Tokyo's first hotel skyscraper is on the precipice of being as many years old as it is storeys high. Although no longer a visually striking structure in the vertically unchallenged urban landscape of Shinjuku, the 47-level Keio Plaza Hotel now stands out within one of the city's main administrative and commercial areas by offering guests intimate insights and hands-on experiences of traditional Japanese culture.
When I arrive late on an early-March evening, the first sign of this is a colourful multi-mobile installation celebrating Hinamatsuri or Girls' Day prominently positioned in the big flashy foyer. The second sign is breakfast.
One of Keio's three morning meal options is a set Japanese breakfast at Kagari restaurant. I'm greeted in Japanese and led to a table in a spacious room where most people sit alone separated by decorative hanging beads and artfully thrown light. It feels both intimate and private.
"Porridge or rice?" is all anyone needs to know before a cup of green tea is delivered followed by a tray of 15 different plates and bowls and tiny porcelain containers of egg custard, miso soup, smoked fish, vegetables and condiments like roe, bonito flakes and pickles. There's some quiet music. I don't even look at the magazine I've brought to keep me company. It feels more an act of meditation than a meal.
Although it doesn't seem like it at breakfast, Keio Plaza Hotel is a dual-towered mini-city of shops and spas and chapels and banquet rooms with 25 bars and restaurants including Korean, Chinese, Italian and French cuisine and an all-day sweets buffet booked out weeks in advance. Local dining options are mainly specialty restaurants – soba, sushi, teppanyaki, tempura – as is typical in Japan. Seasonality of food is hugely important and menus change with the seasons. March means strawberries, plum blossom, Asari clams.
The hotel's exhibitions also cycle. Just off the main foyer I find glass cabinets displaying the art of knot tying, paper wrapping and chopstick decorating soon to be replaced by Mt Fuji and sakuru (cherry blossom) artworks, Imari porcelain from Arita, and the masks and costumes of classical Noh theatre plus some free performances. A flower arranger turns up a few times every year and there's a koto (harp) recital in the lobby twice a week.
More interactively, tea ceremonies are now held four times a day most days hosted by Michiko Yano whose grace and good etiquette comes with a lovely splash of strictness. We follow her instructions on when and how to eat bean paste cake and sip thick and thin tea. Although a genuine chanoyu can take four to five hours, Keio guests can take part in a half hour session for a fee.
There's also the chance, budget willing, to try on a striking silk bridal kimono and be photographed in various locations around the hotel. To spend more time in one of these magnificent outfits, you can hire one for a wedding for $US4000 ($5400) a day or take the frock home forever for quarter of a million. Keio has 1437 rooms in Western and Japanese styles along with eight Hello Kitty rooms. The hotel's enthusiastic observation of events like Kitty's big birthdays – she's now fortysomething herself – and the Little Mermaid turning 180 and anything Alice in Wonderland keeps the kitsch alive.
On the last evening we dine at Kaiseki Soujuan – a multi-course meal of exquisitely prepared dishes served on beautiful dining ware at a low table. Mio, a sparkling sake, compliments the food. When I awkwardly attempt "gochisosama deshita" (thank you for the feast) at the end of the meal, our kimonoed server kneels, for possibly the hundredth time that evening, and bows almost to the floor.
Walking the meal off through the busy streets of Shinjuku that night, I notice a broad smattering of the name Keio. It makes me laugh to discover that a property belonging to the massive company actively driving the area's transport, retail and real estate development has been my gracious guide, over the past few days, into Japan's traditional past.
Japan Airlines flies daily between Sydney and Tokyo (Melbourne passengers need to transit in Sydney for a direct JAL flight); see jal.com.au
There are several transfer options between Narita Airport and Shinjuku. A taxi one way is 28,000 ($360) yen one way, the Narita Express train costs 4000 yen return per person and the Airport Limousine bus 4500 yen return per person. See limousinebus.co.jp/en/
Keio Plaza Hotel, 2-2-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-Ku, Tokyo, is in a quiet section of Shinjuku within easy walking distance of parks, restaurants, bars, shops and public transport. Keio provides a free shuttle bus to central Tokyo. Rooms start from 28,100 JPY a night for two people with breakfast included. Ten rooms are wheelchair accessible. See keioplaza.com
Elspeth Callender was a guest of Keio Plaza Hotel.
4 out of 5 stars
TRIPADVISOR TRAVELLER RATING
4 out of 5 stars