It is 10.30pm on a Tuesday in Tokyo and the distinct Brooklyn rasp of the godfather of boutique hotels fills my otherwise serene 35th-floor suite. “We got more plants in yesterday, but we need more! If it’s a lobby with plants, it will be a failure. It can’t be a lobby with plants! It has to be a jungle!”
Ian Schrager is, by his own admission, a perfectionist – which goes some way to explaining the dynamic New Yorker’s extraordinary successes, from Studio 54, the 1970s disco temple of excess, to Morgans, the 1984 boutique hotel that launched a thousand imitators. Countless hotel hits have followed including, of course, EDITION hotels, launched with Marriott in London seven years ago.
Now, Schrager, 74, is on my computer screen – grey hair lightly tousled, T-shirt matching his white NY office – talking about his latest venture, which opened the same day I was staying: the Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon. The group’s first Japan outpost spans the upper levels of a new skyscraper in the Toranomon district, with interiors by architect Kengo Kuma. It is the first of two Tokyo EDITIONs; the other opens in Ginza next year.
• The best hotels in Tokyo
Schrager has long been inspired by Japan, having staged Issey Miyake’s first US catwalk show at Studio 54 in the 1970s. Describing the challenges of opening the hotel remotely, he admits: “It would be easier if we were there in person. It’s all about the little details. It lets people know how thoughtful and considered the whole project is. So I am going on five FaceTime video tours at a time, saying, ‘Move this! Move that!’ ”
It doesn’t take long to spy those plants. After arriving at the groundfloor entrance – with walls of blackveined Nero Marquina marble sliced with lights, and a glowing acrylic bird installation (my six-year-old daughter stops and stares, wide-eyed) – we take the lift to the 31st floor.
The doors slide open to views of a wireframe chair by Shiro Kuramata against walls of honeyed travertine, which flow into the lobby (aka the jungle): 500-plus plants of 25 different species rising up to the 19ft-high ceiling, where Kuma’s wood slate eaves peek through leafy fronds. My daughter quickly disappears into the greenery before stopping in front of a white marble bar, with emerald stools and illuminated glass decanters containing potion-like green liquids. Her amazement is complete when the barman pauses from cocktail-shaking to greet her by her first name.
• 10 hotels that capture the spirit of Japan
Cocooned by plants are discreet seating areas with dramatic walls of windows (toylike Tokyo looks close enough to touch), where staff, many of them in monochrome uniforms by New York stylist Freddie Leiba, serve hidden visitors – chic Japanese women drinking tea; a stylish power couple; some relaxed creatives poring over a screen.
Through a window we spy workmen on an expansive roof terrace (a rare treat in Tokyo skyscrapers) which will open next year with the Jade Room restaurant, headed by Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens (his first Japan venture). A ground-floor Gold Bar, with a scalloped black marble bar and modern Japanese cocktails, will also open in 2021.
“We were very much influenced by the layout of Buddhist temples,” Schrager tells me. “We wanted all the spaces to flow into each other and the lobby to function as the courtyard of a temple. And we want people to be in the lobby. When you bring people together, there’s a diversity, it creates an alchemy – that’s what brings a place to life and makes it more than just a hotel.”
• Six of the coolest budget hotels in Tokyo
After extricating my daughter from the foliage, we head to our 35th-floor corner room – where Kuma’s minimalism serenely shines through. Modern Japanese touches linger in all 206 guest rooms, with sliding slated wood screens, low platform beds with faux fur throws, single-tone flower displays plus – a luxurious anomaly in Tokyo – 15 rooms which have their own ivy-clad terrace.
“We wanted to do something that felt Japanese but wasn’t a cliché,” reflects Schrager. “I just had to do a hotel in Tokyo. I’ve been very influenced by Japan from the start. Their aesthetic, their spirituality, their cleanliness, their refinement. They were practising simplicity and minimalism before the West even put a title on that.”
The evening passes in a buzzy haze in the Blue Room (all sea-blue velvets), where I try amberjack tartare with yuzu sesame dressing followed by something that’s not often seen on Tokyo tables: a tasty schnitzel. My daughter gives full marks to her spaghetti bolognese and ice cream – and to the cartoonlike Tokyo Tower views, which she draws.
• 15 incredible ryokans that will make you want to live in Japan
We head to our room early, just when the lobby is segueing into nocturnal playground mode, with lights dimming and music deepening. “The EDITION concept is to bring exciting design and a sense of place and theatre together with a non-obsequious sense of service,” explains Schrager. “It’s a reiteration of luxury for modern people. It’s not for our grandparents. It’s luxury hotel 3.0.”
The Covid-19 curveball has not only forced Schrager to direct creatively via FaceTime. His legendary capacity for parties has also been recalibrated into a focus on more intimate dinner parties.
Schrager is sanguine about the future of travel. Predicting a greater openness to technology (and the disappearance of checking in and out), he says: “I think things will return to normal. Not a new normal, but the regular normal. As long as there is life, people will travel.”
He adds: “I don’t believe in paradigm shifts after terrible catastrophic things. We always seem to find a way to get through it. Even in biblical times, after the flood with Noah – we always come back. It’s just a question of time.”
The following morning, after a fresh breakfast (avocado toast and a ginger shot), we swim in the long, narrow pool with its mosaic tiles, high walls and skylight. My visit finishes in the spa, where I am pampered in a minimal treatment room with a blissful top-to-toe treatment (even my hair is given a shiny reboot, with a bubbly head massage).
As we leave, staff waving until we are out of sight, it is clear that the rulebreaking perfectionism of Schrager is already happily at home in Tokyo – or at least it will be, after more plants arrive. “There is no research, no focus group,” he says. “There is no [rule] book… but when you get that alchemy, when you get that spark, everybody knows it. Everybody goes in and they know it. And when we reach that point, I feel somewhat satisfied.”
Rooms from Y60,000 (£444) per night; introductory rates from Y48,000 (editionhotels.wpengine.com/tokyo).
Japan is currently exempt from the FCDO’s advice against non-essential travel but entry is mostly closed to those who have been in the UK in the 14 days prior to travel. Other restrictions apply. See gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/japan