Hotel Okura Tokyo, Japan

Pic: Takuya Watanabe

Established in 1962, Hotel Okura Tokyo has become a landmark destination for both Japanese and international VIP visitors for nearly 60 years.

The hotel of the main building closed for redevelopment in 2015, led by architect Yoshio Taniguchi, son of the hotel’s original architect, Yoshiro Taniguchi, reopening in September 2019.

Although the publicly disclosed architectural drawings for the reconstruction outlined a modern design, including a 41-storey office tower – the Okura Prestige Tower, and a 17-storey Okura Heritage Wing, the interior design is a true replica of the original Okura lobby, with the addition of a new entrance lobby, salon, restaurant and banquet hall.

Lighting Planners Associates (LPA), designed the lighting for the hotel, instilling the essence of the original Okura hotel, while incorporating modern technology into the new lighting environment. The concept for the lighting design, according to LPA Director Kentaro Tanaka, was a “fusion of ultimate Japanese style and modern comforts”.

“The ‘ultimate Japanese style’ was to reproduce the soft gradation of the diffused light that enters through the Shoji and Washi paper, which is different from the Western lighting environment,” Tanaka explained.

“On the other hand, ‘modern comfort’ is the adoption of energy-saving LED light sources and the reproduction of illuminance levels that match the living environment of modern people.

“Since the current surrounding environment is different from when it was founded 58 years ago, this transformation and fusion was essential. In particular, with regard to the illuminance level, the illuminance was set to be about seven times as high as it was when the hotel was founded. For example, in the lobby at the time of foundation, levels were at 10-20 lux on average. Now, it’s between 70-140 lux.”

Although the new lighting design raises the illuminance levels within the hotel, Tanaka added that it was important to create a unique balance when it came to brightness. “Without creating a strong contrast of light and shadow in the space, which we often see at modern hotels, we carried out the design with the goal of shifting the lighting environment with a soft tone.”

As such, LED light sources, a dimming system and projector-type LED spotlights were specified to recreate the softly diffused light used in the original wing, while the better-suited lux levels add to the desired gentle balance of light and shadow that was absent in the hotel’s original lighting scheme.

The Okura lobby, on the main entrance floor of the Okura Prestige Tower, was one of the areas that was replicated from the hotel’s original interior design. This recreation extended to its very distinctive Okura lanterns – hanging pendants that wrap the space in a softly diffused light. In its lighting design, LPA was able to retrofit these fixtures with LED sources, recreating their unique lighting effect in the process.

“There were a lot of decorative lighting fixtures that were inherited from the previous building that we reused,” Tanaka continued. “The challenge was to reproduce the lighting effects of those fixtures with modern LED light sources. For that reason, we made many prototypes to make sure that the LED light sources matched. In particular, the LED source had a slightly different colour temperature, depending on the manufacturer, so we selected a number of sources while experimenting.

“The decorative fixtures inherited from the former building were all made in 1962, so the methods of mounting components and measures to prevent falling away were very simple. These problems were rigorously verified and overcome through our system of prototype production.”

However, replicating the original lit effect with new LED sources wasn’t as easy as first thought. Tanaka explained: “LED light sources were adapted in all areas to save energy. But since the LED light source is basically a point light source diffuser covers were essential in order to create a diffused and soft light environment.

“At the time, as with the individual differences of the LED light sources, there were differences in colour temperature that occurred due to the individual differences in the various diffuse covers. So we adjusted these differences with the LED light sources. This checking work was carried out at the same time as checking the prototype fixture design.”

The lighting plan also includes ceiling-embedded downlights with hexagonal lampshades from Yamada Shomei Lighting that complement the hanging pendants, while providing adequate levels of brightness at floor level. By complementing the larger hanging pendants with these smaller downlights, Tanaka feels that LPA has created a subtle yet beautiful lighting effect, providing glare-free and comfortable illumination that makes the light a background element, rather than a key focal point.

“It was important to organise the roles of the decorative lighting fixtures and the modern architectural lighting in order to blend the two together. By organising the main roles and supporting roles in the space, it becomes a light environment that provides guests with a comfortable atmosphere,” he said.

“Previously, there was little difference in illuminance balance, so it was easy to focus only on the shape of the decorative lighting. Now, the decorative lighting is still the main feature, but an open lighting environment is realised, so guests can feel the lit environment as a whole.”

As part of the wider restoration of the hotel, the architects sought to change the layout of the former building, particularly in the lobby, where they wanted to open it out and create a much more inviting space for guests. “In the former building, there was a lounge immediately after entering the lobby, but in the new layout, there is a space to welcome guests with a gold folding screen, beautiful plants and the Okura lanterns in front of the entrance, with check-in counters on the left and the lounge now on the right,” Tanaka continued.

“We had meetings repeatedly, and experimented with the architect to decide how to present the gold folding screen and planting, as well as the Okura lanterns in the welcoming zone in front of the entrance.”

Here, LPA decided with the architect to create a hierarchy of light, arranging the lighting environment to first show the Okura lanterns, before the planting, and finally the gold folding screen is revealed to guests.

Elsewhere, the architects decided to relocate one of the hotel’s original murals to the Heritage Wing lobby. Originally displayed in the Heian Banquet Room of the former building, the Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry mural now greets guests in a space more in tune with a gallery than a hotel lobby. LED projector spotlights, embedded in the wall opposite the mural, softly illuminate each rectangular panel of the art piece.

The Heritage Wing lobby uses daylight, filtered through a Japanese motif screen, throughout the day, filling the space with a natural, diffuse light. This is complemented after dark by LPA’s artificial lighting design. Stairs leading up to the Yamazato Japanese restaurant are delicately illuminated from behind the screen, and from adjustable downlights in the ceiling. This illumination is offset by a grand hanging chandelier, adding to the luxurious, gallery-esque ambience that the designers sought.

Throughout its portfolio, LPA has a rich history of working on hotel projects, from ultra-modern locations to more historic, heritage buildings. The Okura Tokyo merges the two as a celebration of both old and new. Tanaka added that, from a logistical perspective, the Okura also stood out as unique amongst other hotels that LPA has worked on.

“In a normal hotel project, the owner and the operator are different companies, so there are many differences in opinion and blurring in the design decisions,” he said. “But this time, because the owner and operator are the same, it was possible to make decisions efficiently without any blurring.”

The seamless nature of the decision-making process was evidently of benefit to the hotel, as its newly-renovated interior perfectly encapsulates the ambiance of the original 1960s design, while adding a modern touch that brings it firmly into the 21st century.

And for Tanaka, the opportunity to work on such a prestigious landmark within Tokyo was a notable highlight. “It is a great honour for me to be involved in the lighting design of The Okura Tokyo, and to get a first-hand look at the history and changes of Okura.

“Through lighting, we were able to bring back the history of the old building, which opened 58 years ago, to the present day. As a result we realised again that the impression of light that guests expect from a hotel is a very large and important factor.

“Lighting is a very important characteristic in The Okura Tokyo,” he said. Thanks to the work of LPA, it’s a characteristic that shines brightly.