Two decades after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when imperial rule was restored and Japan reopened to the world after 250 years of isolation under the Shoguns, the Imperial Hotel was built on the orders of the aristocracy to accommodate growing numbers of visiting Western VIPs. It is now in its third iteration on a site close to the Imperial Palace after fire and earthquake put paid to the previous two Imperial hotels, one of them designed – down to the crockery – by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was to this lost jewel, which survived the Great Kanto Earthquake on the day it opened in 1923 but eventually sank too far into the mud to save, that Marilyn Monroe and Jo DiMaggio came for their honeymoon in 1954. Monroe waved from a balcony to thousands of admirers gathered below. "No shopping, Marilyn," Di Maggio said. "The crowds will kill us."
Marilyn did go shopping, crowds bedamned – for a kimono. With the boutiques and department stores of the high-end Ginza shopping district a short walk away, some retail therapy is a fair bet for any Imperial Hotel guest. Stroll there after dark for the dazzling Tokyo-neon experience. As well as the Imperial Palace, the government and business districts of Kasumigaseki and Marunouchi are nearby.
It's easy to lose your bearings in this vast hotel, which comprises a main building of 17 storeys, opened in 1970, and a 31-storey tower added 13 years later. There are 875 rooms, 56 suites, four floors of shopping in the tower's Imperial Hotel Plaza, a shopping arcade in the main building, and three floors of banquet halls that are popular for weddings – the new emperor's sister was married here, as were the parents of our Tokyo tour guide. The marble lobby gleams and buzzes in a manner befitting a glamorous, international hotel – celebrities, royalty, world leaders and tycoons have poured through the Imperial since it opened in 1890. A wall of black and white photographs outside the dimly lit and deeply moody Old Imperial Bar, which features original frescoes and terracotta tiles from the Wright hotel, documents some of the luminaries who have stayed here: John Wayne, Cary Grant, Margaret Thatcher, Helen Keller … you can imagine some of them swigging Scotch whiskey and smoking cigars in the legendary bar. Others, not so much.
A desk and two elegant, upholstered chairs are strategically placed for maximum gazing out the window of my standard tower room on the 28th floor. The moat-encircled grounds of the Imperial Palace are to the left and, far below to the right, the inter-city Shinkansen trains are toy-sized and sinuous as they slide in and out of Tokyo Station. Frank Lloyd Wright's hotel was a masterpiece of Art Deco embellishment, but this coolly modern room is a creamy coloured, wood-trimmed paean to less-is-more – design wise, at least. Amenities wise, it's traditional, five-star luxe from the 24-hour room service to the complimentary pyjamas (also cream, with gold piping) that I discover by accident in a drawer, with a note from the housekeeper to dial three if I'd like them in a different size.
There is a nod to Wright in framed artwork based on his original designs, one of them hanging above the loo.
Of the Imperial's 13 restaurants, eight are Japanese, each showcasing an aspect of this world-treasure of a cuisine: at Kamon, it's teppanyaki; Nakata serves Tokyo-style sushi; Ten-ici specialises in tempura, Tokyo Nadaman in the multi-course kaiseki cuisine; and so on.
The Michelin-starred Les Saisons is considered one of Tokyo's finest French restaurants. Helmed by Thierry Voisin, its signature dish is a whole truffle topped with foie gras and encased in pastry. Also French is La Brasserie where the vibe is turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and some dishes, created to mark visits by the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, have been on the menu for decades.
The Imperial Viking Sal introduced buffet dining to Japan in 1958 and it's where I eat breakfast, chefs in tall white hats manning an abundant global smorgasbord where kouglof with tea and black soybeans might take your fancy as much as the baked egg French onion soup.
Catch a colourful performance of Kabuki at Ginza's beautiful Kabukiza Theatre, Tokyo's principal destination for the traditional, all-male drama form, see kabukiweb.net. It's free to wander the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace where the emperor still lives; to venture into the inner compound you can take a guided tour (also free), see sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/ for details. Also worth exploring is Tokyo's first Western-style park, the 16-hectare Hibiya Park, which is just across the road from the hotel entrance.
World class, from its pedigree to the central-Tokyo postcode.
Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, 1-1, Uchisaiwai-cho 1-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8558. A standard tower room is 46,332Y a night, including tax, for two people. See imperialhotel.co.jp/e/
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
There's nothing small about this Tokyo hotel room.
Whether through confusing design or deficient signage, it can be hard to find your way around.
Sarah Maguire travelled courtesy of Botanica World Discoveries