At the core of the Imperial Hotel’s over 125-year history is its first mission statement upon opening in 1890: “To contribute to the international community’s further development and to enhance leisure living and culture for all people by providing superior products and services as befits Japan’s flagship hotel.”
From developing full scale wedding packages in the hotel following the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, when most Shinto shrines and temples had been destroyed, to introducing “Viking” or buffet-style dining to Japan in 1958, the Imperial’s contributions to Japanese hospitality have been indelible. And it is The Imperial’s deeply-rooted commitment to the guest experience that makes a visit to its bars and lounges so unique and memorable.
The Old Imperial Bar was at one time as exclusive as it appears, with its entrance hidden away in the back of the Mezzanine and its dimly lit foyer adorned with photographs of celebrities who have visited the Imperial over the past century and a quarter. Taking a seat at the bar before it opened, I spoke with Shigeyoshi Kagami, chief bartender of the Old Imperial Bar. Kagami told me that during his 34 years at the Imperial Hotel, 12 years of which he has spent in the Old Imperial Bar, he has witnessed a change from the bar being patronized largely by regular customers to welcoming more first-time visitors, including many guests from overseas.
Kagami told me that more and more visitors, especially those from abroad, come to the bar specifically to view the original Wright-era relics on display. The art deco furnishings - the terracotta wall, the mural, the art deco floor lamps – were originally created by Frank Lloyd Wright, the designer of the second generation Imperial Hotel.
Wanting to experience what it was like to be a guest at the Old Imperial Bar, I returned that evening along with several friends. Enamoured with its ambiance, one described the Old Imperial Bar as being “both a step back in time and timeless...at the same time!”, while another remarked that it was like “a scene in a movie”.
The impeccable service, led by Kagami, was peppered with stories about the original cocktails being served. These included the Mount Fuji (from 1924, the oldest of the original Imperial cocktails), the Oriental Jewel (inspired by the Wright-designed mural on display in the bar) and the Tinkerbell (created for the 100th Anniversary of The Imperial), which all agreed were exquisitely delicious and deceptively smooth. Following the cocktails, we also indulged in the Old Imperial Bar original-blended whiskey, the taste of which one in our group described simply as “Imperial”.
The Rendez-Vous Lounge and Bar located in the Main Lobby of the hotel, offers a welcoming atmosphere with its stunning “Wall of Light”, 7,600 glass blocks designed by artist Tada Minami. The Rendez-Vous is perfect for a meeting over coffee, afternoon tea or a drink while listening to the live piano music in the evenings.
The Rendez-Vous Lounge and Bar service hours and offerings are HERE.
After bidding goodnight to Kagami and the rest of the Old Imperial Bar staff, we headed to the Imperial Lounge Aqua for a nightcap. Located on the top floor of the Main Building, the lounge boosts spectacular views of the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace.
That afternoon I had also interviewed Aqua bartender Anna Watanabe who had told me about the hundreds of hours spent preparing for the grueling tests she had passed to achieve her dream of becoming a bartender at the Imperial. In addition to memorizing the recipes of hundreds of drinks, these included measuring by eye all of the ingredients in the cocktails - jiggers or other measuring tools are not used in any of the bars at The Imperial.
Despite Watanabe’s relatively short four years bartending at Aqua, she had recently been encouraged to enter a cocktail competition. With the contest theme of omotenashi- hospitality- , she had decided to create a drink that would symbolize the Imperial’s long history of caring for foreign guests. Watanabe’s cocktail, which she named Mizuho -Beautiful Japan-, combines Western whiskey with Japanese green tea and was awarded at the competition. The Mizuho is now proudly served at the Imperial Lounge Aqua.
Taking our seats in the back of the Imperial Lounge Aqua near the windows over-looking the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace, now dark, we marveled at the glowing lights of Tokyo. Ordering “Midnight High Tea”, a tower of delicacies including mini-pots of savory curry and homemade chocolates, and a round of Watanabe’s award-winning Mizuhos, I shared with my friends her concept for the cocktail.
The drinks arrived, long-stemmed and adorned with lemon peel, and we toasted to the East-West friendship both symbolized in the drink and something that had also brought us all together in Japan.
Looking out over the brightly lit city, I was again reminded of The Imperial’s first mission statement from 1890. Taking another sip of the Mizuho, it struck me that this drink, shared in this moment in Japan with special friends from abroad, perfectly embodied everything The Imperial has stood for during its over 125-year history.
Those who wish to enjoy cigars are welcome in designated areas of all the Imperial’s bars and lounges, where select cigar offerings are also available.
Documentary filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash was born in the United States and has lived in Japan for 13 years. Part three of this series will be published in March.