My apologies in advance for going on at length, but I've just returned from the latest of many stays at the Okura over the past fifteen years, and would like to do the place justice - as well as give those unfamiliar with Tokyo hotels a better sense of what makes the Okura unique, for better or worse.
Not so many years ago, Tokyo's high-end hotels were dominated by the Okura and a handful of other stalwarts. Over the past decade, however, falling land prices and increasing competition have led to an influx of international chains, most of which have established beachheads in the city. Although the Okura remains an excellent hotel, for many it has been eclipsed by the Park Hyatt, Mandarin Oriental, and others of that ilk. Fortunately, compared with the 90s, competition has made the Okura's room rates are more reasonable, and the likelihood of not getting a room on short notice has decreased.
The Okura can be a polarizing place, and seems to elicit love/hate reactions. Some Japanese friends find it stuffy, overly formal, and faintly absurd in its nods to traditional Japanese design and service. Other foreign visitors have told me they think the place is dated. On the other hand, the Okura's partisans - and I'm definitely in that camp - appreciate the quiet, subtle comfort and attention to detail that always seem to come with a stay there.
Is the Okura for you? The main building went up in 1962, in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the hotel's design, especially the main lobby, is a paragon of that era's aesthetic. If you're interested in mid-century design, then you'll likely appreciate the lobby, the "patchwork" Japanese fabric panels in some of the public areas, the stained glass in the Orchid Bar, etc. Few hotels boast their own museum, but the Okura's mounts a regular series of diverting exhibitions, usually devoted to traditional Japanese culture. Note that the design of the rooms themselves is perfectly fine, but a bit bland and unexceptional. If you prefer a contemporary, international look, then the Okura probably isn't the best choice.
The Okura's service is unfailingly smooth and discreet. A local friend once borrowed something from me, and then dropped it off at the hotel after I'd checked out - the Okura was happy to hold it for me until my next visit, a year later. I've stayed at the Okura for both business and pleasure, and there's a reassuring sense of consistency in the well-oiled, unobtrusive service. Check-in and check-out is always fast and efficient, the hectic breakfast period at the restaurants is usually well-choregraphed, and staff always greet guests with a gentle smile. I know now that one doesn't tip in Japan, a lesson reinforced when on an early stay, the bell boy politely returned the money I tried to give him. Even by Japanese standards, however, there is a slight sense of "this is the way we do things at the Okura", with a presumption that the guest may want to conform. I once watched an agitated foreign businessman try to convince a member of the hotel staff to serve drinks at one of the lobby's tables. It just isn't done at the Okura. As a compromise, an attendant finally delivered a glass of water.
The rooms themselves are of a fairly generous size for Tokyo, with room for a chair and a small desk. The recently-upgraded bathrooms have big showers and a separate tub. Even in the age of smartphones, it's still occasionally preferable to use an actual computer. On the negative side, however, the Okura's business center closes early in the evening during the week, and is shut down entirely on the weekend. Fifteen minutes at a terminal costs 400 yen, or about USD 4 - a little jarring when similar hotels are increasingly offering free service.
The Okura is in the quiet little Toranomon neighborhood, which may seem isolated but is in fact quite convenient. No, Tokyo's urban excitement will not swirl around you as you step out of the lobby. The Okura is about a 15-minute walk to the lively nightlife and entertainment districts of Akasaka and Roppongi, however, and is also within easy striking distance to government offices in Kasumigaseki. The Toronamon subway station is about a 10-minute walk from the hotel, and from there you're less than half an hour to Omotesando or Shibuya.
In an increasingly globalized world, I appreciate the Okura for providing such an ineffable sense of place. The hotel seems to have captured many of the best aspects of traditional Japanese hospitality and burnished them for everyone to enjoy. The Okura isn't the newest, slickest, or most luxurious hotel in Tokyo, but it has to be one of the most distinctive. Despite the appearance of so many other appealing hotels in Tokyo, I still haven't been tempted to stay anywhere else.