JETSETTER

The Art Of Hospitality

At the heart of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo’s sublime service lies omotenashi

May 20, 2019

There are so many things to like about Japan beyond just sushi – from the obsession with cleanliness and punctuality, right down to how its smart toilets thoughtfully make pleasant sounds to mask your own embarrassing emissions.

While some of these qualities can be replicated in other cultures (except being on time since Singaporeans seem to live in a different time zone), there is one intrinsically Japanese trait that can’t be. And it’s called omotenashi.

While Asia can make claims of – and achieve – a high level of customer service and hospitality, omotenashialludes to a state of mind that makes hospitality part of the Japanese DNA. 

While customer service has an ulterior motive, which is to end in a financial transaction, omotenashi does not. It cannot be sold or bought.

History says that omotenashi evolved from the traditional tea ceremony – where the intricate tea-making ritual is performed like an intimate conversation between tea master and guest. 

Out of respect to his guest, the tea master ensures that every detail is perfect, from the choice of the tea set to the temperature of the water. Anything less would make him remiss for not taking proper care of the person he has invited into his abode. 

That sense of care and responsibility for one’s fellow man is what drives Japanese omotenashi – not to be mistaken for servitude, but simply mutual respect.

The Imperial Standard
To say the Imperial Hotel Tokyo is an institution is like saying the shinkansen runs on time. This luxury hotel next to the high-end Ginza shopping district has a storied history that dates all the way back to 1890 when it was the first Western-style hotel to be built in Japan. 

Iconic names from Queen Elizabeth II to John Wayne have been registered in its guest books. 

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to rebuild it in 1923 and his design influence is still very much present today. 

It even made its way into pop culture, when Keanu Reeves’ title character in the movie Johnny Mnemonicdeclared, “I want my shirts cleaned like they do at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo”.

Its history and sense of place are what set The Imperial Hotel apart from international chains which enter Japan and adapt to the concept of omotenashi as a selling point. The Imperial has nothing to adapt to or sell, because its very soul is omotenashi.

Omotenashi in motion 
Today, the Imperial Hotel is a sprawling property, with two towers and a massive lobby big enough to fit another building in it.

As your taxi or Friendly airport limousine bus pulls into the driveway, the bellboys spring into action. One opens the door while another picks up your luggage faster than you can say Usain Bolt. They do this with the swiftness of a friendly ninja in a suit speaking perfect English.

Compared to some international chains in Tokyo where lady bellhops wear heels, you gladly let them lug your bags without feeling bad.

But don’t for a moment assume they’re mere porters; it’s likely one of many stints that these young men will go through on their way up the management ladder.

Once you’re in the hotel proper, you’ll see how being able to anticipate your needs is key to omotenashi at The Imperial. 

The lift attendants, for one, are not there to just push the floor buttons and hold open the elevator door for you. They act as subtle crowd control, monitoring the flow of hotel guests, conference participants and restaurant diners, discreetly sorting each in the best way to reduce waiting time and zip them up to their target floor the fastest.

If you’re lucky enough to be staying on one of the three premier Imperial floors, a kimono-clad attendant is always at your service. You literally get a taste of it when she prepares a welcome pot of hot green tea in your room for you to enjoy with complimentary rice crackers that taste almost creamy and melt in your mouth.

True to their reputation, you only have to casually ask where you can buy those delicious crackers and before the end of the day, you are provided a detailed map with the name of the shop, directions and its opening hours.

Similarly, when you ask the concierge for masking tape, he includes a pair of scissors without prompting, and even an offer to do your packing for you.

The right staff
If it feels like The Imperial must have a lot of staff to deliver such a high level of service, you’re right. 

Despite the country’s struggles with a labour shortage and high wage levels, The Imperial Hotel has consistently maintained an impressive manpower strength of 2,000 employees, taking care of 931 guest rooms. 

Equally outstanding is staff loyalty, with such low turnover that you’re likely to recognise more than one familiar face on repeat visits.

And in keeping with its size, 18 dining options are what ensure a steady flow of in-house guests and locals moving through its doors. 

Its one Michelin-starred restaurant Les Saisons harks back to the golden days of fine French dining, while you can easily get a classic American club sandwich at the Aqua Lounge. 

Teppanyaki Kamon specialises in silky Kobe beef, while Kitcho, Isecho and Nadaman are some revered names.

There’s also the old world charm of the Old Imperial Bar, which is a tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright himself, plus the ever-busy Gargantua gourmet deli with its delicious pastries, chocolates and limited edition wines. Not to mention the dozens of luxury boutiques on the ground floor and enormous basement.

Location
With Hibiya Park directly in front and the Imperial Palace to the right, the hotel is an oasis of tranquility. It is virtually in Ginza but without its crowds.

The Hibiya subway station with the Hibiya, Chiyoda and Toei Mita lines is at its doorstep, with access possible too via the newly opened Tokyo Midtown Hibiya building.

The Ginza station with the Ginza and Marunouchi lines is also nearby, as is the JR Yurakucho station.

From Haneda airport, the taxi ride should cost about ¥7,000 if there’s no traffic jam. If there is, you can be sure any frazzled nerves you might have will be immediately soothed by the trademark omotenashi of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo. 

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