasting, justifiably, of its spectacular aerial views, the Palace’s refusal to compete seems self-defeating – different for difference’s sake. Nevertheless, as hotel refurbishments go, the Palace is a multi-squillion-Yen success. The décor is restrained, calm and cool, with lots of silver, pale greens and minks. The one-off Evian Spa may feel a little vanilla, but the balconies overlooking the park from each bedroom are a fantastic, unique touch for Tokyo. And breakfast by the moat, outside, is glorious.
It’s a little odd to eat your Eggs Benedict between the bellhop’s counter and the group of tourists standing around waiting for their guide to arrive or for Paul McCartney to jump into his Limo
At the nearby Peninsula, somewhat weirdly, you breakfast in the ground-floor lobby. It’s a handsome enough room, with a large curving sculpture made from thin straps of wood at one end, and a spectacular domed “chandelier” made of dozens of pendant lights, but it’s a little odd to eat your eggs Benedict between the bellhop’s counter and the group of tourists standing around waiting for their guide to arrive or for Paul McCartney to jump into his Limo. (And in winter there’s an infrequent blast of cold air when someone arrives through the revolving door.) Quite literally at the other end of the (vertical) scale is Peter, the regrettably-named 24th floor restaurant in which dinner is served: a nightclub-like fantasia of metal trees, raised and sunken dining daises, and one immense video wall on which a glimmering animated forest endlessly scrolls. Once every half-hour, a digital deer moves through the digital trees – watching out for his canter was more entertaining than listening to the “smooth jazz” singer on stage at the middle of the room, who spent the evening murdering various songs I’d never much liked in the first place. Likeably kitschy, technologically advanced and high-tech glamorous, this is perhaps the most Tokyo dining room possible, and the food was excellent too: kobe beef loin and fillet was the tenderest, tastiest I’d ever eaten (and came with a surfeit of home fries). As for the hotel itself – conceived by its architect to resemble a singularly giant Japanese lantern – location is everything. And this building, which stands at the starting line for the perfect Ginza shopping spree, has location to burn. Inside, the rooms seem bathed in a perfect amber glow. And the novel details, seven years after it opened, are still impressive: your laundry and newspapers are delivered via dumb waiters in the rooms, and there are even nail dryers in the bathrooms. Some innovations never go out of style. C