'War of hotels' breaks out ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Readying for a large influx of foreign visitors for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, luxurious hotels are opening one after another in the heart of the metropolis in what can be likened to a "war of hotels."

Until recently, foreign-owned hotels, whose strong suit is providing luxury, had been leading the trend. However, Japanese hotels, one of which is Hotel Okura Tokyo in Minato Ward, Tokyo, with plans to rebuild its main building, are quickly catching up.

The number of visitors from abroad is expected to pass the 18 million mark by the end of this year. Making reservations for a stay in Tokyo is already a cause for frustration, and concerns have been voiced over a shortage of accommodations in the nation's capital.

However, with the shortage came the opportunity. Tokyo has become a lucrative market for the hotel business, and foreign investors were quick to respond to the burgeoning opportunity. In recent years, foreign-affiliated firms have launched projects to build fancy hotels at the centre of the nation's capital.

One such case is Andaz Tokyo, run by US hotel operator Hyatt Hotels Corporation. It opened in the Toranomon district of Minato Ward in June last year. Another is Aman Tokyo, which opened near Tokyo Station in December and is operated by the Singapore-based Amanresorts International.

On the Japanese side, the Hoshino Resorts Group plans to open Hoshinoya Tokyo, a traditional ryokan-type hotel, in the Otemachi district of Chiyoda Ward and in the vicinity of Aman Tokyo. Both hotels target the wealthy at home and abroad who can afford accommodations that cost tens of thousands of yen per night. The competition to win customers is bound to grow intense.

Prince Hotels and Resorts has plans to open Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho in the summer of 2016.

Meanwhile, some companies are wary of rising construction costs and more cautious of building new hotels in the centre of Tokyo and have focused their attention on building less expensive hotels largely catering to the business community in the suburbs.

Okura main building to close

The long-established Hotel Okura Tokyo will suspend services at its main building at the end of this month to replace the iconic structure. The new facility will open in 2019, a year before the Olympic Games.

The Hotel Okura Tokyo opened in 1962, two years before the first Tokyo Olympics. Renowned architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, who was known for his work on the Togu Gosho Palace, collaborated with others to design the hotel with the vision of creating an architecture that was not an imitation of Western culture but a demonstration of "traditional Japanese beauty."

The outer wall was made in the style of a namako-kabe wall, covered with black tiles and a latticed pattern of white tiles. In the lobby, "Okura lanterns" in the shape of an ornament from the Kofun period hung from the ceiling.

In 1964, the hotel was used as the main venue for a general assembly meeting of the International Monetary Fund. US presidents and other foreign dignitaries have chosen this hotel as their lodgings for events such as the summit meetings of 1979, 1986 and 1993.

The restaurant is scheduled to reopen after the reconstruction of the main building. "The Okura has been open for more than half a century and the service here has been refined over the years," the waitress said, adding that she and her coworkers hope to "extend our hospitality to the people of the world when the Olympic Games are on in 2020."

According to the reconstruction plan, two buildings, one 41 stories and the other 16, will replace the current main building. The rooms will number about 510 in total.

The main building will suspend its services at the end of this month, after which hotel services will be limited to the annex. The rooms in the main building are fully booked for their final days, and guests are seen taking commemorative photos in the lobby.

Preservation called for

Critics of the renovation have expressed their views that the main building should be kept intact. The New York Times printed a story in summer last year bidding farewell to the acclaimed architecture. DOCOMOMO Japan, an academic group consisting of about 300 architects, submitted a petition to the hotel demanding the preservation of the main building. They praised the main building as "an outstanding example following the style of Japanese modernism and having historic value."

Yoshio Taniguchi, the son of Yoshiro Taniguchi (who died in 1979), will be involved in designing the new main building. Architects involved in the project say they may replicate the old lobby and its ornaments inside the new building.