For its impossibly eclectic 37th floor, Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo required a minor miracle of designer Ryu Kosaka. Here, our correspondent comes to marvel at the realisation of one man’s singular vision.

Murano glass lampshades, like upturned candle holders, illuminate the beautiful Sense restaurant

Murano glass lampshades, like upturned candle holders, illuminate the beautiful Sense restaurant

‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ has no equivalent in Japanese. At Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, 179 luxuriously appointed guestrooms on the upper floors of the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower and five of MO’s eight food and drink outlets have been positioned on a single floor. What were they thinking?

It was a brave decision by the MO people. Get it right, they figured, and the 37th floor would become a hub of good food, innovative design and Japanese hospitality – in short, a Tokyo destination in its own right. One wrong move, though, and MO could fail the test. And no-one can afford to fail in this unforgiving city of world-class restaurants, state-of-the-art design and obsessive perfectionism.

The Mandarin Bar is already a fixture on the Tokyo scene

The Mandarin Bar is already a fixture on the Tokyo scene

And as if they weren’t making life difficult enough for themselves, MO upped the ante with plans for restaurants so diverse as to make any cohesion in the overall design virtually impossible. Yes, a Chinese restaurant made sense (they even decided to call it Sense, a neat bilingual pun, as ‘sense’ means ‘fan’ in Japanese), as did a Tea Corner alongside it, serving 25 kinds of Asian Tea. But a signature Mandarin Bar – a sexy, convivial, clubbable, square island in the middle of the vast 37th-floor atrium? That made no sense at all. Nor did another restaurant (French-with-a-twist and laid-back luxe) across the floor, which, just to make things complicated, the management in their wisdom decided to call Signature.

The Cleaners, a sculpture chosen to evoke the hotel’s Sino roots

The Cleaners, a sculpture chosen to evoke the hotel’s Sino roots

Another view of the Mandarin Bar

Another view of the Mandarin Bar

Confused? You won’t be. Because to do the seemingly impossible, to pull this apparently discordant plan together, Mandarin Oriental found one of the most talented designers in the business. Ryu Kosaka is Tokyo-based, but his Nomura consultancy, with its fondness for clean lines and ‘rich’ minimalism, is making waves in Japan and beyond. A boyish 45, with his flowing grey hair and laidback arty looks, Kosaka is as dressed down in ripped denim as le tout Tokyo – or at least le tout business Tokyo – is dressed up in dark suits and achingly formal.

When he received the invitation to tender four years ago, Kosaka submitted his designs with cheerful nonchalance, never thinking he would win the contract and not much bothered if he didn’t. But win it he did and, to his delight, the finished result is almost identical to his original design. MO, to their huge credit, understand that sexy, high-spec, high-tech and even rather wacky design (think Barbara Barry meets Philippe Starck) is completely compatible with comfort, snap-to-it service and the ancient art of hospitality. The company sees no contradiction in these elements, which have left trendy boutique hotels floundering and overly obsequious managements perplexed.

Signature’s circular steel lights were inspired by eternity rings

Signature’s circular steel lights were inspired by eternity rings

As you descend the marble staircase from the main hotel lobby, the first thing you see is a sculpture. The Cleaners are eight stooped figures with brooms, set along a low console table at the foot of the stairs. Cast by a Chinese sculptress, it is a rambling kind of sculpture, almost humble, in contrast to the grand lobby above, and it brings a human scale to the 37th floor. Are The Cleaners, you wonder, a play on the continual cleaning that is part of the fabric of everyday hotel life? Or is it a witty metaphor for ‘new brooms sweeping clean’? Kosaka contends that he just wanted something ‘with movement’. And he wanted something with a Chinese feel to evoke Mandarin Oriental’s Sino roots.

Bespoke cutlery at Signature

Bespoke cutlery at Signature

As this was to be the first MO in Japan, Kosaka thought it important to keep the design traditional, albeit with a fluid interpretation of ‘traditional’. In Japan, especially in the cities, where personal space comes at something of a premium, the division of the interior of a house is carefully considered. Rooms are usually divided by paper or wooden slats, which make them appear larger than they really are. But Kosaka wanted to divide the eating, drinking and chilling-out spaces of the 37th floor in a new and sophisticated way. To this end, he sought out new materials and found, for instance, carbon fibre rods – usually used for fishing – which hang from the ceiling and rise from the floor like bulrushes. They act as transparent room dividers, creating a sense of both intimacy and space.

Signature is designed to the last fork handle, but never feels self-conscious. There are six circular steel lights dotted with tiny bulbs above the tables, each one a cross between a hubcap and an operating-theatre light, and a central panel running down the centre of the room. The lights are symbolic of ‘elegance’, says Kosaka, thereby nixing my operating theatre comparison, and suggests instead that the lights are inspired by an eternity ring. But looking from the designer’s perspective, you quickly ‘get’ his vision.

Signature’s warm lobster and celeriac salad

Signature’s warm lobster and celeriac salad

A waitress at Sense in a shocking-pink tunic

A waitress at Sense in a shocking-pink tunic

At the end of the room there’s a semi-private dining area, with cylindrical, silver filigree lampshades overhead that look like elongated napkin holders. Along one side is a long, low, deep-pink velvet banquette with heavily printed velvet cushions. You look out over Ginza towards Tokyo Bay, and the view could melt a heart of stone. Diners with their back to the window can see the view through mirror panels in the intricate silver plaster-sculpture ‘wall’ that serves as a divider between the sunken-level private dining room and the rest of the room. The look is part boudoir, part post-industrial, part Madame de Pompadour, part grunge – sexy certainly, but functional too. And because of the thrilling views, you have the illusion of being suspended in space. Heady stuff.

Across the floor at the Modern Cantonese restaurant, Sense, Kosaka says he wanted something not ‘traditional’ so much as ‘authentic’. Elements play a big part in his design. If Signature is water, fluid and mobile, Sense is fire. There is a beautiful, deep-pink tiled wall with a textured, lotus-flower motif – the colour inspired by Chinese silk – and the glass lampshades from Murano look like upturned candle holders. Slender columns support glass cases containing Chinese artworks that seem to hover in space. The look is stylised; a monochrome austerity is relieved by splashes of colour, like the shocking pink of a tunic as the cocktail waitress passes by, or the heavy, square, pomegranate, glass dinner plates that are almost too beautiful to eat off.

Detail of the tiled wall at Sense

Detail of the tiled wall at Sense

Datedori chicken served at Signature

Datedori chicken served at Signature

The food, too, is highly stylised. A naked, peeled plum tomato, concealing a lily root, rises like a curved volcano from a bowl of the clearest chicken consommé – strikingly severe. And yet there’s unquestionable humour in the steamed prawn dumpling, which looks exactly like a fish, given two beads of yellow roe for eyes. Popular with Tokyo ‘ladies who lunch’, the armchairs at Sense have only one arm – all the easier to reach down for your shopping bags to show the fruits of your labours to the rest of the girls.

In the adjoining Sense Tea Corner, the visual focus is a striking, double-height wall of fire, extending upwards through the atrium to the ceiling way above. You sit at marble tables or around a square marble bar with a giant tea bush growing out of the middle. One area flows easily into another, every space connected yet apart. A door near the bar leads down a spiral staircase to a wine cellar – cool in both senses of the word. Thirty-six-and-a-half floors above Nihonbashi, ten degrees Celsius, you could swear you were underground.

Sense Tea Corner

Sense Tea Corner

At the square Mandarin Bar itself, with its all-female staff and signature MO Wall of Wine, deals are already being struck, friendships are being cemented (or put through the wringer), cocktails are being invented and the great and good of Tokyo, along with the merely curious, are all stopping by to look. If it’s not a contradiction in terms – because how can a fixture be cutting-edge and stylish? – the Mandarin Bar is already a destination on the Tokyo scene.

Kosaka has worked closely with the architects and designers of the rest of the hotel to produce a 37th floor which is consistent with the whole plan, yet distinct and self-contained. Opposite the bank of elevators, for example, there is a striking wall which appears to be made of tree bark. This neatly extends the architect’s concept of the hotel tower as a vast, single, living tree, with all the rooms as branches. And connecting all these diverse areas there are intimate pockets of space where you can sit, drink, read, or simply stand and admire the view. In the waiting area by Signature, for example, you happen across a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair in shiny black plastic, with cowhide cushions irregularly scattered. Under the marble staircase there is a square pool of water and, in the middle, on an island, on a pink shag carpet, stands a baby grand. Kosaka is serious about his art, but beneath the surface you can’t help feeling he is a bit of a tease.

Signature’s main dining area

Signature’s main dining area

Chinese artwork

Chinese artwork

The food at Signature, meanwhile, seems in a curious way to echo Kosaka’s design – or is it a chicken-and-egg question of which came first? If the look of the restaurant has both gravitas and humour, so chef de cuisine Olivier Rodriguez’s ‘French-inspired’ cooking is by turns classic French and droll modern. From his ‘Signature Menu’, sea urchin ‘blanc manger’ with green tomato gazpacho perfumed with paprika, is a schizophrenic dish which hums between France, Spain and Japan without committing to any one place. It has no right to work, but it does, the custardy urchin melting into the spiked gazpacho. Rodriguez dresses a warm lobster and celeriac salad with black truffle sauce and then accentuates it with slices of Jabugo ham – a surf-and-turf combo which careers from the sublime to the ridiculous in one dish.

Another main course, wonderfully flavoured ‘Datedori’ chicken breast, is filled with foie gras, asparagus and girolle fricassée, dusted with summer truffle. If the sea urchin and the lobster salad are culinary conceits, substitute the Datedori chicken for a poulet de Bresse and you would be instantly transported to Burgundy. All three dishes seem absolutely right at Signature.

Ceiling detail at Signature

Ceiling detail at Signature

Rodriguez previously worked at Enoteca Pinchiorri in the city and is now regarded as one of Tokyo’s foremost chefs; his previous employer, Enoteca Pinchiorri’s co-owner Annie Feolde, chooses Signature to entertain guests whenever she comes to Tokyo. Clearly, then, the space is unique, and attracting a wide variety of guests. Young, 20-something guys have identified it as an elegant place to propose to their partners (proposals are common at Signature; to date the management don’t know of a single refusal), while older, more conservative guests feel cosseted despite the eclectic design elements. In an already formal city, management is delighted that so many guests make the effort to dress up to dine at Signature, something which is not enforced by a code but by self-regulation.

Sense serves modern Cantonese cuisine

Sense serves modern Cantonese cuisine

Kosaka’s work has wide and effortless appeal, it seems. But who, I wonder, are Kosaka’s own design heroes? Le Corbusier? Mary Quant? ‘I don’t really follow anyone, because, to do so, results in too strong a statement,’ Kosaka says enigmatically, neatly side-stepping the question. ‘What you get here,’ he goes on, ‘is a group effort: designer, artist, craftsman, everybody.’ Accuse Kosaka of false modesty? Never.

Yes, there are many reasons to come to the 37th floor of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. And Ryu Kosaka’s design is just one of them. You can come to look, or to gawp, or just to hang out. You can even come just to say that you’ve been. But of course the real reason to come here is the way MO originally planned it. You come to eat.

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