By Akiko Yamamoto
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
TOKYO -- The sliding paper doors are immaculate, the tatami mats so freshly woven that they're still green. Wooden pillars glisten unblemished. The air is filled with the aroma of the mats and wood, a fragrance that Japanese associate with unbridled luxury. Then there is the view -- in the distance, the blue waters of Tokyo Bay glisten.
The room is not in a palace or traditional ryotei inn, but on the 48th floor of the tallest skyscraper in the Japanese capital. It's part of a suite available to anyone willing and able to pay $2,000 a night to the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Tokyo hotel.
Following the Mandarin Oriental, the Conrad, the Grand Hyatt and the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton is the fifth five-star international hotel chain to set up in Tokyo in the past five years. The newcomers are giving greater choice and better service to the swelling ranks of Japan's New Rich for nights away from home.
They're also squeezing Japan's own upscale hoteliers, whose aging establishments in central Tokyo have come to seem faded and uninspired by contrast. "Japanese hotels have failed to deliver, and many wealthy Japanese have shifted their patronage to the new Western luxury hotels," said Mitsuyoshi Horaguchi, associate professor for hotel business studies at Musashino University in Tokyo.
For decades, real estate prices protected the Japanese hotels. During the bubble economy of the late 1980s, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were theoretically worth as much as the whole of California and even the richest international hotel chains couldn't dream of opening in Japan. But after land prices fell to 25-year lows in the late 1990s, they began to move in.
Industry analysts say it's the little things that have cost many Japanese hotels dearly. Foreign hotels offer flexible, spontaneous and innovative services. They might add or remove ingredients from a pasta dish on request, something few Japanese hotel restaurants would do because there the menu, not the diner, is king.
The Ritz-Carlton will make an ice sculpture that holds an engagement ring for a man planning to propose to his girlfriend. It also places playful little cards under beds in hopes of wowing fussy and hypochondriac Japanese guests. The cards say: "We cleaned here too."
At the Mandarin Oriental's Tapas Molecular Bar, 14 guests a night eat a 20- to 30-course science-experiment-like dinner put together by renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria. The Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotel, which is scheduled to open in Tokyo in September, plans to offer a chauffeur service featuring a 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom.
For its part, the Ritz-Carlton is offering a Diamonds-Are-Forever Martini in collaboration with the jeweler Bulgari. Each $16,000 cocktail will come with a one-carat Bulgari diamond at the bottom, and as long as you don't swallow it you can take it to any Bulgari store in Tokyo and have a ring fitted to the stone for free.
"Japanese guests are expecting unique, memorable and personable experience," said Ricco DeBlank, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo. "I wanted to attract the guests and emotionally impact them not just by the view here but by everything that comes from arrival to departure."
The Ritz-Carlton already has 205 weddings booked for 2007, he said. These start at the equivalent of about $24,000 and spiral upwards. For $1 million the hotel throws in the wedding dress, jewelry and a private jet to fly the newlyweds off to a honeymoon in Bali and Milan.
"I found with Japanese that if it is something outstanding -- the service or room or menu -- they don't mind paying for it, but it has to be very, very good," said DeBlank.
Kazuko Obata was waiting one recent afternoon for her boyfriend in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. She had turned 24 on March 13 and was to stay at the hotel to celebrate her belated birthday. "Foreign luxury hotels let you have a special experience," she said. "The atmosphere is fantastic. If you add surprises, luxury and sophistication to your special occasion, you have great memories. That is what foreign luxury hotels can give. And that is something the Japanese hotels simply can't."
In the 1990s, few Japanese hotels invested in their facilities. To fill empty rooms, they teamed up with cut-price package-tour companies, which brought in customers by the busload, but further undermined their image for excellence and became one more reason for wealthy Japanese to stay at Western luxury hotels.
At some Japanese five-stars, times got so bad that managers investigated the supernatural. The Hotel New Otani is popular among politicians, and had long been considered one of the three best hotels in Japan. But the 1990s downturn in the economy and the subsequent arrival of the luxury foreign hotels left it eerily empty much of the time. So hotel officials hired a shaman-cum-business consultant. He informed them that the land it was built on was cursed. Hotel staff laying out mounds of salt to ward off evil spirits became a regular sight.
Belatedly, the New Otani is also taking more orthodox measures to increase its allure. By October, it plans to have spent $85 million renovating its facilities. The Imperial Hotel, another traditionally top Japanese name, is in the midst of a $145 million refurbishment slated for completion next year.
"Admittedly, we are not in a situation in which we can be very optimistic," said Ukou Komatsuzaki, spokesman for the hotel, speaking of the foreign competitors. "But we would like to not fear their entering the Tokyo market, but have an adequate sense of crisis to cope with the situation. We are going to do what best we can do. The renovations are to strengthen our competitiveness and brand name."