On a recent trip to Nagano for a site meeting for our latest hotel project in the Japanese Alps, I decided to detour and stop for a night in Tokyo to check out the new hotel offering from the Aman group. In theory, the marriage of a Japanese Zen aesthetic and the legendary Aman, understated elegance would be a match made in design heaven so my expectations were high. And it was with eager anticipation that I began my journey into Tokyo.
After an early morning start and a 6 hour flight, I took the Narita Express into Tokyo station. By this point, I was tired and looking forward to some good old-fashioned five star pampering. I arrived at the station at the end of the workday to the mayhem that is the world’s busiest train terminals.
So where to go?
I approached the information board to check which of the plethora of exits would take me to the Aman and scanned the list of nearby hotels. But where was the listing for the Aman? The hotel had opened in March but, as of yet, had failed to update the Information Directory. So after some fussing and poor attempts in my pigeon Japanese, I found a sweet Japanese lady who was able to direct me to my destination. At last, I was on my way. Wheeling my suitcase behind me, I made my way to the Marunuchi North Exit, and as I left the station, the Marunuchi hotel was right in front of me. I was getting tired now and this chic Tokyo hotel, just ahead, was looking quite appealing. But onwards, the Aman was, supposedly, only another 500m further on and I was sure that the legendary sanctuary of the Aman would regenerate me soon.
I plodded on, but where was the hotel? All I could see was a forest of high-rise office towers with no Aman-oasis in sight. After seeking the help of a few kind passersby, I entered the Otemachi Tower. The Aman was meant to be here. As a frequent visitor to Japan, I am used to Tokyo hotels being set within office buildings.
The Aman group, are not known for glitz and glamour, so I was not expecting a grand entrance. However, every great hotel should have some sense of arrival, even more so when the hotel is blended within an office tower. In the design world, first impressions count, understated or not. This entrance should welcome the traveler in from the frenzy of city life. It should represent the promise of the sanctuary within. Yet this entrance was so discreet, it was insignificant! I couldn’t find it!
Eventually, I was rescued by a kindly Aman doorman. The Aman hotels are renowned for their service and the Tokyo Aman is no exception. The staff were attentive, perhaps to the point of sycophancy but after my long journey, a touch of obsequiousness was no bad thing. I had had a long day and was looking forward to some serious pampering, Aman style… The bowing and the smiles were welcome. I took the warm towel and welcome drink with appreciation. I had reached the Aman oasis: let the indulgence begin! But as the lift opened to the lobby level, I was hit by a boulder of disappointment. There was no sense of Aman harmony in this monolithic hall. The dark grey clad granite walls may have been cool and calming in a South East Asian resort, softened by lush tropical green vegetation. But here, in downtown Tokyo, they did nothing to moderate the architecture of what was basically a corporate tower.
This lobby was undoubtedly striking, but in a hard, oppressive way. There was certainly a commanding grandeur in the soaring ceilings, but there was no warmth to the design. There was a pervading sense of strength but it was intimidating rather than reassuring. It was not welcoming or inviting in any way. The word “Aman” means peace and over the years, the Aman group has developed a fan base of travelers (this designer included), loyal admirers of the unique blend of tranquility, harmony and local aesthetic that Aman design team successfully capture in each property. But this time, I didn’t feel an Aman sense of peace wash over me as I entered the space. Instead, it felt as if armed guards would appear from behind the imposing columns to march me to my chambers. The design was cold and confused, with elements of South East Asia, blended with feeble attempts to capture a Japanese aesthetic. If this interior could be trans-placed into Ankor Wat, I would be cooing and ahhing with delight. But here, amidst the urban sprawl that is Tokyo and on top of a high-rise office tower, the design simply didn’t work. How utterly disappointing!
The Aman designers, famous for creating some of the world’s most tranquil retreats, had failed to create an oasis of calm in the midst of the world’s most populous city. The best Japanese interiors have an understated luxury to them which invokes a sense of calm, the Japanese call it Seijaku. Well there was lots of understatement here, but I could not find the luxury. In their attempt to achieve a Zen simplicity, the Aman design team, had opted for simple furniture forms. But the grey polyester upholstery and light wood framing resembled something that would fit right into a Muji furniture catalogue.
This spartan seating was set against monolithic architectural details, and interspersed with a few large rocks-that were supposedly meant to inject some organic element into the space. The result was cold and hard rather than tranquil and harmonious. An Aman failure, I am afraid…
But once I had escaped the lobby and the hotel corridors, the rooms themselves were lovely. Expansive, not just by Tokyo standards, these were thoughtfully designed with a harmonious blend of Kyoto ryokan style and contemporary urban calm. The attention to detail, that I expect from the Aman group was evident in spades along with the softest hotel bathrobe I have ever tried. This room was no less than I had hoped for. The dark grey granite, that I had found so ominous in the lobby, was softened by light warm oak cladding and the textures of shoji and tatami. Aman redemption!
So the final verdict, I enjoyed my stay, but would I return? My favourite hotel in Tokyo remains the Mandarin Oriental. Few hotels can compete with the view of Mount Fuji from the lobby and if I do find myself at the Marunouchi North exit of Tokyo station, I would stop at the Maranuch.