Special FeatureWelcome to the Land of Hospitality
"I want my shirts laundered like they do at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo," says the hero in Johnny Mnemonic, an American movie starring Keanu Reeves and Japanese film star Kitano Takeshi. "At the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo" was apparently an ad lib by a mud-spattered Reeves, who in real life is said to be fond of staying at the Imperial.
I will never forget another fan of the hotel laundry, an old gentleman I met who lived in New York but came once or twice a year to Japan and stayed at the Imperial. He always brought a huge pile of shirts, and right after checking in he would send them to the laundry.
In the 1910s the hotel asked the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new building, and this increased its fame. I became acquainted with the old gentleman, a relative of the hotel manager at the time, when I was researching the "Wright Imperial." The old man has since died but what he said remains in my memory more than anything I remember about Wright: "Why do I bring my shirts to be cleaned at the Imperial? Because New York doesn't have a decent laundry!"
And I will never forget what the laundry manager told me with a broad grin: "When the old gentleman checked in, we'd move to red alert, because we knew a big mound of dirty shirts was coming our way. At first he'd send some of them back to us to wash again, but we finally figured out how to give him complete satisfaction."
This story of the finicky old perfectionist and the hotel staff with the latest laundry techniques sums up the Imperial Hotel's approach to hospitality. And it helps explain why the Imperial was on the tip of Keanu Reeves' tongue.
Japanese inns (ryokan) are a unique and very pleasant place to stay, and it is easy to assume that the hospitality offered by hotels in Japan evolved from the ryokan style of welcome. But actually, my laundry anecdote illustrates that a hotel's trump card is its dedicated staff working behind the scenes.
Deep inside the hotel is its own factory-like laundry doing painstaking work, while in another part is the repair section, ready with carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers and even welders to fix hotel facilities and furniture on the spot. It has often been said that one of the best things about Japan is the ability of its people to get things fixed fast, and the Imperial Hotel is a case in point.
The Imperial belongs to an organization called The Leading Hotels of the World, and with its more than 1,000 guest rooms its size is unusually large for the group. Today one tends to expect a luxury hotel to be on the small side, but actually it is the Imperial's size that gives it an advantage over smaller hotels, and continues to place it among Japan's best.
The hotel's current corporate president, Kobayashi Tetsuya, thinks of his staff as an orchestra. The hotel's laundry and repair sections are just two parts of an ensemble ready behind the scenes for every occasion. A major symphony requires an instrument called a triangle that has just one note, but the player is always ready, waiting to play that little "ching!" The Imperial Hotel staff offers its guests a grand symphony.