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Saturday, 23 June 2007

Luxury isn't Lost in Translation in Tokyo

Written by Scott Haas
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Tokyo has more luxury hotels than any city I’ve ever been in—and not just landmark properties like the Plaza Athenee in Paris or the St. Regis in New York, which are like rich, dependable aunts who take you in and help you forget that you’re in the middle of hubbub.  No, what Tokyo has are ultra-modern hotels with lunar colony-like architecture that tower over the city and appear to have been cut out of anime comic books and pasted into the skyline.  They are more like rich cousins in fast cars that drive too fast, but provide an exhilarating ride.


Park Hyatt TokyoPark Hyatt Tokyo, made famous in Lost in Translation, is the epitome of cool with its Batman towers, relaxed Napa-valley style service, and gentle interiors overlooking the thrilling chaos of the Shinjuku neighborhood.  And then there are the Mandarin Oriental with its sexy lounges and proximity to the palace; the Conrad with an eagle’s view of the harbor; and the spanking-new Ritz. Ritz


I don’t know how these properties can fill rooms, as the competition is fierce for yen, dollars, Euro, and yuan.  In early September, a new Peninsula is going to add to the race. 


I interviewed Stefan Moerth, the executive chef at Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Ricco DeBlank, General Manager at the Ritz, to see what they do to keep their properties at the top.





INTRAVEL: Where were you before coming here?


STEFAN MOERTH: Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Majorca, among other places.  I’m from Austria originally.


INTRAVEL: The most financially successful chef in America is Austrian: Wolfgang Puck.  He has a few menu items from home on his menu at Spago in Beverly Hills.  How about you?


SM: I have Linzer and Sacher torte, but in terms of entrees, that would only be at banquets if requested.


INTRAVEL: What are some things that surprised you about Japan?


SM: The variety of fish at the Tsukiji market, the freshness and quality.  The work ethic is another thing: People here are extremely proud of what they are doing, no short cuts.  The sincerity is also very impressive.  And then there’s the strict hierarchy in a professional Japanese kitchen. Park Hyatt Tokyo


INTRAVEL: How do your Japanese customers differ from those in Europe or other parts of Asia where you have worked?


SM: The Japanese customer trusts completely in the restaurant, the chef, and the menu—if it has a solid reputation.  They ask a lot of good questions and they are extremely knowledgeable about ingredients and preparation.  And if you don’t deliver, they don’t come back.


INTRAVEL: What are some ingredients you discovered in Japan that you love?


SM:  The strawberries are unbelievable.  So are the koichi tomatoes, the matsutake mushrooms, the herbs, the salads, and, as I’ve said, the fish.  I even had my mother take some seeds back home to Austria.  She recently wrote me to say: “This salad from the greens is fantastic!”


INTRAVEL: How is cooking different here?


SM:  The simplicity of presenting dishes here places the products in the foreground.  You’ll have two or three first-rate ingredients instead of twenty.  There is no compromise on the product.  


INTRAVEL: When your family came to visit from Austria, what really took them by surprise?Park Hyatt Tokyo


SM: My brother and father were struck by the politeness of the Japanese.  And also by the way they make service so first-rate.  And of course the uniforms, whether it is someone working in a supermarket or at a hairdresser’s.    Everybody has a uniform.




INTRAVEL: When did the hotel open?


RICCO DeBLANK: On March 30th at 9 AM.  This used to be where the Department of Defense Ministry was, but then Mitsui Real Estate bought it and the department was relocated.


INTRAVEL: You’re Dutch, but you’re in charge of a Japanese hotel.  How did that happen?


RD: I was at the Ritz-Carleton in Osaka for three years and have some knowledge of the country and language. Ritz


INTRAVEL: Who comes here and why?


RD: I’d say that Japanese are our #1 customer—they like the Ritz brand—but we also have international, high-end travelers.  And we’re hosting celebrities and doing movie premieres.  We had the Spiderman 3 opening here, for example.


INTRAVEL: What effect has the property had on the Rappongi neighborhood with its funky shops and clubs?


RD: A number of the so-called hostess bars have closed.  Things are getting more upscale.


INTRAVEL: Who are your regular clientele at this early point?


RD: We have ladies coming in for breakfast and the spa.  And in the evening, we have a leisure-seeking crowd that enjoys our restaurants.


INTRAVEL: Tell me about the spa.Ritz Spa


RD:  We have about 200 members outside of hotel guests.  We charge a flat fee of $60,000 for a 10-year membership and have an annual $5000 fee.


INTRAVEL: What was the reaction of locals when you opened such an exclusive place?


RD: The construction went on for about four or five years and some people said things like, “it’s a big monster of a hotel,” but since we opened I’ve gone door to door greeting people, inviting them in for tea and so on.  Things are very positive.


INTRAVEL: Do you have many tourists here for conventions or pleasure rather than to do business?


RD: I don’t know if the Japanese want tourism the way, say, that the Chinese do, but the government is spending money to develop an infrastructure.  It is remarkable, however, that last year in Tokyo there were only five citywide conventions compared to Chicago where there were two hundred and fifty.


INTRAVEL: What is unique about running a hotel in Japan?  You’ve worked around the world.  What do you have to do here that’s different?


RD: I needed to have patience—meetings can last days, decisions can take months.


INTRAVEL:  Why is that do you suppose?


RD: The Japanese want to minimize risk.  A decision needs to reflect precision rather than defect.  No one should feel as if he or she has lost face or respect because their idea wasn’t followed.


© Scott Haas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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