In a league of its own

The Imperial Hotel Tokyo epitomises the uniquely Japanese way of turning hospitality into an art form.

IF you're familiar with Tokyo's Friendly airport buses, you probably know this drill. You drop off at some fancy five star hotel lobby and just as the bellhop rushes up to help, you either avoid eye contact or give them a sheepish smile as you sidestep him and drag your suitcase down the street to your budget hotel that isn't on the bus's list of stops.

Most Japanese hotel staff are way too discreet to cast any judgmental glance at you, but if you happen to get off at the Imperial Hotel in Ginza - chances are the bellhop will cheerfully help you with your bags anyway. He doesn't need to. But he just wants to because, well, that's what service is all about.

At the time, we didn't realise that we had just experienced omotenashi. You hear that word these days as Japan opens up to tourism even more now and wants the world to understand the true essence of its hospitality. When you're already spoilt by Asian hospitality standards set by the likes of Shangri-la or Peninsula; the white-gloved butlers of St Regis or the instinctive service of Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, where does a hotel like the Imperial Tokyo stand? For the uninitiated, it may come off as too large, too businessy, too Japanese, too locked away in its archaic interpretations of Western hotel service to appeal to anyone other than, well, Japanese businessmen.

Yet this is where omotenashi works both for and against them. It's so discreet you don't even notice it. Omotenashi isn't in the grand gestures, in-your-face displays of hospitality but is instead a way of life for those who choose hospitality as a career, whether by job application or by tradition in a multi-generation innkeeper family.

Earlier this month, the Imperial Hotel celebrated its 125th anniversary as the first western-style hotel to open in Japan, with in-house exhibitions and events to recall the days it hosted luminaries like Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth II, and made architectural history when iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to rebuild it in 1923. Unfortunately, the traditional stone that Wright insisted on using started falling apart over the next few decades, and the entire hotel had to be rebuilt in 1970. Some of the remains of the old structure can be seen around the hotel, especially in the Old Imperial Bar - the dim, gentlemen's watering hole where John Wayne might have enjoyed a drink before heading to the hotel's shoe shine corner, where the same man who made his and Lee Kuan Yew's footwear sparkle is still there today.

"Most of our staff stay with us for life and are rotated and trained in many different departments," says Hideya Sadayasu, president of Imperial Hotel Ltd and the hotel's general manager. He himself is living proof as a 30-year veteran who started out as a junior trainee, working as a bellhop and moving up the ranks. It's standard for every employee because "this helps give them the vision required to accurately assess a guest's needs and how they will be met from start to finish."

A staff strength of "2,000 for 930 rooms and 17 dining options" ensures that there's a fresh rose in lifts every day; someone to come clean your room within two minutes of you calling for housekeeping service; kimono-clad guest attendants on the Imperial and Premier Tower floors to see to your every need; and even staff guiding you to an open lift to get to your room without you having to press any 'up' button.

"The art of service is derived from an ability, cultivated or natural, to anticipate," says Mr Sadayasu. "In a culture like Japan's, traditional values have historically focused on the consideration of others. It's from this fundamental foundation for the continuity and well-being of society that hospitality becomes an art form."

Whether you stay in one of the classic rooms done up in old world English dark woods and solid furniture, or in the breezy, modern neutral-toned surroundings of the 361 totally refurbished rooms in the Imperial Tower, you'll get a first-hand taste of western culture as uniquely interpreted by the Japanese.

For example, French cuisine was considered the ultimate in fine dining back in the old days, and at the one Michelin-starred Les Saisons restaurant, chef Thierry Voisin prepares a no-holds-barred breakfast of fantastic croissants, scrambled eggs with truffles, smoked trout from Mount Fuji, medallions of Okinawa pork and imported French fruit nectars. The American club sandwich is not a culinary anachronism here - it's the delicious star of the menu at the Aqua Lounge. And if you're inclined towards classic Japanese, the chefs at Kamon Teppanyaki do magic with 200 grams of wagyu tenderloin and garlic fried rice.

For a peep at what the hotel was like in Frank Lloyd Wright's day, there is a suite in his name - where everything from the bed frames to dining tables and lamps are loving reproductions of his designs. Incidentally, for a cool lesson in Japanese wedding customs, check out the 'bridal registry' in the hotel's shopping arcade - which is not a place for you to pick out presents for the bride and groom but rather, for them to give gifts to their guests. Something Singapore wedding couples should look into if you ask us.

Such endearing quirks, and Mr Sadayasu's mission to "have our existence and reputation for excellence in the consciousness of international travellers, whether they will be our guests or not," are what put the Imperial Hotel in a league of its own. "We want to be known for our range of unstinting services that are 'made in Japan'."

Point noted. The next time you bump into one of their bellhops, smile and accept his help graciously. You could well be looking at the Imperial Hotel's general manager of the future, and the custodian of omotenashi for years to come.

Imperial Hotel Tokyo
1-1, Uchisaiwai-Cho 1-Chome, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo 1008558
Tel +81-3-3504-1111

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