When you think of Japan, generally, either geisha-samurai-tatami-kimono-calligraphy-tea-ceremony tradition, or Astroboy-manga-hightech-neonlit-Blade-Runner-esque-karaoke-kawaii ultra-futurism will spring to mind. You don’t tend to associate the Land of the Rising Sun with the sort of twenties or midcentury cool so beloved here at Rake HQ… Whiskey, cigars, art deco, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, jetsetter, et cetera, et cetera.
That jazz-age slash late-sixties ring-a-ding-ding vibe is one of the things that makes the Imperial Hotel stand out as a particularly unique spot to spend time in Tokyo.
Originally built in 1890 at the behest of the Emperor (as its name suggests), the hotel was intended as a welcomingly Westernised bolthole for royalty, dignitaries and VIPs visiting from Europe, Britain and the US. Then, as today, trad Japanese manners and service standards were coupled with familiar European-style furnishings and décor, easing some of the culture shock suffered by early 20th century explorers of the then utterly foreign ‘Exotic East’. For decades, the Imperial was pretty much Tokyo’s only hotel offering a vaguely Western hospitality experience, which went a long way to explaining its preferred status with gaijin travellers resistant to the idea of dining shoeless or (gasp!) sleeping on the floor.
In 1922, during a visit from the Prince of Wales (the menswear icon who’d later assume the crown as King Edward VIII, and abdicated to become Duke of Windsor) the initial Victorian-styled structure was razed by fire. Fortunately, contemporary king of cutting-edge architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, had been working for several years on building a new Imperial. Completed in 1923, Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-Deco-Modernist design, following the shape of the hotel’s “IH” monogram logo, was considered one of the great architect’s masterworks.
Playing host during its day to touring luminaries including Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker and Alfred Hitchcock, Lloyd Wright’s sturdy structure miraculously survived several major earthquakes and the rigors of the Second World War — though it didn’t quite escape entirely unscathed, suffering quake damage and burnt-out areas from incendiary bombing. Time took its toll, too. By the late ’60s, the grand dame had fallen into disrepair, and the decision was made to knock her down and build a high-rise in her place.