Tokyo’s impressive new Peninsula hotel is head and shoulders above the rest, writes Susan Kurosawa
WHAT do I miss the most about room 2002 on the 20th level of the recently opened Peninsula Tokyo? Is it the steam-free screen on the television set in the bathroom, the nail-drying machine in the capacious dressing-room or the talking toilet?
Never was a hotel room this much fun. The toilet — apparently not a novelty model but standard issue in many Japanese hotels and homes — doesn’t really talk but it opens its lid as one approaches, with a little squeak that sounds like a strangled welcome. Its panel of buttons suggests a massage facility, various bidet functions and the possibility of a hot-air blow of one’s nether regions. The seat is warm and on departure toilet-goers are farewelled with an automatic flush and a discreet closing of the lid.
Taxis in Japan exhibit a similar degree of courtesy: vehicles of the sturdy ilk of Nissan Cedrics and Toyota Crowns have doors that automatically open and close, although heated seating and lavatory functions are sorely missing therein. Spend long enough in Japan and one’s return to (Australian) reality is a king hit: you will wait a very long time here for a loo seat or car door to open on cue.
The Peninsula Hotels group prides itself on techno-savvy accommodation. Its flagship Hong Kong property, which celebrates its 80th birthday this year, has long had bedside panels in guestrooms with touch-buttons for operating motorised curtains, lights, TV and do-notdisturb signs.
The just-opened Tokyo sibling, with 314 guestrooms (including 47 suites; there’s also a wedding chapel), is similarly equipped and features another Peninsula trademark: a deep valet box in the dressing room into which newspaper, messages, shined-up shoes and laundry or dry-cleaning are dropped, minimising the need for staff to disturb guests.
In the bathrooms, a spa button dims the lights and activates soft music with the unmistakable twing-twang of shamisen and koto; on check-in, room radios are programmed to guests’ home countries. Of course there is complimentary broadband access and all the techno-gadget sockets to plug in one’s tap-dancing robot with auto stir-fry function or other such 21st-century wonderments, the very idea of which makes your correspondent’s eyes ferment with boredom.
At 24 storeys, and in a central location in the Marunouchi business district, the Peninsula Tokyo is the first stand-alone hotel to be built in the city for about 10 years. Five-star competitors such as the Park Hyatt Tokyo (which served as a set for the 2003 hit movie Lost in Translation) are built above soaring office blocks; its reception area is on space station-like level 41.
The views from the Peninsula Tokyo’s higher floors are big and broad; my room looks at an angle over Marunouchi rooftops towards the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace, which squats like a great feudal estate amid one of the world’s great metropolises. Its white watchtowers have triple brimmed roofs perched like shady hats, and swans swim along the moat, oblivious to the extraordinary realestate value of their watery domain.
We are lucky with the weather this early November and the woolly smog that often dogs Tokyo lifts as if by curtain cue each day to reveal bright blue skies; I watch a red balloon rise through the mist early one morning. It could almost be an unfurling representation of the Japanese flag’s rising sun. An hour later, as the sun really does come out, I see schoolchildren in yellow hats walking towards the palace in arrowhead formation behind a flag-carrying teacher. They are like a little party of bobbing buttercups. Children in their multi-coloured best are out today, too, as it is the annual Shichi-go-san festival wherein boys of three and five and girls of three and seven are dressed in formal kimono and taken to auspicious shrines.
At the Meiji Shrine, a short stroll from Harajuku station, friends and I pass under the ceremonial red torii gate and fall into step with several families.
Progress is slow. Three-year-old Emiko Miyanohara can barely walk on the uneven pebble path in her slippery white socks and geta platform sandals, and she is all but tripping over the unaccustomed goldfish-like tail of her miniature kimono.
She begs her father, Yukio, to pick her up. Clearly he wants to, but there is timehonoured custom at stake, and dignity and video footage of wee Emiko’s progress. Then there are foreigners like me who are hovering with our cameras; we can’t believe our luck in stumbling across one of the most decorative days of the Japanese festival calendar.
Emiko puffs up her rosy cheeks, wails for all she’s worth and, finally, Yukio relents and piggybacks her towards the shrine as grandmothers on both sides, wearing their wooden shoes and flat-tight obi belts with martyred fortitude, look very frosty indeed.
I eventually lose sight of Yukio and his little passenger — Emiko bobbing like an overstuffed backpack — and the parents of sevenyear-old Naomi Takahara stop me and ask if I will take a photograph of their party of three. They prod Naomi to bow and say thank you, and so she does, so deeply that she just about topples off her geta and falls flat in front of me.
It is a big day out for the children, many of whom hold bright balloons and bags of chitose-ame candy sticks illustrated with cranes and turtles, Japanese symbols of longevity. Shichi-go-san officially falls on November 15, but if that is a weekday, on the closest weekend families go to shinto shrines, of which Meiji, set amid hectares of woodland and gardens filled with irises, is one of the most propitious.
Back at the Peninsula, festival-garbed boys and girls are lunching with their parents at the hotel restaurants; one little miss has an extravagant cherry blossom hair ornament and, in matching pink, a Hello Kitty balloon tied to the back of her chair.
From the hotel’s signature Peter restaurant, with its polished chrome trees and shiny aubergine decor, the views are glorious (and a fruit bowl of neon colours at night) but, as I am to discover, the Peninsula is not just about looking out.
On the Tokyo Skybus — an open-topped double-decker that does a 50-minute Marunouchi loop — the new hotel is firmly on the itinerary. It’s a bit of a showstopper as the bus braves traffic down the multi-lane Harumidori, which skirts Hibiya Park.
The guide points out two sun-lounger beds on a petite deck outside the Peninsula Tokyo’s fifth-floor pool. Everyone looks up; cameras click, jaws drop.
We learn that the cloud-scraping granite hotel has been designed by architect Kazukiyo Sato to look like a lantern. At night it looms over the area like an illuminated beacon.
There are almost 1000 pieces of art in the hotel, 90 per cent of which have been created using traditional Japanese methods. One of the least showy but most beautiful of touches is the sliding rice-paper shoji screen in each of the day spa’s salons; a space at the bottom has been left bare to filter extra light and to recreate the time-cherished pastime of observing snow on the wintry ground. It’s enough to move one to write a haiku during a lightenand-brighten facial or enlightenment massage.
Giorgio Armani is in the lobby (white loafers are back, it appears) and Cate Blanchett is due in one of the hotel’s forest-green Rolls-Royces.
But star-spotting aside, most guests and visitors are more intent on the idea of Earl Grey tea and scones. A long line snakes around a corner of the lobby and up a back stairway as would-be tea-takers (local ladies, mostly, in strangely unsuccessful hats) patiently wait. Continuing the tradition of its Hong Kong sibling, the Peninsula Tokyo has already become the Japanese capital’s most fashionable afternoon tea spot. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of the Peninsula Tokyo and Cathay Pacific.
Rooms start from Y=60,000 ($600) a night plus taxes. The hotel is located above Hibiya station; walk through from the basement arcade. An average subway ride costs about Y=160. Cathay Pacific flies to Tokyo from Australian ports via Hong Kong. On most sectors into and out of Australia, business-class cabins are fitted with new angled seating pods with lie-flat beds. Economy-class cabins have been upgraded with fixed-back seating that enables passengers to recline without intruding on those seated behind. Cathay Pacific is the first airline to provide such seats in economy class. Virtual tours and further details on the airline’s website. More: 131 747; www.cathaypacific.com.au.
High point: Clockwise from above left, a room at the Peninsula Tokyo; the hotel’s indoor pool; a customised fleet of Rolls-Royces and BMWs for guests; children at the Shichi-go-san festival; a mother and daughter at the Meiji Shrine