CAP­I­TAL GAIN

Tokyo’s im­pres­sive new Penin­sula ho­tel is head and shoul­ders above the rest, writes Susan Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.penin­sula.com

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

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