Once nicknamed Ryugujo (竜郡城) or the Palace of the Dragon King of the Sea, Hotel Gajoen Tokyo (ホテル雅叙園) is a lavish hotel complex in Meguro, Tokyo. It is composed of fancy banquet halls, guest rooms, an array of restaurants with international cuisine, a chapel, a shrine, a garden, and an artificial waterfall. Nowadays it is also used for business conferences or for anyone interested in an opulent Tokyo experience. It's almost an art museum, with the entrance hall lined with the latest temporary exhibit, permanent high-relief sculptures of Edo Era women, and paintings on the ceilings.
A SHORT HISTORY OF GAJOEN
Gajoen was built by Rikizo Hosokawa in 1928 and opened in 1931 as a restaurant. This was not long after the Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Japan in 1923. My great-grandma fled from the disaster with her one year-old daughter, my grandmother, on her back. My grandma would later work as a staff member at Gajoen. In poverty-stricken post-disaster Japan Hosokawa wanted Gajoen to be an oasis of opulence for those who could afford it.
In 1988 the old Gajoen was demolished due to flood control construction on the nearby Meguro River, and in 2006 it was re-designed to its current state as a modern skyscraper. Although it was vastly remodeled, the old, famous 100 Step Staircase (百段階段) was preserved, and it attracts many tourists during the short period it is open to the public. I found, though, that the staircase actually has only 99 steps, for a few reasons.
For one, in Japan odd numbers are lucky, and for another, the lack of completion in the number 99 signifies an open future. Also, when a Japanese person turns 99 they celebrate their special white birthday, because 100 is written (百), composed of the character for 1 (ー) and white (白), which is called hakuju and is considered special.
On each step is an unique kokeshi doll.
A TRUE STORY
On my visit in July, my group and I were awed by the 100 Step Staircase, and the seven rooms flanking it. Standing at the foot of the stairs looking up, I was also moved, knowing that when she was 17 or 18, my Japanese grandma bustled up and down this very staircase. As an employee, she wore a kimono and carried up trays of food and drink for guests. My grandma tells me she interviewed for the vied position at the prestigious Gajoen Hotel and was among less than twenty women out of hundreds who had applied. It was at Gajoen that she received her education in calligraphy, flower arranging, tea ceremony. With such accomplishments, Gajoen gained a reputation as the perfect place for an eligible bachelor to search for his bride! During her time, the hotel kept live monkeys and a peacock. The peacock would give a wake up call in the morning, saying "Ne-yo! Ne-yo!" which, ironically, sounds like the Japanese for "Go to bed! Go to bed!"
There are no longer live animals at the hotel, but on your next visit, be sure to ask to see the lacquer guest elevators. Although they are off-limits unless you are staying the night, if it isn't too busy the elevator man is obliging. Both outside and inside are fabulous mother of pearl work peacocks with their feathers spread dramatically.
100 STEP STAIRCASE
During viewing season, the 100 Step Staircase hosts many exhibits in the seven rooms off the landings. The current one, "Wa no Akari" (和のあかり), cleverly blends the modern with the traditional. Each room holds an unique collection of artwork and has a different vibe.
The first room you come to is Jippo no Ma (十畝の間). Here, you'll find a small display of one-figure roof tiles and backlit calligraphy works. Notice the lacquer paneling near your feet.
In Gyoshō no Ma (漁樵の間) the large-sized dramatic light sculptures, featured on the Wa no Akari posters, fit surprisingly well with the traditional paintings of fishing scenes and the traditional carvings on the wooden pillars.
Seisui no Ma (静水の間) holds a nature theme, with artificial grass underfoot, and a small forest of animal-figure lanterns throughout.
Soukyū no Ma (草丘の間) and Seikou no Ma (星光の間) were two of my favorites. Leaves, flowers, and other delicate and contemporary glass artworks are lit up in an ephemeral beauty.
Kaburagi Kiyokata was a prolific artist and pioneer of nihonga, a style of Japanese art. His beautiful works grace the walls of Kaburagi no Ma (鏑木の間). The Wa no Akari display here is a short and humorous animation projected against a white screen and porcelain vase.
Chojo no Ma (頂上の間), the topmost room, brings together in a refreshing combination the color blue, the beautiful look and sound of Japanese fūrin (wind chimes), and ikebana (traditional flower arrangement). You can sit on a beanbag cushion and enjoy the display or try your hand at cranking the manual fan to send the wind chimes chiming.
I finished my visit with a photo at the foot of the stairs and showed it to my grandma, who said looking at it made her feel nostalgic for those days and the place. She spent four years of her young womanhood there, until the hotel was closed due to the outbreak of World War II. It has changed much since then, but the vintage elegance remains.
I'm looking forward to visiting again in September to catch the ikebana exhibit. Check it out!
Yamanote Line, 2 stops from Shibuya Station, Gajoen Hotel Tokyo is a 5 minute walk or a short bus ride from the station down the Gyonin-zaka.
100-Step Staircase Exhibits
Wa no Akari "Light of Japan" July 1 to August 27
Ikebana "Flower arrangement" September 26 to November 26
Adult Ticket 1,500 yen
Pre-purchased Adult Ticket 1,200 yen
(If you're interested in an all-inclusive yukata dressing and lunch ticket, please visit the website or call 03-3492-1390)
Days and Hours
Monday-Thursday 10:00 to 18:00
Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 10:00 to 20:00
Official Website (Japanese only): http://www.hotelgajoen-tokyo.com
Old Tokyo Postcards (photos of the hotel and gardens, plus a brief history): http://www.oldtokyo.com/meguro-gajoen-c-1940/