Next Stop: Tokyo Station Hotel
Casual visitors might be awed by the Tokyo Station Hotel’s grandeur, as they should be, but beneath the glamour is a century-old history worth uncovering.
BY Wayne Cheong | Jan 25, 2017 | Travel
Asleep in their beds, guests of the Tokyo Station Hotel nestle under their duvets. If you listen closely, you’ll catch a stray snore or two, or the slight susurrus of the air vents. Those are the only noises, as slumber remains unmolested throughout the night. A wall separates the hotel from Tokyo Station. The busiest train station in Japan is a cacophony of public announcements, passengers’ footfalls and the rumble of wheels on tracks, but these blusters will not reach the ears of those residing in the hotel.
Standing in the nigh-silent hallway of the Tokyo Station Hotel, I strain to listen to, at least, a clamour, but nothing. Junko Hama, Public Relations Manager, and Atsushi Ueda, International Sales Manager, both of the Tokyo Station Hotel, explain to me that the walls and the windows were constructed to block out the bedlam. They speak better English than my grab bag of Japanese phrases.
With restrained excitement, they lead me to the south dome section of the second floor. Hama gestures through the large windows, upwards at one of two domes in the rotunda (the other is located in the building’s north end). There, she explains, is the restored dome, meticulously pored over for six years to preserve as much of the original reliefs. This was the most challenging aspect of the reconstruction of the building, she adds. I can see the eight Chinese zodiac sculptures, an eagle, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s helmet in a keystone and a phoenix (or is it another eagle?). Even more thrilling is the voyeuristic stir of watching scores of people walking beneath us between the train gantries and the building exits. You wonder how many commuters pass beneath the rotundas, how many actually bother to look up? Maybe, it’s a sight so commonplace that it blends into the background, always evading scrutiny.
Tokyo Station first opened in 1914, followed by the European-style Tokyo Station Hotel a year later with 56 rooms for guests, facilities and banquet rooms. You can’t talk about the Tokyo Station Hotel without talking about the Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building.
Designed by Tatsuno Kingo, a major figure in Meiji-period Japanese architecture, the original Tokyo Station (formerly the Central Depot) was to be a nexus for a connection between the Shimbashi and Ueno depots. Then the Great Kanto Earthquake happened in 1923. Reverberating for between 48 seconds and four minutes, it claimed 142,800 lives and devastated the Kanto region. The Tokyo Station Hotel was undamaged and temporarily housed those who were affected by the disaster. Then, in 1945, the roof of Marunouchi South Gate and other parts of the building were destroyed by air raids during WWII. Post-war reconstruction, in 1947, reduced most of the structure from three storeys to two due to safety concerns.
The Tokyo Station Hotel was a shade of its former self. Seen more as a coffee bar than an auberge, the place continued its purgatorial standing until 2002, when a committee was assembled to preserve and restore the station.
The Tokyo Station Hotel was a shade of its former self. Seen more as a coffee bar than an auberge, the place continued its purgatorial standing until 2002, when a committee was assembled to preserve and restore the station. A year later, Tokyo Station was registered as an Important Cultural Property by the Japan government. This, in itself, is seen as a miracle. After all, if the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel, which survived the Kanto quake, could be torn down and replaced by a modern tower, no structure is safe, let alone Tokyo Station. But there were grand plans afoot: the building would be a station-city. And, in 2006, the hotel was closed as restoration work on the Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building began.
Sandwiched between the elevated Chuo Line tracks and the Sobu underground line, restoration of the Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building took a lot of planning. Not only were safety and earthquake proofing considered, but so was working on the restoration without disrupting the train services. It took six years before the project was completed, from the latest vibration control rubber buffers and oil dampers for a more earthquake-resistant structure and the restored third floor, to the aforementioned refurbishment of the rotundas and the reproduction of the exterior wall. Business at the train station continued unencumbered and the doors of the Tokyo Station Hotel finally reopened in 2012 (construction outside still continues unbidden).
It’s called omotenashi, a sort of Japanese hospitality that goes above and beyond to cater to guests in a discreet and respectful manner. Omotenashi is prevalent in the hospitality industry. At the Tokyo Station Hotel, I have smiles lobbed at me constantly. Eye contact, no matter how fleeting, ignites a query from staff as to how my day is going or if I need anything. These are just subtle moments in a wave of unfailing mindfulness. For space-strapped Japan, the rooms at the Tokyo Station Hotel are generous as much as they are refined.
We are taken to the Royal Suite. Befitting its nomenclature, the room is a 173sqm haven bedecked with a kingsized bed and a separate living area and den. Opulence drips off the yellow- gold leather sofas and trimmings. Adding to that regalness is the vista of ginkgo trees rooted at Gyoko-dori Avenue through the picture window. Further up, you can see the fortifications of the former Edo Castle, now part of the Imperial Palace.
There is a rumour that when Emperor Akihito takes his family on vacation, they travel in a special carriage attached to a commuter train. They are driven underground from the Imperial Palace to the Tokyo Station Hotel, where they disembark and wait in the Royal Suite until such time when they travel through another secret entrance to board the train. I look to Hama and Ueda for confirmation, but their expressions are as inscrutable as the Sphinx. I suppose some stories are better off being anecdotal.
Every time I step outside, I’m clobbered by the expansive, redbricked Renaissance façade, especially when the post meridiem blankets the Marunouchi district and the 1,000ft building basks in an otherworldly light. An air of romanticism settles on the establishment as your body calms at the sight like you would in any bed in any room that it has. You don’t really have to travel out of Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building.
Traverse into the station, at the Ekinaka Area, and it’s like entering a hidden world. Filled with restaurants, shopping arcades, moneychangers and the like, the place is almost self-sufficient. But if you have to go outside, the underground tunnels stretch out from Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building like tendrils to other places in the Ginza commercial district, such as Sapia Tower, a centre for information research, study and education; Gran Tokyo North Tower, a silver glass building of offices and shops; and KITTE, a shopping mall that used to be the former Tokyo Central Post Office.
It’s an odd confluence of the old world meeting the shining future. The train map exemplifies this notion, with its network of multi-coloured, crisscrossing train lines intersecting at Tokyo Station, like veins in a body. An arterial atlas.
There was some consideration, during the writing of this piece, to shoehorn King’s Cross Station’s Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter series and equate it with the Tokyo Station Hotel, but no. While Platform 9 ¾ transports young wizards and witches to a magical world, the Tokyo Station Hotel already inhabits a magical world all by itself.
For information and reservation, go to The Tokyo Station Hotel.