The Conrad may seem geared toward business travelers, but it's certainly gunning for the gourmets as well. In the elevator, a flat-screen TV flashes a shot of British bad-boy celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, chin cupped in hand. Ramsay has two French restaurants at the Conrad: Gordon Ramsay and Cerise, a more casual brasserie. Dishes such as sweetbreads with artichoke velouté sound off in Tokyo, so we compromise with a mellow meal at Cerise. Rustic grilled prawns arrive in a cast-iron pot, a delicious surprise, but the atmosphere isn't quite as appetizing; next to us, businessmen are discussing amortization, using flowcharts as visual aids.
American visitors are also common across town at the Grand Hyatt. While I'm checking in, Lindsay Lohan sashays through the lobby, entourage in tow. Apparently, celebrity sightings aren't such an anomaly. "We had Brad Pitt four times, Norah Jones twice, Prince Albert," Grand Hyatt general manager Xavier Destribats says when I speak with him upon my return to New York. The Grand Hyatt is right in the thick of things, in Roppongi Hills, an urban develop-ment with more than 200 shops and restaurants and the contemporary Mori Art Museum. All this neighboring bustle seeps into the lobby, where bellmen in headsets serve as traffic conductors to a steady stream of stylish guests.
It's easy to see the appeal. We immediately feel on familiar ground. The concierge, Kay Abe, speaks perfect English and helps us plan an excursion to Shibuya, with shopping maps, lunch ideas, and a good transport tip: Take the bus—which turns out to be direct and about five times cheaper than a taxi.
But being so utterly comfortable has a flip side. The aesthetic of our room—mahogany fixtures, beige limestone bath—doesn't reference Japan in any way I'm able to recognize. (A design exception: the mirrored, mazelike gym and spa, the work of Japanese architect Takashi Sugimoto, a.k.a. SuperPotato.) And the Oak Door steak house, though it serves a tasty cut of Australian tenderloin, could be a buzzy new restaurant in Culver City, California.
Americans may gravitate toward the Grand Hyatt, but the Japanese, voracious consumers of luxury brands, eagerly awaited the March 2007 opening of the Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo (the group's property in Osaka is one of the most popular hotels in Japan). The new Ritz-Carlton occupies the bottom three and the top nine floors of the city's tallest tower, part of Tokyo Midtown, a bright and beautiful new $3 billion complex. Within walking distance from Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown has effectively upstaged its neighbor. The 1.1-million-square-foot development includes the 21-21 Design Sight museum, created by Tadao Ando and organized by Issey Miyake; extensive gardens; and an impressively curated mix of high-end boutiques, restaurants, and specialty stores, many with exclusive collections. It's only fitting that everything about the Ritz-Carlton is hyperbolic—it has the city's biggest rooms (560 square feet) and most expensive guest room (the $16,300-a-night Ritz-Carlton Suite).
The Ritz-Carlton also has Tokyo's busiest lobby. At the time of our visit, it has only recently been made accessible to non-guests. Coming back from a walk one afternoon, we try to have a drink at the lobby bar, which has ornate fountains and 15-foot-tall paintings by Sam Francis. Glam Japanese ladies in head-to-toe labels are taking tea beneath Murano chandeliers. Every table is occupied, and we are directed to leave our names on a list. Instead, we decamp to our room, a plush confection in the clouds, which delivers exactly what I'm looking for. In a soaking tub, I watch CNN on a flat-screen TV and drink green tea from a white ceramic tea set.
At hotels of this caliber, there's no shortage of superlatives when it comes to concierges, but the lovely Mayako Sumiyoshi ("You can call me Maya") rises above the best. She's a connoisseur of the helpful tip. When I ask for the closest ATM, she gets genuinely excited about how to make this the easiest, fastest ATM visit ever. Consulted on trains, she delivers a tour de force: We've planned an ambitious three-leg journey to a ryokan in the mountain town of Gero. Not only does Maya help us refine our schedule—suggesting a more affordable bullet train that will still make our connection—she writes the whole itinerary out for us in Japanese, in case we need help en route.