WEST MEETS EAST
Of all the top-end luxury hotels to grace the never-sleeping never-resting megalopolis that is Japan’s capital, one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Yokoso, as they say in these parts; ‘Welcome’ to Tokyo and to the incomparable, irresistible, Hotel Seiyo Ginza
The Seiyo Ginza’s legendary status amongst Japan’s finest hotels is partly historical, partly due to its consistently unflagging reputation for excellence and innovation in all areas of its operation. And partly it’s an affair of the heart. All hotels should be like this.
So where does one begin? Perhaps, as Zen occasionally suggests, at the beginning. It started, in 1987, as the seemingly impossible-to-achieve vision of one of the world’s richest men, Seiji Tsutsumi. The communistturned- billionaire entrepreneur, self-confessed literary virtuoso, and, well-why-not, hotelier, Tsutsumi was something of a black sheep within a family whose massive wealth was accrued through the success of the Seibu department store empire. When his aspirations to inherit the family business came to nought, Tsutsumi embarked on his own project. He decided to create the world’s finest hotel in the heart of his country’s capital, in Ginza, atop what was then (and still isn’t far off) the most valuable real estate on the planet.
Tsutsumi’s dream was to establish a hotel that would combine top-notch five-star Western hotel facilities with the age-old values of personal service to be found in a traditional Japanese ryokan. One suspects that the general consensus was that he was out of his mind. But at least one person shared his vision. Tsutsumi hired as general manager Takuya Nagai, a man who shared his belief that Western luxury and Asian service philosophies could not only be successfully melded, but also parlayed into a thriving, meaningful business. Some deemed them foolish. Some considered them revolutionaries. Today, the Seiyo Ginza is widely recognised as Japan’s, and perhaps the world’s, finest top-end luxury boutique hotel.
The US-based Rosewood hotels have overseen the Seiyo Ginza since 2000. The man they charged with maintaining and developing the success of this landmark establishment, and ‘importing a Yankee sense of luxury to Japan’, as he puts it with a canny grin, is the irrepressible, highly articulate, Hawaiiborn, Lloyd S. Nakano. He would deny it, but in its current incarnation, this seems to be really his hotel. Western? Japanese? The lines seem to blur.
THE PERFECT MARRIAGE
Nakano describes himself as a ‘hotel man through and through’. Having cut his teeth in the industry at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki in 1969, he later came to the Four Seasons Chinzan-So in Tokyo, and thus began his first experience of introducing a Western-style luxury product to the Japanese market. In 1987, during the Chinzan-So groundbreaking, he stayed at the Seiyo Ginza, and met Nagai where they discussed the philosophy of hospitality.
At first he was sceptical of Nagai’s belief that the Western idea could be fused with the intrinsically Japanese concept of Omotenashi. Yet, as a Hawaiian who could intuitively understand Aloha Spirit, and as a globally aware professional familiar with the Balinese concept of Keramah Tamahan hospitality, he began to recognise that what seemed abstract, inheritable behaviour could become a measurable, quantifiable, and thus teachable reality. Perhaps a Japanese mindset (less is more) could be married with a Western idea (more is better) after all. Today that successful fusion is one of the cornerstones of the hotel’s success. It is why it feels so splendid.
THE ART OF OMOTENASHI
A quick peek into an encyclopaedia of Japanese culture will tell you that Omotenashi is an atmosphere of conviviality and welcome in which individual needs and preferences are catered to impeccably, and of which an essential element is the unobtrusive, meticulous attention to detail. However, as Nakano explains, “If you confuse Omotenashi with the Western concept of hospitality, you are making a fundamental mistake. The term grew out of Zen Buddhism and the tea-ceremony, which is essentially an art that is perfected with a minimum of effort, a minimum amount of movement, with nothing superfluous, everything precise, everything just so. The practise must be repeated over and over again until it is perfect. Thus observer and participant become awed by the simplicity of the act. This is the heart of genuine hospitality”. And the heart of the Seiyo Ginza experience.
Which begins thus. Guests are cordially greeted in an atmosphere that is akin to being received by an old, distinguished family friend, rather than signing in at a giant, impersonal, boutique-laden lobby. The closest nod to contemporary high-end marketing is the distant view of a Bulgari jewellery display, refracted through the gentle smoked glass of a chandelier bead. Formalities are completed sitting in comfortable chairs, in the soothing, soft-lit reception area. Then one is escorted to the sumptuous rooms where you are greeted with fresh fruit and introduced to the staff member who will be your personal butler for the duration of your stay.
The Seiyo Ginza is Japan’s only butlered hotel and Nakano believes that this, combined with the consummate professionalism of its concierges and doormen, gives the customer an experience that is ‘second to none’. Indeed it does. On my first stay, adopting lunatic rock-star insane ego-centricism, I requested my butler to find a particular type of cat food only available in one store in the entire Tokyo megalopolis. (I’m not usually such a pain in the arse, honest). The good lady demurely greeted my bonkers request with calm, kindness and spectacular efficiency. Felix’s gourmet choice was in my hands within the hour.
This level of personalised service can be achieved, in part, because of the Seiyo Ginza’s ‘sizeability’. It has just 77 rooms – of which 26 are suites – and a staff of 161. Nakano suggests that this is the case with many unique hotels around the world. “It is small enough to remain adaptable. You can mould your product; it’s still in your hands. You can fashion and customise the experience for each guest, and the guest is not intimidated by the size of the property”.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN OF LEISURE
So who is the ‘target customer’ for the Seiyo Ginza? Even though it is located in the area that has a reputation for being the high-end entertainment capital of Japan, the hotel’s proximity to the commercial districts of Kyobashi and Nihonbashi has ensured its customer base has, traditionally, been corporate, accounting for sixty percent of its total business. Yet as the economic and social geography of the city evolves, this too may change.
Nakano explains “Tokyo has seen a bunch of high-end luxury Western hotels opening recently, and they are being built right in those clustered corporate areas. The Grand Hyatt is in Roppongi Hills which has Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. The Ritz-Carlton is in the Midtown complex which has Konami, John Hopkins and Fujifilm. The Peninsula is in Marunouchi with the big banks and the Mandarin is in Nihombashi with all the pharmaceuticals. So we are seeing erosion in that segment”.
Which doesn’t mean the writing is on the wall for the HSG quite just yet. Nakano believes that in recent years there has been a sea change in perceptions towards Japan as a travel destination, and that Western travellers no longer regard Japan as impossibly expensive nor dissuadingly complicated.
“They don’t perceive it as alien, they don’t see it as foreign. They love Japanese culture. And they love the food. So we can emerge in the leisure market. And Ginza is still the nation’s leisure capital. For us, that’s another reason why we’ve been able to dodge the bullet of economic downturn”. There may be a touch of false modesty here on Nakano’s part. When he arrived at the Seiyo Ginza, occupancy was sixty percent. Over the last four years it has consistently averaged between seventy-five and eighty.
BEST IN THE BUSINESS
Having some of the finest restaurants in this food-obsessed nation under your roof can’t hurt business either. Sixty percent of the hotel’s revenues come from food and beverage (with forty-percent from rooms). Of that sixty percent, forty percent is from restaurants and bars, with twenty percent from banqueting. The latter figure relates directly to the Seiyo Ginza’s size and subsequent absence of the requisite humongous ballroom.
But is it not quality, rather than size, that matters? The Seiyo Ginza’s flagship French, Italian and Japanese restaurants are integral to its success and its identity. All have been significantly honoured. Repeatedly. As I type, the Seiyo Ginza’s French restaurant, Répertoire, sits atop a nationwide poll for best restaurant in terms of ambiance, service, flavour and value.
Here once again, cross-cultural harmonisation is at work. Its Japanese master-chef studied technique in France, then spent a summer with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, where he learned to value locally-sourced, fresh, natural ingredients. Applying that knowledge to Japan, he creates menus that are still distinctly French, but whose lightness and subtlety have become a huge hit with a young, female, Japanese clientele.
As indeed have the Seiyo Ginza’s by-now legendary Winemaker Dinners. At one recent such soirée, in April 2008, none other than Robert Parker Jr. and Joel Robuchon collaborated to showcase 100-point wines and champagne, courtesy of Bruno Paillard, and Dominik Renard of La Tour and Cheval Blanc. Professor Denis Dubourdieu, the ‘father of Sauvignon Blanc’, wine advisor for Doisy Daene, Chateau d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc and the Hotel Seiyo Ginza, presided. And on the menu? What else, but Kaiseki, the traditional classic cuisine of the tea ceremony.
The Seiyo Ginza oozes class and sophistication, but it does so in a manner that is refined; unobtrusive; even gentle. Its attention to personalised service, unparalleled.
Perhaps Seiji Tsutsumi wasn’t so crazy after all. When I asked Lloyd S. Nakano what makes the Seiyo Ginza unique, he paused for thought, before answering “It is not a physicality about the Hotel Seiyo Ginza that is new and exciting. It’s the experience that you have here”. And there was I imagining that Omotenashi belonged to a distant era. Silly bygone me…