It has no engine, no wheels, and never won any races, but the Hotel Okura is an icon of the Showa Era. Since opening its doors in May 1962, it has hosted every US president since Richard Nixon. In 1976, JVC unveiled the world’s first VHS videocassette there. Royalty, rock stars, and even a particular fictional spy arriving in a Toyota 2000GT convertible can be counted among its guests. And as of yesterday, its lights were turned off for the last time.
The Hotel Okura got its name from Baron Kihachiro Okura, a peasant who would go on to become one of Japan’s foremost industrialists after opening a grocery store in 1857. Okura’s son, Kishichiro, drove in the first-ever automobile race held at the UK’s famed Brooklands Circuit when it opened on July 6, 1907 and finished in second place. He is often credited as the man who introduced the automobile to Japan (that’s Okura in the upper right circle in that newspaper clipping).
Designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi, the Hotel Okura is considered a masterpiece of architecture, a melding of traditional Japanese and modernist styles. Patterns in the walls, tiles and facades evoked mainstays of ancient Japanese art — bamboo, herons, gingko trees, fish, and even sea cucumbers.
It was the Toyota 2000GT of hotels — a statement to the rest of the world that Japan could design a building on par with the world’s best, but drawn from its own traditions. It was finished two years ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a showcase event for Japan’s modernization, and its 408-room main building hosted the athlete’s village.
In November 1973 it opened a 388-room South Wing, totaling 796 units in addition to its three bars, nine restaurants, 30 banquet halls, chapel and Shinto shrine. Though its rooms were upgraded as the years went by, most of its glorious Showa Era furnishings were kept intact. In fact, it’s large Seiko clock of world time zones still informed of the hour in Leningrad.
So why is the Hotel Okura closing its doors? Ironically, it’s the Tokyo Olympics that will be deciding its fate. A spate of new development to prepare the city for the 2020 event is making massive changes to the capital. The old National Stadium has been razed and soon the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market will be shuttered and moved to a new location.
Unfortunately, a desperate “Save the Okura” campaign failed to halt its closing. A finale concert was held on Monday, and Skorj reports that on its last night “the foyer was packed, and no one was allowed in to the rooms and bars without reservations.” Next month, demolition of the Hotel Okura main building will begin, and a Tokyo landmark that has existed since the days of Datsun 310 Bluebirds and S30 Toyopet Crowns roaming the surrounding streets will be replaced by a new tower of steel and glass. Sayonara, Hotel Okura.