Episode I: Tokyo, Hotel Okura
Japan is a country with millennia of history. Its rich traditions, culture, and customs have slowly permeated over the centuries to bring Japan’s unique style to every corner of the earth.
As the world has become increasingly interconnected, Japan has also been influenced by other cultures, incorporating aspects of the west into its society. This influence was especially prominent after World War II which included nearly a decade of Allied occupation of the country. From 1945 to 1954, an intense transition occurred as Japan adopted many liberal, democratic ideals.
Post-war Japan, like much of the world, was left reeling from almost a decade of death and destruction. By embracing peace, globalization, and the dawn of a new era, efforts to rebuild what was destroyed took on a more modern direction.
With Allied occupation of Japan ending in 1952 and the Japanese economy’s recovery heading full steam ahead, the 1950s and 1960s were a sort of rebirth of Japan on the international stage. The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics were a catalyst in this rebirth and this hopeful renewal is the era we find ourselves in when entering Hotel Okura Tokyo.
“Hotel Okura is my favorite hotel, not only in Japan, but in the entire world.” -Nicole Reina
Hotel Okura Tokyo, a perfectly preserved time capsule
Hotel Okura Tokyo opened its doors in May of 1962. The Main Wing featured 408 rooms, constructed in an iconic modernist style that balanced elements of traditional Japanese culture with the aesthetic of the post-war, western influence of the era.
Although the concept of a hotel was still quite foreign to Japanese people at the time, Hotel Okura became iconic in its modern design and quintessential aesthetic in the international realm. Its long, yet narrow, rectangular shape and rising central tower make the construction reminiscent of traditional Japanese temples. Juxtaposed with modern lighting features, including an illuminated blueish purple evening facade, Hotel Okura is remarkable in its architecture, even standing outside of it. And then, there’s the interior.
“Merely walking through the lobby, the guest is instantly transported in time to a time when service, craft, and attention to detail were the number one priority - a time when people travelled, they dressed with the utmost sophistication and class, only to be met by the same complementary conditions.” -Nicole Reina
Geometric lines and shapes, wood, bamboo, and paper features, lush green floral carpets, and an unparalleled level of customer service welcome visitors and guests of the Okura. The blending of old and new, traditional and modern, and Eastern and Western is evident in the hotel’s meticulous design, and the usage of raw materials that are no longer available make the Okura a rarity in this day and age.
Yoshiro Taniguchi was the original architect of the hotel, leading a design team appointed by the founder of the Hotel Okura company, Kishichiro Okura. Clean lines and a minimalist, yet luxurious style, infused with Japan’s emblematic flora and delicate kimono fabrics, was used to create a cultural and historical building that became one of the world’s most memorable hotels.
Located near the US embassy in the Akasaka area of Tokyo, the hotel has hosted every US President and is popular among other foreign heads of state as well. It has been featured in pop culture, making appearances in multiple novels and even hosting the fictional likes of famed spy, James Bond! The Okura’s South Wing was opened just over a decade after the original Main Wing in November of 1973, adding another 380 rooms to the hotel facilities, including a VIP high security suite.
Sadly, however, not everything old can last, no matter how special it may be. In August of 2015, the original Main Wing of the Okura was closed for demolition and the iconic building was torn down to make way for a larger new Main Wing, set to open in the spring of 2019 in anticipation of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The Okura brand is now an international hotel chain with locations in metropolitan cities around the world, bringing Japan’s revered hospitality and elegant style to each one. The new Main Wing is designed by the original architect’s son, Yoshio Taniguchi, and is supposed to incorporate “the spirit and feel of the original”, including a nod to the cocktail lounge, the Orchid Bar, which was a staple part of the old hotel’s design.
Even so, lovers and admirers of Japan’s style, architecture, and particular take on modernism can’t help but feel a profound sense of loss when it comes to the demolition of the original Hotel Okura. The lack of historic preservation, especially of such an icon, sparked a lot of uproar and even an international campaign to save the Okura.
After becoming involved with the preservation campaign to stop the developers from demolishing the original Main Wing and realizing that these efforts were going to be in vain, Nicole decided to pursue the production of the first episode in the Tour de Couture travel series. She made the pilgrimage to her favorite hotel in its final days as a way to document and preserve its particular aesthetic and history.
“When I realized there was nothing that could be done to stop them the only thing that was in my power was to create a final documentation of the hotel in the form of a film to bring awareness about architectural preservation and to document the gorgeous architectural details before the wrecking ball destroyed it.” -Nicole Reina
Losing a treasure
The first episode of Tour de Couture was filmed during that last days of operation of the original Main Wing at Hotel Okura Tokyo. It chronicles Nicole Reina and Tziporah Salamon’s experiences staying in the hotel, representing quintessential mid-century style, and holding a special place in Nicole’s heart.
“This [hotel] is from days when people really took pride in their work and the material used, we don’t have anymore. It’s such a beautiful, iconic hotel and it is such a crime that it’s being torn down.” -Tziporah Salamon
Tziporah Salamon is featured in episode I of Tour de Couture alongside Nicole. Tziporah is a fashion icon, appearing regularly in New York press and serving as a favorite muse of late famed New York Times street photographer, Bill Cunningham, for years.
Tziporah was the perfect companion on this journey through the last days of Hotel Okura Tokyo. Her particular experience with, and intense love and respect for, style, fashion, and the way an individual’s personality is represented through it is effortlessly felt throughout the episode.
“I’m interested in old cultures - Japanese, Chinese, Persian, Mexican, Indian. They made beautiful hand-crafted clothes and I came from that tradition because my mother was a dressmaker and my father was a tailor. [...] I love anything done by hand. I have such reverence for it. And it breaks my heart that we’re losing this.” -Tziporah Salamon
And this is a point that both Tziporah and Nicole feel so strongly about as we keep losing iconic buildings like to Okura to the “modern” era and the fashion, aesthetic, and atmosphere of those times gets lost along with them. Experiencing the last days of the hotel and being fully immersed in the time period it so easily exuded, the two were able to really dive deep into Japan’s history and culture as they stayed at the Okura and explored Tokyo.
A glimpse into Japan
While the motivation behind Tour de Couture’s first episode was one with a tinge of sadness, this episode in the travel series also features cultural, culinary, and more traditionally touristic locations around Tokyo.
“To me, looking at photos or even visiting a museum exhibition doesn’t replace experiencing something in its original, preserved state.” -Nicole Reina
After enjoying the scenic Japanese garden, Chinzan-so, Nicole and Tziporah take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony on the same property at Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo. They prep for the part by donning one-of-a-kind kimonos and sit with a tea master to enjoy this thousand-year old ritual that is a wonderful display of Japanese precision, grace, and order in a tranquil atmosphere.
“I feel really proud wearing this, especially as a foreigner, to show how much I love the Japanese culture and admire it.” -Nicole Reina
Japan’s history has led to a culture that deeply respects tradition, rules, and the ways of the olden days. And this is especially evident in the featured traditional tea ceremony, with its specific customs and its palpable respect for the history and care involved.
Gallery Kawano, located in the Harajuku shopping district of Tokyo, features kimono and textile antiques. A wonderful collection of obis, some of which are nearly 100 years old, can be found within the small space. The gallery also has traditional kimonos and haoris with various patterns and sizes available.
Of course, there are plenty of modern-day shopping opportunities in Tokyo as well, like Omotesando Hills where Nicole and Tziporah encounter a real-life rikishi (sumo wrestler).
Food and fun
A visit to the Kawaii Monster Cafe, combined with some colorful outfits to perfectly blend into the whimsical ambience, is a unique, fun-filled, and sweet way to see more of Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood. The area features cool street art, funky vintage fashion stores and crazy cosplay shops (to pick up that creative ensemble from), as well as more traditional boutiques and small, trendy cafes. Nearby, the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art awaits cultural aficionados.
Every good trip includes immersing yourself in local life and a chat with some locals at a small Japanese restaurant to talk Tokyo, fashion, and travel helps increase that sense of belonging, especially when you just happen upon the place through a local’s recommendation. Running into Japan’s oldest DJ on the street resulted in some authentic Japanese food in Harajuku, plus a bonus trip to a karaoke bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome, home to Tokyo’s buzzing LGBTQ+ quarter!
“That’s the beauty of travel - bumping into and making connections with locals, getting to know the places you don’t find in travel guides.” -Nicole Reina
Join us next time for episode II of Tour de Couture as Nicole journeys to the island nation of Cuba to get an insider’s perspective on what the opening of Cuba’s doors to the modern world means for the country and its people.