Defying Stereotypes

by Catherine Shaw
The Capitol Hotel TokyuFormer celebrity hotel embraces local hospitality and modern design.

What is it that makes a hotel truly iconic, that certain je ne sais quoi that delivers instant recognition and a unique “sense of self” while others — trying just as hard, perhaps even more so — never quite manage to overcome the anonymity of their existence?

Good design — from external architecture to interiors — obviously plays a defining role, but while a well-known name certainly generates a certain level of interest in the early days, once a hotel settles down for day-to-day business it is surprisingly unusual to find design and spirit merging with great success.

Happily, the recently unveiled The Capitol Hotel Tokyu — a complete redevelopment of the original hotel designed for Tokyo’s 1963 Olympic Games — defies stereotypes delivering a fresh new experience of Japanese hospitality and contemporary design that looks set to create a new icon in the capital.

The Capitol Hotel TokyuCelebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, renowned for his trademark modern take on traditional Japanese themes, proved an inspired choice for the redevelopment of the iconic Tokyo landmark, delivering a subtle blend of distinctive Japanese architecture and comfortably elegant interiors that evoke an easy relationship between style and modern hospitality. Kuma’s Capitol Tokyu is an unmistakably modern building, inspired by Japan’s rich traditions and culture and in large part by the hotel’s unusually tranquil garden-like setting in the Akasaka district overlooking the historic Hie Shrine and near to the prime minister’s official residence.

Speaking to WIFM about the design process, Kuma says that respecting the earlier design incarnation by architect Isoya Yoshida — an architect he greatly respects — was critical. Yoshida’s creation of the former Tokyo Hilton Hotel was the first global chain hotel in Japan, which went on to operate as the Capitol Tokyu Hotel from 1983 until its closure for redevelopment in 2006. For decades the hotel was considered one of the most prestigious addresses in Tokyo, favored by international celebrities such as The Beatles, the Three Tenors: Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti.

The original hotel was completely demolished to allow for a new approach to the unique site and creation of a high-rise building. The result is an impressive 29-storey structure with 251 generously proportioned guest rooms from the 18th floor upward, five restaurants and bars, five banquet spaces and two floors of fitness and spa facilities, including a 20-metre indoor swimming pool. The hotel entrance is unlike any other in Tokyo, sharing a space with the 500-year old Hie Shrine helps set the scene as does Kuma’s striking stone-clad façade that creates a unique sense of entrance: the building may be high-rise but the atmosphere from the ground level is distinctly personal.

Inside the main entrance lobby, the soaring ceiling is a modern interpretation of traditional shrine architecture while a contemporary water garden decorated with simple Japanese stones wraps around the building, creating a relaxing backdrop to the lounge and dining areas. A neutral interior palette with meticulous furnishings adds to the sophisticated charm.

Despite the obvious Japanese design references, Kuma is quick to point out that he does not consider his architectural style to be particularly Japanese. “I think basically I am very neutral,” he said. “I studied in Japan, but I believe that my studies were about modernism and respecting nature. Sometimes I pick up the traditional vocabulary, but the reason for that is because it will fit that environment.”

Kengo KumaThe Tokyo-based architect says his style is much more about “a conversation with a place. I always try to find the genius loci (spirit) of a site. Inspiration comes from the site, not Japan. Traditional Japanese craftsmen were trained to respect the nature of the site and I want to follow that kind of philosophy.”

Horizontality and transparency are key aspects often celebrated in Kuma’s distinctive designs, and at The Capitol Hotel Tokyu such elements have been incorporated in the entrance lobby ceiling with eaves that create shadows while natural light streams through floor-to-ceiling windows. Throughout, natural materials like stone and wood introduce a subtle sense of the outdoor natural environment.

“It is important to always select the materials to suit the site,” explained Kuma. “I like to spend time in the real conditions of the site’s light to understand how it changes from the morning to night. The question is not how you design the building, but how you design the relationship between the outside and the inside,” he said. “You do not separate spaces with walls, but you use flexible screens and you aim for an integration of the building with the garden and the woods. A lot of new hotels have opened over the last few years in Tokyo, but almost none have a garden or a pond. I wanted to make a hotel that allowed you to actually sense the presence of the garden. I think The Capitol Hotel Tokyu has ended up like that.”

The guest rooms continue the theme with sleek understated style featuring shoji paper-screen divides and works by local artists. Four of the 13 suites are located on the 5th floor with sublime views of the traditional landscaped gardens and Hie Shrine. A Club Floor on the top three floors includes deluxe rooms and executive suites, and a Library Lounge for breakfast or chic evening cocktails.

In a welcome departure from French domination as the main feature of a hotel’s restaurants, The Capitol Hotel Tokyu’s signature Suiren serves teppanyaki, sushi and exquisitely prepared kaiseki in an elegant setting. Guests are also invited to experience a traditional tea ceremony in the hotel’s garden. Other dining includes Chinese restaurant Star Hill, a replica of the popular one from the previous hotel; casual all-day international dining at Origami, and the retro chic The Capitol Bar, which has already established a reputation for its expertly mixed martinis.

There is plenty for the art lover too. Many of the local artworks that adorned the original building are retained in the new hotel, including the outstanding works of Toko Shinoda that she completed in her forties. The original piece is showcased in the lobby opposite a striking new one she created aged 97.

The Capitol Hotel Tokyu
2-10-3 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0014
Tel: 03-3503-0109