By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
Looking around the main lobby of the Peninsula Hotel Tokyo, one sees refinement personified. Well-dressed locals and hotel guests sip afternoon tea as a combo on the lobby balcony plays soft, relaxing music. At the revolving front door, a smartly dressed greeter in a snug white uniform and white pillbox hats meets new arrivals.
It’s hard to imagine that not quite two years ago, the elegant lobby of this luxury hotel in central Tokyo was jammed with several hundred people sleeping on chairs, on the floor, propped up against the walls, sipping bottles of water and nibbling mini-bites supplied by the hotel. Some were guests; most were locals, suddenly grounded.
This was the immediate aftermath of the terrible trifecta that hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011: earthquake, Fukushima nuclear accident and tsunami.
“There was no pushing or shoving” in the hotel lobby,” the Peninsula’s general manager, Malcolm Thompson, tells me over morning coffee on my recent visit. “The Japanese don’t do that. Everyone was calm. But the trains weren’t running and people who work in the area couldn’t get home. So, we opened up the lobby to them.” Free of charge, of course.
According to Thompson, a British-born, globe-trotting hotelier who has worked in Japan for 13 years, this was a validation – in an unexpected way – of parent company Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd.’s decision to operate from street level in a purpose-built hotel building rather than seal it off on the upper floors of a high-rise.
“We were the first street-level, purpose-built Tokyo hotel in a decade,” Thompson says, referring to the Peninsula’s opening in September 2007.
The result, as I discovered anew on my two-night stay in mid-January, is a hotel with a vivid ebb-and-flow, open to the posh surrounds of the Marunouchi district and the nearby Ginza while simultaneously maintaining a relaxed, up-market, almost serene quality indoors. Here is movement without chaos.
My recent stay was my third time at the Peninsula Tokyo, a spawn of the world-renowned 1928 Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Sometimes it’s disappointing to return to a property one has liked a lot in the past. “They’ve lost a step,” is a thought I’ve had on some return visits to once-admired hotels.
Not here. This 24-level hotel – with its 314 rooms and 45 suites, stylish, top-floor restaurant-cum-bar Peter, sybaritic, on-site Espy spa and health club and pool – is still hitting its marks.
The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo shares with other world-class properties a high staff-to-guest ratio, permitting the hotel to pamper guests with a wide range of services. The staff is impeccably dressed and smoothly multilingual. They are attentive without being intrusive, and keenly anticipatory.
Sophisticated in-room technology is becoming a given at 5-star hotels and resorts. Even so, Peninsula meets and often exceeds the gold standard.
It was, I believe, at the Park Hyatt Tokyo back in the mid-1990s that I first encountered a heated toilet seat in a hotel bathroom. But it was at the Peninsula Tokyo, in 2008, that I first encountered a toilet lid that automatically rises whenever a guest enters the opaque glass cubicle. The first time this happened, punchy from jet lag, I thought I was hallucinating. But, no; this is part of the program.
Elsewhere in the bathroom is a deep bathtub situated next to an artfully rough stone wall and a glass-enclosed shower with both a hand-held shower head and overhead rain shower. Two washbasins and two faucets adorn a long counter with ample mirrors and a built-in video screen.
In the guest bedroom is a fairly small but wired-to-the-max desk for working. A flat-screen TV behind a sliding wooden door comes with a DVD player, on-demand movies, radio (a staggering 3,000 Internet stations) and broadcast, cable and satellite TV in a variety of languages.
Directly in front of the TV is a comfortable couch. On a low table in front of the couch, I was greeted by a bottle of good red wine: 2008 Sainte-Estephe. The room comes complete its own humidity control button.
From my room on the 19th floor, I looked out at Hibiya Park and the tree-studded grounds of the Imperial Palace, where Japan’s emperor and royal family live elegant, secluded lives. Included in the view from a small table graced with fresh fruit was the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, high stone walls and the green rooftops of the royal buildings.
In the middle distance, glimpsed between a curtain of sleek high-rises, I saw Tokyo Skytree, the 634-meter high (2,081 feet) broadcasting tower and observation deck that opened in May 2012 and is very much the new Tokyo must-see.
Space is itself a luxury in ultra-crowded Tokyo. My expansive deluxe park view king room (70,000 yen or US$770 per night including a sumptuous breakfast) came with a walk-in closet nearly as large as some city apartments.
The hotel’s main lobby, with its balcony perch for musicians – they play easy listening in the daytime, jazzy standards for cocktails at night – has ample space and good natural light.
On the ground level, and one level down, are glittering shops. One level down is a three-PC, three-printer business center (which is, happily, free of charge), and the Peninsula’s proprietary bakery and cafe, where the hotel makes sweets, cakes and sandwiches.
It has been a tough couple years of for the Japanese travel market, and the Peninsula was not spared, according to general manager Thompson.
However, he says, business has recovered to 2010 levels – a strong year – and trade is brisk from corporate travelers, who comprise 65 per cent of the hotel’s guests, and well-heeled leisure travelers; most are Japanese, who check-in to relax in the spa, go shopping on- and off-property or attend one of the Peninsula’s posh weddings.
The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo is located at 1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 100-0006, Japan. To book or for more information, call +81 3 6270 2888 or visit www.peninsula.com. Rooms start at 60,000 yen ($660) per night.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.