NIHON LIFE: Bidding Sayonara to the Hotel Okura

Hotel Okura 01 Prince Skyline GT-B

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. 

Hotel Okura 03

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).

Hotel Okura 10Hotel Okura 06

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.

Hotel Okura 04Hotel Okura 02

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.

Hotel Okura 09

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.

Hotel Okura 13 Honda S800

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.

Ken Lee is a photographer living in Japan and founder of CarsOnFilmSkorj is a photographer living in Japan and co-founder of FilmwastersOfficial images from Hotel Okura can be found below.

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36 Responses to NIHON LIFE: Bidding Sayonara to the Hotel Okura

  1. Nigel said:

    Beautiful…why ? (Places like the Hotel Okura are getting very difficult to find) !!

    • wantyerknobbies said:

      Why is explained in the body of the article–PROGRESS!

      Playing host city to these silly “Olympics” are bad, bad, bad news–except if you’re a developer or politician

      • amar jandu said:

        as much as i want to say that, that is not true. Its hard to believe when people are pushed into slavery over building infrastructure to support the games, Qatar I’m looking at you.

  2. Bart said:

    What is actually happening to the fish market? What do you mean by “shuttered”…

  3. Lupus said:

    Wow! THAT style. I love such places, where the vintage feel is mixed with modern art, and nothing looks out of place. It’s very hard to achive that. First comperable place that comes to my mind is Hotel Lingotto in Turin. The bulding was once a Fiat manufacturing plant, with test track on it’s roof (!).

  4. The Black CRX said:

    This makes me so sad. Thanks for a lovely tribute, Ben.

  5. John M said:

    Mentioned to my better half and she heard they were reopening the new building in 4 years and trying to retain as much of the style and layout as possible (unconfirmed). Unfortunately, like Target selling retro T-shirts, you just can’t recreate that feel.

  6. Skorj said:

    Great send off Ben!

  7. Dave Yuan said:

    Wow, this place is simply breath-taking! Demolishing something like this is a travesty. Another piece of history lost =(

  8. Censport said:

    As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, such architecture takes me back. If there was ever a building that epitomized Showa-era Tokyo, for me it was the Okura. I can only imagine how walking into that lobby was like walking onto the set of a favorite old movie. I signed the petition to save it, and passed the petition around on my You Should Visit Japan FB page. But in the end, nothing can deter developers. Especially connected ones.

    I hope the replacement can do justice to the original.

  9. MikeRL411 said:

    By the way, those wooden screens were built in the traditional Japanese craftsman fashion. All hand fitted and no glue or nails! Thw wall hangers were all hand embroidered silk panels. PLEASE don’t just tear them down!

  10. Chris Green said:

    Thanks for publishing this here. So stunning, and so sad…. I sure wish I had known about this the one time I went to Tokyo. I would love to have seen it.

  11. PDXBryan said:

    Thank you so much for the article Ben.
    The modern Olympics machine devours communities, culture and lots and lots of $. Seeing the pictures of what’s destined to be destroyed makes me sad but also reminds me of my love of the Japanese aesthetic. Back in the 80’s I toured in band that spent 6 weeks in Japan every spring. Around every corner something beautiful would catch my eye. Something as mundane as the control panel in a hotel elevator would be a display of gorgeous hues and textures. Some of the most amazing things I remember were the stage curtains at some of large venues we played. Giant silk works of art so beautiful I would just sit and admire them in the empty pre-audience halls. I doubt I stayed in the Hotel Okura but I like to think I might have.

  12. Daniel said:

    Thank you for posting this, such a shame 🙁

    I too would purchase parts / the old screens – But I’m sure they aren’t for sale 🙁

  13. Banpei said:

    Thanks for the beautiful photos Ken Lee!
    I thought the “old” interior of the Okura hotel in Amsterdam (also co-designed by Taniguchi) was beautiful but the Tokyo hotel is even better! Also the photos really breathe the Ozu atmosphere of the early 60s era in Japan: the country slowly awakening from a traditional to a modern country.

    • Ken said:

      Thanks Banpei! I knew I had to capture the hotel, especially with a film camera, to preserve this beautiful Showa-made feel.

      I’m sure there are many people who have a story about the Okura and Ben has given us that opportunity to share with this beautifully written article.

  14. Negishi no Keibajo said:

    It’s a sad day and I think Tokyo, no Japan, has lost a bit more of it’s soul. With such an iconic place in this city and history, you would think that incorporating this structure into a larger tower would not be that innovative. They certainly did a magnificent job with the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. For the last 8 years, I have overlooked and walked by this hotel. Of all the places in the world, you would think that Japan would appreciate that a people’s history has to start somewhere. Are the ancient shrines the best yield for the investment? I actually love Tokyo’s new skyline, but this is so wrong in so many ways, it reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel being torn down in 1969.

    This is the very reason that people flock to an entity like JNC; we look back at our stepping stones to appreciate our movement as the public as well as designers of technology. It’s important.

    Thank you and my apologies for indulging in my rant.

    • Skorj said:

      I used to work late next door too, hence me staying at the Okura so often. I also had to tolerate the Swedish Embassy sauna roof parties as well though. The Lloyd Wright bar from the Imperial Hotel is still in Hibiya, so happy to meet for a Hibiki or similar.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      I feel the same sentiments, which is why I felt it was important to be JNH for a day rather than cover more car stories. I’m happy people are appreciating it, even though the Hotel appears doomed. Cheers.

  15. Randy said:

    That’s a shame, reflecting the other opinions… I’d bet that long-term, the hotel would be more beneficial to the city’s / country’s economy than an Olympic stadium, a la the Winter Olympics stuff in New York – White Plains, IIRC, though I haven’t even THOUGHT OF that place in years… I’m pretty sure that place is about abandoned; millions of dollars – BACK THEN.

    These things, like the old World’s Fair sites are cool at the time, but don’t have any long-term value.

    What a waste.

    BTW, LOVE that bamboo-bordered walkway; wish I could do that at my own place, even with just local flora…

  16. Sideglide said:

    Ben, thanks for the write-up. I have passed the hotel more than a few times on my many wandering walks. Seeing the sign made me question it’s existence. Had I stepped inside, I would have understood.

    With all the old being fashionable and hip, I sure hope it’s essence survives so others (and myself) can enjoy.

  17. sabotenfighter said:

    Here’s hoping that some of the stuff from the building ends up on Yahoo Auctions.

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