The woman escorting my husband, Michael, and me to our room at the Mandarin Oriental is visibly less than thrilled: when she opens the door, her eyes widen slightly, almost imperceptibly, but her displeasure is obvious. An electrical panel is ajar, a workman's bag is splayed out on the floor. Back in the lobby, we are presented with business cards, 60-degree bows, and countless apologies. As the door clicks shut on our new room, a 1,000-square-foot Executive Suite, I find myself looking out on Tokyo from the 31st floor of a stunningly silent high-rise. From 500 feet up, the city looks like one big Lego project; tiny toy cars whiz along video-game streets. The huge marble bathroom has outsize windows, and there's a separate door just for the morning newspaper delivery—the excess is almost embarrassing. Three hours off the plane and this is my welcome to Tokyo's new crop of luxury hotels. It is immediately clear that I'm in for a paradigm shift.
If an essential part of a hotel's job is to make order out of a city and translate it into manageable experiences, Tokyo's hoteliers face quite a challenge. Imagine New York multiplied by 10 and minus conventional addresses. The buildings, confoundingly, are not ordered geographically (most streets have no names, and numbers follow a complex zoning code). That means you need maps to find anything and everything. We sampled four of the city's newest properties—as well as Park Hyatt, Tokyo's gold standard, made famous by 2003's Lost in Translation—with an eye to discovering which would make one of the world's most confusing cities as easy as possible for a first-time visitor. Beyond help in navigating, I had other requirements, too: as much as I wanted access to authentic Tokyo in all of its hustle and bustle, I knew I'd also crave quiet. Getting a good value was also a concern, especially in a city where luxury hotels start at a healthy $450 per night.
For the afternoon of our arrival, I've booked a Kiatsu treatment at the Mandarin Oriental's spa. The moment the elevator door opens, I'm immersed in Japanese ritual, offered a set of slippers and a palm-sized cup of tea. Before my massage—a blend of stretching and pressure-point therapy, given on a futon—I soak in a mosaic-tiled vitality pool, a big warm bath with tingly jets. The fact that I can see the manic megalopolis sprawling for miles while no one can see me is oddly thrilling.
The Mandarin Oriental is located in a Cesar Pelli-designed tower in Nihonbashi, a business district in the northeastern part of the city: mostly high-rises, coffee chains, and men in dark suits whizzing between the two. Other than a handy subway line in the basement, the best thing about the Mandarin Oriental's location is its proximity to Tsukiji, the city's vast fish market. Masumi Tajima, the chief concierge, helps us coordinate a predawn excursion, from writing out the address in Japanese for the cab driver to planning the timing of our morning coffee delivery. She also dispenses a most useful tip: Wear closed shoes, for protection from the fish juices (bless her). In making the messy, the smelly, and the awkwardly early somehow stress-free, the Mandarin Oriental succeeds.
Things are noticeably less seamless at the Conrad Tokyo. To enter the hotel, in the Shiodome neighborhood—a business hub near Tokyo Bay—our taxi leaves us under a dark overhang. After dropping off our bags in our room, a mod-masculine square with a bathroom enclosed by a glass wall, I call down to the concierge to get a map and directions, via the subway, to a ramen shop called Mist, in the Omotesando Hills shopping center. "When will you need this?" she asks. "How about five minutes?" I suggest. "Oh...I guess I better hurry then," she says. In the lobby, Western guests are tinkering away at laptops. There's nobody at the concierge desk, and my request has yielded merely a mall brochure. No directions. No map. A well-meaning, slightly flustered woman directs us to a subway route that inefficiently loops around the city.