Who could have imagined a population density of a staggering 9.3 million people in an area slightly smaller than Victoria, B.C. How do they keep from bumping into each other in this intensely urban city? Personal space is precious in Tokyo and so they persevere with extreme courtesy and fanatic tidiness.
Traffic is relentless. From airport to hotel it’s one vast, crowded, downtown. At last, our taxi pulls up at the front doors of the Park Hyatt Hotel, and we slide out of the spotless, white, slip-covered seats, forewarned that the white-gloved driver would consider a tip a sign of disrespect.
This hotel opened in 1994, an oasis on the top 14 floors of the 52-story Shinjuku Park Tower designed by Dr. Kenzo Tange, the father of modern Japanese architecture. An artfully lit, 2,000 volume library on the 39th floor leads to the reception area. This lobby, replete with unique works of art, is a place of tranquility, a world away from bustling street level.
Irasshaimase. Welcome. We’re hardly aware of the smooth registration, and in minutes we’re unlocking our door with a key on a Tiffany key ring. Jet lag ebbs away as we relax in a carefully designed space–a panoramic view from this aerie gives us a sense of floating above the city. The proportion and balance is perfect. Designer John Morford is responsible for every detail of the hotel. Wherever the eye falls, Japanese crafts and designs are there to please us. Each piece of furniture is unique. An ebony, harp-shaped table with an elegantly sculpted arm and hand reaching from the floor; a rice paper floor lamp that gives a soft column of light; handwoven vine boxes that hold toiletries; an extra-wide bed, meticulously dressed in 100% fine Egyptian cotton and sumptuous down feather duvet comforts out-of-sync sleep rhythms.
The true test of luxury, however, is in the bathroom. Purification rites are an important part of Shinto, the country’s ancient indigenous religion. Though I don’t usually discuss private bodily functions, I am thrilled with this potty. The seat is padded and electronically heated to adjust to ones body temperature. Flick a switch and get a carefully aimed, warm-water, bidet spray, followed by a puff of drying warm air. And though it might be faster to step into the etched glass shower with it’s eye-opening spray, I’ll take the tub. Sitting upright in the deep spa bathtub with water up to my neck, inhaling the hotel’s invigorating aromatherapy blend: bergamot, black pepper, eucalyptus and lemongrass is delicious relaxation. This kind of bath is an important part of the culture.
In Japan, there are the social/business obligations to attend to. Gift-giving is a time-honored institution, and the correct gift to a host or business associate in the proper context is imperative. Here, the concierge is an invaluable resource, an answered prayer, a time-saver and a face-saver. Her recommendations from the hotel gift collection, like boutique label sake for example, or tea ceremony sets or exquisite pastry treats are all in perfect taste. Later I show the concierge a list of books I want from shops all over town, and wonder how to traverse the city to find them. She graciously takes my list and by evening, the books are in my room.
Tokyo has over 80,000 restaurants, but for jet-setters who travel by their tastebuds, the Park Hyatt Hotel dining rooms are considered the most exclusive and beautiful in this city. Girandole, the open concept, all-day dining room, is hung with French photographer Vera Mercer’s four immense montages of 144 faces captured on film in European cafes.
As the dimly lit elevator ascends to the Peak Lounge on the 41st floor, the lighting system adjusts to the brightness level of the four story glass pyramid, so as not to jar our senses. So subtle, we don’t notice. And that is the Japanese way–to achieve perfection without showing the blueprints.
The Park Hyatt Hotel rises in pristine clarity, isolated from others, in earthquake-proof splendor. On this clear November day, the sky and city views are pulled into the interiors through expansive windows and reflected through combinations of mirrors and polished stone. To lend a natural freshness, they’ve planted a small “forest” of bright green, young, bamboo trees. Our exquisite English afternoon tea, presented by servers wearing soft grey dresses under white starched aprons, is a delicate accessory to the overwhelming views of Mount Fuji, the sky and the city.
Dinner in the Japanese restaurant Kozue is yet another unique experience. Tiered seating gives every table an unobstructed view of Mount Fuji and shows a relationship between bold interior space of rich dark woods and stained bamboo and the landscape. Servers wear kimonos and obi sashes in seasonal shades. The Master Chef presents his dishes on artistic earthenware. A pretty ceramic basket with a brightly painted handle holds Spanish mackeral and Shimeji mushrooms, layered between wet shingles of Cypress wood and tied with raffia. In the hot oven, the wood ignites and smolders, permeating the food with aromatic smoky nuances. While untying the raffia, it strikes me that this one dish stirs four senses: touch, look, smell, taste while combining elements of both land and sea.
It was only after leaving that I realized how a finely tuned aesthetic sense runs through the hotel and cushions the baffling culture shock in Japan. The staff caters not just to our basic comforts, but to our unrecognized needs. As the old proverb goes, loosely translated, “they know where to scratch before we even know we have an itch.”
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.