From kimono experiences to sake tastings, Tokyo's finest hospitality lies in its hotels
Everything you've heard about Japan's richly detailed culture and dedication to elegant service is true, and nowhere else is this more evident than in Tokyo's luxury hotels. The rarified environment of truly premier hospitality blends organically with Japan's own gracious proclivities.
Where luxury hotels truly excel is not just in offering opulent decor, breathtaking vistas or spectacular food, but in the dazzling level of guest services provided. Imagine being welcomed upon arrival and directly escorted to your room where registration is conducted in a more relaxed and private setting. Or being greeted by name upon returning each time. Or walking into the lounge on the second morning with the servers remembering all your preferences (tea, green; breakfast, bento; table, by an outlet).
Amenities are definitely luxe at these hotels, but it's how guests are treated that makes the experience superb. Every guest is important; every need is anticipated; every request is met. In an interview with Ms. Masako Ito, Chief Concierge (Rooms) at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tokyo, I asked if there had ever been a guest request too challenging to fulfill. She replied, "No...I don't like to say 'no' to a guest. I'll always find a way to get what they need.
1. Shangri-La Hotel, 1-8 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Marunouchi Trust Tower Main, Tokyo, Japan
The Shangri-La Hotel in Tokyo is a truly beautiful and tranquil boutique hotel in the midst of one of the busiest cities in the world—a true urban sanctuary. The chain as a whole prides itself on upholding its five core values: sincerity, humility, helpfulness, respect, courtesy and selflessness, all in perfect synergy with Asian hospitality.
Like many luxury hotels in Tokyo, the Shangri-La Hotel resides in a mixed-use building, occupying the top 11 floors of the Marunouchi Trust Tower Main Building. This means the lobby is on the 28th floor, guaranteeing all guest rooms above have spectacular views of Tokyo Station, Marunouchi business district, the Imperial Palace, Shinjuku's skyscrapers or, on clear days, Mount Fuji. The 200 rooms range in size from 538 to just under 3,000 square feet, making them one of the largest on average in the city.
Between the darker tones and slightly smaller scale, the Shangri-La Hotel in Tokyo has a distinctly polished, calm and even venerable vibe. Between its stylish, stately aesthetic, its location next to Tokyo Station (railway is the lifeline in Japan), this hotel is ideal for business travellers and other adults wanting a more refined experience. With over 2,000 pieces of artwork (again, in a smaller hotel), this property sometimes feels more like a gallery than a typical hotel.
Neighbourhood: Located in central Chiyoda, the Shangri-La Hotel couldn't be any more convenient for travellers, set adjacent to Tokyo Station, a major transit hub for the city's local train and subway lines as well as terminus for the Shinkansen bullet train network. You're within walking distance to shopping district, Ginza, the Imperial Gardens, Marunouchi business district and Tokyo's historical and cultural epicentre, Nihonbashi.
Food + drink: The Shangri-La Hotel has two restaurants, one lobby lounge and one private access lounge.
Piacere is the Shangri-La Hotel's signature restaurant on the 28th floor, serving contemporary, Italian cuisine. Piacere faces the Imperial Palace and offers a metropolitan city view set around Tokyo Station. Lunch and dinner are prepared with rare ingredients such as 100-year-old balsamic vinegar or 101-month-aged Parmesan cheese. The restaurant also has two wine cellars, one for wines from France, Italy and the New World, and the other cellar dedicated to premier and vintage wines stored in beautiful wooden drawers.
Nadaman is the hotel's Japanese kaiseki (multi-course dinner) restaurant on the 29th floor. There are several Nadaman restaurants in Japan, but Nadaman at Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo has the most contemporary feel. There are many grand artistic elements to this space, most eye-catching is the dramatic display of suspended crystal gingko leaves at the entrance. Nadaman has served kaiseki cuisine to royalty, world leaders and discerning diners in Japan since 1830.
The Lobby Lounge on the 28th floor serves a host of international fare from Asian specialities to continental breakfasts to signature afternoon tea sets.
The Horizon Club on the 37th floor is a spectacular, exclusive space for guests staying in one of the 37 Horizon Club rooms and suites. Horizon Club guests experience an elevated level of service and privileges such as a dedicated concierge, express check-in and check-out, and access to a wide selection of meals, snacks and beverages throughout the day. There are certain food items served here not found anywhere else in the hotel, such as Laudrée pastries flown in from France.
Hotel programs: Shangri-La Hotel has a series of curated guest programs called "Enchanting Excursions" that are full- or multi-day experiences that all begin and end at the hotel.
Foodie Tokyo is a day tour exploring Tokyo's traditional and delicious food culture. Kunisaki & Yufuin introduces guests to a historic pilgrimage route for Buddhist and Shintoist monks that includes an old castle and onsen (thermal hot spring). Golf near Mount Fuji is a four-day golf tour that include some excellent play and a stay in Shuzenji to relax at one of Japan's top-class ryokans (traditional Japanese inn). The newest program is The Ryokan Collection, celebrating the launch of the new JR Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train. Guests are whisked away to the northwest of Japan, into some of the country's most tranquil and traditional regions for a truly immersive and authentic Japanese experience.
Highlight—coffee in the Horizon Club: I always order a traditional Japanese bento breakfast when in Japan, complete with green tea. But my second afternoon in Tokyo was hindered by staggering jet lag, made worse by three days straight of very little sleep. Seated at a table by the window in the Horizon Club, I asked for a cup of coffee and 10 minutes later, the brain-fog lifted.
Fact: Coffee tastes better served in bone china, brought to you by a server who addresses you by name and remembers that you like pastries, while looking over the Tokyo skyline 37 storeys high. This was the moment where brain caught up to body and fog turned to joy. To be in such a beautiful environment in the middle of Tokyo when everything started to focus was such a lovely, humbling moment. It set the tone for the rest of my trip, for which I am grateful.
2. Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Tokyo Midtown 9-7-1 Akasaka Minato-ku, Tokyo, 107-6245 Japan
For a grand entrance, no other luxury property in Tokyo can top the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Located in the Midtown Tower, Tokyo's tallest building, guests walk off the elevator and into the hotel's spectacular 45th floor sky lobby—a view that truly defines this hotel. It's easy to feel dwarfed in this space (which easily accommodates works by American painter, Sam Francis, that measure 8.1 metres high) except that the hospitality is so warm and so gracious that guests are made to feel at home immediately.
All the 247 rooms and suites in this five-star hotel were very recently renovated, now in dark shades of greys, purple and red to reflect the Japanese aesthetic. But of note to discerning eyes is the use of exquisite texture everywhere, especially the wallpapers throughout the property. There's one that depicts the "ho-so-ge," a flower rumoured to have been presented to Buddha. These beautifully detailed touches can be seen throughout the hotel and its restaurants and lounges.
Neighbourhood: The hotel is located in the Roppongi District, famed for its vibrant night life and centuries-old attractions. It's definitely a prefecture in transition, where you'll find the latest trends in food, fashion and upscale retail mixed amongst Tokyo's ancient temples and nearby ruins.
Food + drink: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel has three restaurants, one lobby lounge + bar, one café and one exclusive club lounge.
Azure 45 is their Michelin-rated fine-dining venue offering creative, contemporary French cuisine, located on the 45th floor with a view of the Tokyo Tower. Chef Shintaro Miyazaki first rose to acclaim leading the culinary team at Au Gout du Jour in Tokyo where he maintained the restaurant's Michelin-star ranking for seven consecutive years.
Hinokizaka is also on the 45th floor and offers traditional yet contemporary Japanese fare, specialising in the four genres of kaiseki, sushi, tempura and teppanyaki, each showcased in a different aesthetic, all evoking the art of Japanese cuisine. The main kaiseki room is breathtaking with its spectacular cityscape views. The sushi room serves "edomae" style of sushi, fresh raw fish direct from Tsukiji fish market. The tempura room is the most tranquil and intimate space, seating only 10, and is designed after traditional Japanese tearooms. The teppanyaki room is nestled in a private setting where the chef will invite you to choose your meal from the meat showcase in front of you. This restaurant also features an authentic 200-year-old Japanese teahouse originally from Gifu prefecture. It was dismantled piece by piece and carefully reassembled, first as a restaurant in Tokyo, and eventually to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where it's now used for special kaiseki dinners.
Towers is a modern bistro named after the two towers that you can see from this space: the Tokyo Tower and the newer Tokyo Skytree. There is one table in the coveted corner that provides unobstructed views to both towers simultaneously and, not surprisingly, it's reserved well in advance for special occasions, notably engagements nearly every night. This 45th floor bistro focuses on seasonal Japanese ingredients and will often do special themed dinners such as one featuring ingredients from Chef Shingo Hayasaka's home island of Hokkaido. For this dinner, chef included freshly caught Rishiri Island sea urchins, Toya sweet corn and Jinnai Wagyu AKA beef.
Lobby Lounge + Bar contributes greatly to the lobby's overall grand, impressive image. Its expansive floor space invites you to enter and linger over afternoon tea or pre-dinner cocktails.
Café + Deli is located on the first floor in the inner courtyard of the Tokyo Midtown shopping area, specialising in freshly baked pastries, snacks, coffee, wine and more.
The Club Lounge on the 53rd floor is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel's exclusive club for a private lounge experience for those staying on the Club level. It offers four distinctly unique spaces: reception, garden terrace, dining room and library lounge. Overall, this lounge has a luxurious, residential feel. Food and drink are readily available here but, speaking from experience, if you happen come during the very few moments they're in between services, you will still be hand-delivered special treats to your table that uncannily match your preferences. Not to be missed is their harp and chocolate afternoon tea, and their signature lobster breakfast omelette (served only on Saturdays, sadly).
Hotel programs: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel has an incredible collection of programs for guests of all ages, and is constantly working on new ones based on requests. One of the newest programs was actively being refined while I was there: an authentic kimono experience complete with rental and pictures. For many, the kimono symbolises the epitome of Japanese culture and elegance, and wearing one—properly—in Tokyo is a thrill. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel can arrange to have a selection of premium kimonos brought to your room where an assistant will help you get dressed. When done correctly, you need a second pair of hands and it will still take over an hour. Afterwards, one of the hotel's executive cars will take you to Meiji Shrine (the most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo) for photographs. Yes, men wear kimonos as well, albeit shorter, so this is a great program for couples.
A few other programs include one just for kids. The Ritz Kids Night Safari is an in-room camping experience that highlights Japanese culture. Club members should check out "The Weekly Wonders" offerings. These were designed to showcase local arts and crafts, educational and interactive activities for guests to enjoy from the comfort of The Club Lounge. Guests will be able to explore different activities such as origami folding, take tasting, sushi demonstration and wine and craft chocolate tastings.
Highlight—the view: With just under six days in Tokyo, my itinerary was packed but the views at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel are so spectacular I carved out half an hour one evening to just sit on the edge of my massive picture window and watch the sun set. I had already seen incredible panoramas from the Club Lounge and every restaurant on the property, but there's something intimate about being in your own private space to enjoy these quiet moments that make it truly special. Having that kind of a view, 53 storeys high, watching one of the most cosmopolitan, vibrant cities in the world, darken by daylight then brighten again by neon, that's something to cherish.
3. The Peninsula, 1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 100-0006, Japan
The Peninsula Hotel is one of the very few luxury hotels in Tokyo that is free-standing, single-purpose. The lobby is actually on the ground level and as soon as you're ushered in, you enter The Lobby, the Peninsula's all-day restaurant. To arrive in the afternoon during tea service is particularly lovely and welcoming, as you walk down the wide centre aisle towards the registration desk at the back, flanked by gleaming towers of dainty cakes and Kobe beef finger sandwiches.
The hotel is 24 storeys high, so most rooms and suites have a grand view of the Imperial Palace, the city skyline or Hibiya Park. The Peninsula offers 314 spacious guest rooms, including 47 suites, five restaurants, a wedding chapel, a spa and a Japanese ceremony room. Throughout the property, guests will find thoughtfully curated art pieces, numbering close to 1,000, by 85 artists, 90 per cent of them Japanese. Front and centre in the lobby is a bamboo masterpiece by Keisen Hana that pays homage to the hotel's Chinese heritage: a massive, delicately woven depiction of a dragon lying over the universe, symbolising strength, harmony, good luck and protection.
Neighbourhood: The Peninsula Hotel is in the financial district of Marunouchi, on the edge of the shopping capital of Ginza. As soon as you step out of the hotel, you're in the hustle and bustle of a designer stores, six-way crosswalks and a lot of neon lights. You're also within walking distance of the Imperial Palace and Hibiya Park if you prefer a quiet day.
During breakfast one morning, I asked my server if my outfit was appropriate for a local meeting. She said it would be fine for a hotel meeting. So when I clarified to say it was a corporate headquarters meeting, she swiftly but politely said, "No. Go shopping." With Ginza at my feet and under an hour to spare, I quickly hit the shops and triumphantly managed to save face.
A much better way to explore the neighbourhood is with one of the Peninsula's new three-wheeled, three-gear "walking tricycles," dubbed the PenCycle. It's powered by stepping rather than pedaling and is complimentary to registered guests for three-hour sessions. You're about 20 cm off the surface and can get as speedy as 24 km per hour. It comes complete with an iPhone (attached to handlebars) to help you navigate your way through Marunouchi and Ginza. Don't worry: if you get tired of stepping, the PenCycles are power-assisted with electric motors that run on battery that can help with a little push or a lot of oomph. And, of course, these customised PenCycles are finished in Peninsula Green to match the hotel's stable of Rolls-Royces, BMWs, MINI Coopers and Teslas.
Food + drink: The Peninsula Hotel has four restaurants and a café.
The Lobby is a signature restaurant of all Peninsula hotels. This is where you'll get your breakfast and casual meals on-site. They're specialty is the Peninsula Afternoon Tea, served to live music.
Hei Fung Terrace is on the second floor and offers authentic Cantonese cuisine set in Suzhou garden theme, perfectly matching its view of the Imperial Palace Gardens.
Peter is a contemporary, Western-style restaurant located on the 24th floor and specialises in prime-cut meats, seafood and comfort-food side dishes. The views are breathtaking here, with 180-degree panoramas of Tokyo and the Imperial Palace Gardens.
Kyoto Tsuruya, is a kaiseki restaurant located on basement level one. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner that adheres to a strict culinary art form that balances taste, texture, appearance, and colours. Only fresh seasonal ingredients are used, and all dishes are meticulously presented on fine Japanese lacquer and ceramic ware that are paired to enhance the appearance of the food and reflect the seasons.
The Peninsula Boutique & Café is also located on basement level one with direct access to the Hibiya train station. This is the place to quickly grab something on the go.
Hotel programs: In addition to special edition program like the Pokémon Power of Ten, the Peninsula has a regular roster of "Academy" programs offered to guests. These have been exclusively designed or provide guests with unprecedented access to historical, cultural and local lifestyle experiences. There are programs for both adults and children and include options such as, The Fun of Faux Food: Hands-on Plastic and Wax Modeling, Washi Paper Art Experience, Sake Brewery Tour, and Fold Your Way to Fun: Origami for Kids.
Highlight—the bathtub: Bathing in Japan is an art form and they take their bathtubs seriously. The bathtub at the Peninsula, like in most other luxury hotels, is grand, deep and located very near the shower (but always separate). As per Japanese tradition, I took my shower first, scrubbed and bubbled, then slipped into my prepared bath, clean. And with a single press of a button on a panel next to the bathtub, the bright lights suddenly dimmed, soft music flooded the room and I was instantly transported into a spa. Now this is how you do a bathroom.