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.
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.
Throughout our trip, we've heard murmurings about the city's latest hotel entry, the Peninsula Tokyo, opening this month on the southeast corner of the Imperial Palace Gardens. From the location (near the Ginza and burgeo-ning Marunouchi), to thoughtful tech touches (room phones that convert to cell phones, handy since most American phones won't work), the Peninsula may hit the sweet spot on service, authen-tically designed rooms, and more. For a culture that prizes the New, the Penin-sula is not only New but also Notable.
Still, there's no doubt that the Old has its charms. Our final stay is at Park Hyatt Tokyo, which opened in 1994, and it's clear why this hotel sets the bar for excellence. Everything, from the check-in process (a sit-down affair at a desk that has the feel of a friendly counseling session) to our room (vast, soothingly civilized) to the location (in Shinjuku, a mini city with great shopping and an over-the-top red-light scene if you're so inclined), satisfies me completely. "There will never be another Park Hyatt," the Peninsula's general manager Malcolm Thompson (formerly of Park Hyatt) acknowledges when I call him after our stay. "It was the original—something for us all to live up to."
Nina Willdorf is a senior editor at Travel + Leisure.
Sure, certain amenities are a given: ceramic tea sets (check!); blackout shades (check!); perplexingly complex, high-tech toilets (check!). Here, T+L details how each property stacks up
3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/ 5322-1234; tokyo.park.hyatt.com; doubles from $450.
Overview177 refined rooms on the top 14 floors of a 52-story tower in Shinjuku—a hub for nightlife and shopping in the northwest part of the city.
GuestsMoguls, couples, and other faithful regulars.
HighlightsRooms are stocked with CD's and books, and your room key comes on a sterling silver key ring.
LowlightsThe gawking Lost in Translation groupies at the hotel's New York Bar. (But a cocktail there is still a must.)
Insider TipUse of the spa carries a $35-a-day charge, but the hot and cool marble pools in a vaultlike setting, plus ample Aesop products, make it well worth the fee.
6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/4333-1234; tokyo.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from $480.
OverviewA 21-story, 389-room stand-alone building, part of the 28-acre Roppongi Hills development.
GuestsA-list celebs; international fashionistas; boisterous Italian families.
HighlightsThe location, right in the heart of the city, can't be beat, with terrific shops, restaurants, and nightlife steps away.
LowlightsEven on the highest floors, you can hear occasional street noise.
Insider TipTokyoites are mad for classic cocktails, so order one at the Maduro bar. The bartender crafts a perfect Manhattan, with real rye and a flawless round ice cube for slower melting.
9-7-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku; 81-3/3423-8000; ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $530.
Overview248 rooms occupying the bottom three and top nine floors of the city's tallest tower, part of the new Tokyo Midtown complex in Roppongi.
GuestsBrand-faithful Japanese and international business travelers.
HighlightsLuxurious amenities in the bathroom (Voss water, Bulgari products, the world's best loofah), and one of the city's savviest concierges.
LowlightsThere's no dedicated space for the bustling lobby bar—good luck nabbing one of the six seats.
Insider TipOne private room of the hotel's Japanese Hinokizaka restaurant is a 200-year-old teahouse.
2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3270-8800; mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $530.
Overview179 serene rooms atop the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower (floors 30-36), in a business district north of the Ginza.
GuestsSophisticated, design-oriented travelers and devoted spa-goers.
HighlightsNature-inspired fabrics— bedspreads patterned with fallen leaves, handmade Echizen paper lamps that evoke moonlight.
LowlightsBreakfast choices are disappointingly overpriced and underwhelming.
Insider TipSelect one of three types of yoga classes on DVD—free. You'll find mats stashed in the closet. Aromatherapy oils are left for guests at turndown.
1-9-1 Higashi-shinbashi, Minato-ku; 81-3/6388-8000; conradhotels. com; doubles from $530.
Overview290 rooms in a tower in Shiodome, a business district. Choose between City (looking out on Tokyo) or Garden (views of Tokyo Bay).
GuestsAmerican and international money managers.
HighlightsFood is a focus: Gordon Ramsay has two modern French restaurants here, and there are also upscale Chinese and Japanese options.
LowlightsIt's the only hotel in the mix to charge a fee for Internet access ($12 a day).
Insider TipDon't miss two surprisingly quirky room details: a Conrad rubber ducky and a teddy bear at turndown.
1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/6270-2888; peninsula.com; doubles from $495.
OverviewA 314-room stand-alone building close to the Ginza, with four key subway lines in the basement.
GuestsPer advance bookings, 35 percent international and 65 percent Japanese.
HighlightsJapanese- inspired design and tech-savvy touches—iPods programmed with tours, in-room cell-convertible phones, and automatic nail-dryers.
LowlightsToo soon to tell.
Insider TipBook one of several Japanese-inspired treatments at the 10,000-square-foot spa, the city's first fully branded ESPA.