Luxury Hotels

The luxury Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto is a must (but can you get a room?)

Wedding chapel (turn off the electric cross to secularise)

Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto opened October 15th, 2016, and immediately saw a full house, because it was new (and Four Seasons) and then repeats soon started, and Christmas and New Year, and next the forthcoming sakura cherry blossom season, which officially starts here, in Kyoto, on March 28th, 2017… plus, frankly, Kyoto just does not, at any time of the year, have enough places to stay. Other than needing more bedrooms, does GM Alex Porteous have any problems? No, not with marketing this superb luxury hotel. He hired his 270-strong team, currently all Japanese, mainly for attitude but, says the gal, it is amazing how well they have learned skills, and English, so fast. This is, by the way, an urban design resort. Look, above, at a wall above the breakfast buffet. Look, left, at the chapel window: turn off the cross and the space can instantly be used, say, for a course by Danish floral artist Nicolai Bergmann – he has the flower shop here (he also partners with Four Seasons Hotel Seoul).

Ablution area, ladies’ spa

This entire hotel is exquisite. First, its location, on the site of a former hospital – where, coincidentally, the guest experience specialist, as well as a concierge, were born. It is part of a gorgeous garden, said to date back 800 years, with two-feet-long bright orange koi in its big pond. My room, 106, looked down to the garden and across the pond to a traditional teahouse where Billecart-Salmon and saké are served every evening, and where a Maiko geisha, a trainee aged 15-19, visits every weekend – see her dancing, in the video below, in the hotel’s main lobby, up on the third floor of the building. Yes, the building’s top, fourth, floor, consists of 57 residences for sale, the lobby is labelled third floor, with two floors of bedrooms beneath. Even further below, on B1, is the tasteful, quiet and professional spa, where I had an outstanding Biologique Récherché session – it also works with Sodashi, and Tatcha.

Alex Porteous in the lobby

And down at base, B2, is the 65-ft pool, and a 24/7 gym that reminds me, thanks to its wood floor with blocks outlined in black, kind of retro style, of the fitness facility in The Greenwich Hotel, New York. Here in Kyoto, Alex Porteous made sure I had plenty of exercise, by the way – although he fortunately stopped short of suggesting I try geisha dancing. He sent me across the road to Chishakuin Temple, affiliated with Shingon-shū Chizan-ha Buddhism, for its daily 6.30 a.m. service. It was emotionally draining, and no photos allowed. For 40 minutes over 80 shaven-head monks, mostly men, chanted, in rising and falling tempo in unison, the trance broken only by elders, and visitors, including me, being privileged to add tiny nuggets of incense to three ceremonial burners, with deep bows before and aft. All the monks, dressed entirely in plain cotton fabrics, wear back aprons, generally different colours from their black or saffron knee-length coats, over matching pleated skirts, all over mid-calf white skirts and white flipflop socks.  I learned later that temples are privately owned and that thanks to high income from burials and regular commemorative memorial services, they are big business. There is also financial benefit from visitors wanting to stay in the temple’s own lodging block.

Chef Masashi Yamaguchi, in front of a wall of tin shapes

Who becomes a trainee monk? Not surprisingly the kids of owners are ‘encouraged’ to train, but with so many there it must be easier to find monk recruits than the task facing geiko geisha owners, who apparently have to trawl far and wide to find teenagers prepared to undergo the geisha discipline. There seems to be no shortage of sushi chefs, thank goodness. This luxury hotel has a partnership with the two-star Michelin Sushi Wakon (master-chef Rei Masuda) in Tokyo: chef Masashi Yamaguchi, in charge here of the ten-seat counter and restaurant, trained for 15 years. Today he not only made a Nigiri lunch, from Japanese flounder through to sea eel, with gari, ginger, as between-bite palette cleanser, but gave me, via my translator Maaya Arakawa, so much explanation. Now I know that men’s hands are colder than women’s, that chopsticks should be made of cedar, and that Kyoto water is not the best either for sushi rice or green tea – some bring water from Tokyo but he uses bottled drinking water (and the thick soy sauce he uses for brushing sea eel, his own particular favourite Nigiri, starts with fish broth boiled gently for two weeks, sic). Every hour here is further education in the DNA of Japan. NOW WATCH A GEISHA DANCE, BELOW


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Luxury Hotels

Aman’s enticing and naturally therapeutic luxury Shima resort, Amanemu

Kerry Hill does amazingly beautiful ceilings

The gal had heard about Amanemu as though it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but like that golden wonder, she had no clear idea where it actually was. Thanks to help from the luxury hotel, and Aman’s excellent team in London, the arrival journey involved, from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, one flight to Osaka’s Itami (or ‘International’, although mainly domestic) airport, one limousine bus, and two trains, and then, on reaching Kashikojima, in Japan’s smallest mainland province of Shima, pickup in a Lexus. Immediately on arrival came a sense of relief, wonderment, with fresh air and deep breaths. In villa 10, one of 24, all in semi-detached, grey-tiled houses with private gardens before and behind, one of the first things to do is to look around. Each space is the same, 1,000 sq feet of fabulous honey-coloured wood soaring to cathedral ceilings – see the video below, showing Kerry Hill’s sensational interior. Attached to each living-bedroom is a dark grey stone bathing area that includes a big basalt tub with three taps, hot, cold and near-boiling onsen, hot spring, water.

Sashimi, Amanemu-style

Yes, this is my own spa area, and no wonder many, especially the 60% of guests who are Japanese, come back again and again, especially since Amanemu is on the bank of Ago Bay in beautiful Ise Shima National Park. No wonder, too, that Yamaha, the motorbike and piano company, chose here for an educational camp, then called Nemu, or Yamaha Village – people came, perhaps by bike but certainly to perfect their music skills. Then the entire area was bought by Mitsui Fudosan, whose resort division also includes Halekulani, in Honolulu. Mitsui Fudosan kept the golf courses and the original hotel, Nemu, but they built a luxury resort, which has become Amanemu. Today people also come for the food, and for wellness. I loved eating in The Restaurant, where chef Masanobu Inaba, formerly at Conrad Tokyo, produces international if you must but also gorgeous set meals. We went for Ise-shima Roman Set: a jellied anglerfish appetizer and a bite of pufferfish milt (intestine) on a barely-visible risotto, broth with local tuna and tofu, assorted sashimi, steamed abalone, a melt-in-mouth already-sliced Matsusaka beef sirloin and Zuwai crab blended with steamed rice.

Breakfast view, to Ise Shima National Park and Ago Bay

There was no space for the white bean soup dessert, with dumpling. We toasted Aman in its own-label Masumi Sake 1662, from Miyataka Brewing Co, and went on, interestingly, to the recommended wine by glass, a Greek Xinomavro, by Kir-Yanni Estate Ramnista, owned by an eccentric collector, Yiannis Boutaris. At night the gorgeous cedar tables were set with burgundy and black-swirl table mats and sage napkins, upright in drinking glasses. At breakfast, the only colour on tables was a single green leaf, in a clear pot (white napkins were rolled in interlinking bamboo rings, direct on tabletops). But now the view outside, down to the Bay, provided all the colour one wanted, and there were more bright colours on the dishes of fruits and salad stuffs wheeled silently in on a wood trolley, exactly matching the champagne of chairs, banquettes, floors, screens, everything.

Off for a morning spin

After breakfast I headed out for a bike ride, up and down the hills on the estate – then back to the gym, a good LifeFitness setup with amazing views to the main onsen area (see top of this story), where there are two pools, one 38 and one 41 degrees. Some Japanese, I was told, are initially rather amazed that they are shared, and everyone must wear swimgear: traditionally, men and women are naked in their one-sex facilities. I was later taken, by Yoshi Kubota, England-educated deputy to the hotel GM, Hisayo Shimizu (a former ANA flight attendant who was enticed away from the air by Adrian Zecha) who was in Tokyo – on a buggy tour to see the Nemu marina, where summer long Amanemu guests can take an assortment of boating trips, or have a drink or outside barbeque overlooking the water.   We saw the spa, another serene area where journeys, from 90 to 180 minutes, change with the seasons. Spring time? Cleanse with a seasalt compress of yomogi mugwort, and neroli and green tea essential oils. We saw the library, a magnetic room with fireplace and views of manicured trees through all the picture windows, as if to divert me from so many gorgeous books. And then, all too soon, it was time, very sadly, to leave this fascinating luxury resort. NOW TOUR VILLA 10, BELOW

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Luxury Hotels

London’s theatrical luxury hotel

A rocking horse in the main lobby corridor

Claridge’s is London’s theatrical hotel, the gal was told over Laurent-Perrier in the divine inner bar designed by Alexandra Champalimaud. Any luxury bar today needs a variety of different seating areas, speedy service, and super-snacks, and a buzz of talk from people of all ages (you know they are A-listers but may not recognise them, but who cares?). These are people who use the bar regularly, on their way home from work, plus internationals in town for the latest catwalk or live-stage show. The atmosphere feels good, not only at such over-the-top times as Christmas and New Year, where there is always a tree designed by a regular guest – the 2016 honoured-customer was Apple’s Sir Jony Ive, who typically turned the main lobby into a blue interactive wonderland while, in contrary style, leaving the real fir unadorned.

Welcome, the envelope sealed with wax

Like any theatre, the props are exactly placed. Who expected to see, in a lobby corridor, a real wood rocking horse under one of the dozens of framed black-and-whites of past sirens. Norma Desmond is here somewhere, as are Jean Harlow and her contemporaries. Think of them wearing satin-smooth clinging crépe de chîne, in softest avocado, ecru or rose hues. I thought of that era in softly-stunning suite 406 – see the video, below. I was in an Art Deco stage set, interpreted for 2017. Door and tap handles recalled the 1930s, as did the heated towel rail, but the heated floor, thick polysyllabic tomes of the calibre of Fantastic Man, plus Guy Oliver’s 2015 striped-turquoise china for William Edwards, were all so today.

English-style, smoked salmon starter

Old and new: love the sealing wax on the welcome card’s envelope, love another welcome that includes a blackberry financier cake, love the gym’s complimentary coconut water and wrapped mandarin-sized chocolate truffles. Oh what memories this place evokes! I dined under John Huston. Well, let me start again, I dined sitting under a photo of the great director. From the back of my head I could feel his downward gaze as I started with Severn & Wye smoked salmon, with crème fraiche, beetroot, pickled mustard seeds, and soda bread. I went on to Dover sole, filleted tableside, with sides of wilted spinach, heritage beetroot and ricotta – and a glass of David and Guy Dubuet’s Dme Dubuet-Monthelie Bourgogne Les Gamets 2015. Not surprisingly there was no space for desserts, which included the oh-so-English-garden poached rhubarb with Bourbon mousse, and Earl Grey-infused cream with vanilla-candied chestnut.

Paul Jackson, 6.30 a.m.

Paul Jackson, who runs this memorable luxury hotel, was actually night manager here some 25 years ago – his heroes include then-GM, Ron Jones, with whom he still lunches from time to time. Several of the team, then, are still here, ready to support as he patiently keeps sane during a multi-year programme adding five (yes, five) floors underground, to include a big spa and pool, and two extra floors up in the sky, to add a further 40 rooms. All this without closing, he says. Actually I do not believe he sleeps. Next morning, after finishing my superlative room service breakfast, which included Tea Together preserves with bespoke hotel labels, in the signature Claridge’s pale turquoise, I came down at 6.30 a.m. to leave for the airport, and there he was. How about that for extreme attention to duty? NOW SEE SUITE 406, BELOW

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