Feb 20, 2018
The longer you are in Japan, the more you feel the need to indulge in a little something reminiscent of home. When all the major temples have been ticked off the bucket list, with a gazillion photos to prove it, it is nice to experience some of the lesser known locations. As an expat it is even nicer to find a first-class tourist location that has the “Only in Japan” offering, but with a healthy dollop of a taste of home. Add to that a side of Ghibli association and you’ve got the perfect treat for the medium to long term expat in Japan.
Gajoen is one such location like that for me. It is the most opulent and luxurious hotel I have ever had the pleasure of stepping foot in. Although its history is relatively short, it is as rich as the four (plus!) walls that house it. It was initially opened as a luxurious restaurant in 1928. I can see why it was nicknamed as the Palace of the Dragon God by its regular patrons and locals alike during the Showa Period. It is both a tourist attraction and a retreat offering fine Western dining in metropolis Meguro. Furthermore, it is home to one of the most impressive Cultural Properties of Tokyo that I have had the pleasure of visiting in recent years.
Amazingly, I didn’t hear of Gajoen until my seventeenth year in Japan. Approaching the hotel I still had no idea what was in store for me. The front of the hotel reveals little of the marvels held within. It looks like most other 5 star hotels, but when you walk into the foyer and swing right the majesty waves over you with irrefutable authority. You are instantly stunned by the contrast of modern and traditional architecture. Intricately carved wall friezes of Japanese women in archetypal kimono brace the right hand side walls, on the left is floor to ceiling windows revealing the lavish gardens and water features outside. Soon you encounter one of many focal features of the hotel: the marble floored bridge with red posts over water with illuminated cherry blossoms, back dropped by a magnificent entrance way marking the start of the public facilities of the hotel.
It is in this area that Kanade Terrace and Café Lounge Pandora are, and where as a Westerner you can get your taste of home. I have had the pleasure of dining in both eateries and enjoying food and drinks from home. Kanade Terrace offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for ninety minutes in a modern chic dining hall. The majority of the food on offer is Western. Café Lounge Pandora is a contemporary tea room with a stunning view of one of the hotel’s verdant gardens complete with waterfall. They offer a wide variety of tea as well as some coffee. You can indulge in a more Western tradition of Afternoon Tea here too. Both these restaurants are more Western than Japanese. Kanade Terrace accepts reservations and it is best to book in advance. Café Lounge Pandora on the other hand does not take bookings in advance and that is why you will see the queues outside on a weekend. Both these locations are featured in the review section of city-cost.
Throughout the hotel there are surprises of grandiose art and architecture. Just one example is the red moon bridge in the women’s toilets beside Kanade Terrace. It is however the Hyakudan, that will really overwhelm and awe even the most jaded of expats. Hyakudan is a Registered Tangible Cultural Property. It is the only remaining complete part and wooden structure of the original restaurant. It survived World War II, because they had the foresight and ingenious to turn the building into a hospital during the period. It is a staircase of 100 steps with seven rooms tiered off it. It is widely believed to be the inspiration for the bath house, Aburaya, in Ghibli’s "Spirited Away". The rooms have the most extraordinarily beautiful and elaborate ceilings and wood carvings. There is an undeniable resemblance between the roof in Aburaya and Hyakudan.
I never thought my fanciful desire to be transported to the world of "Spirited Away" could ever be realized but approaching the Hyakudan of Hotel Gajoen I knew I had attained the inconceivable. The rooms can only be seen at certain times of the years, usually when they are hosting an event, or if you book and pay for a guided tour. Depending under what premise you are visiting Hyakudan will influence whether you can take photos of the epic interior. On my recent visit I was attending the Hina doll display event. During this time there are only two rooms where you can take photos and unfortunately they were the least intricate or ornate of all the rooms. The current event runs until the 11th of March, then there is just over a two week hiatus before you can enter the cultural property again. The next exhibition is a Lucky Cats display from the 29th of March to May 13th.
Hotel Gajoen Meguro is a must see for anyone interested in architecture and / or wood carvings and art. It is also worth a visit for a great dining experience in comfort and style. I would advise timing it for when the Hyakudan is open to the public, or even organize a tour, especially if you are a Ghibli fan. While the hotel in itself is remarkable, and the Western food a treat, it is really the cultural property that will leave an indelible impression with its magnificent and exquisite carved pillars and ceilings. All in all a visit to Hotel Gajoen Meguro is unlikely to disappoint and you may even be spirited away to the time and realm of the Palace of the Dragon God!
Level 8 LocalGuide with Google. Blogging about life in Japan as an Irish WAHM to 4 kids on insaitama.com.