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Friday, Sept. 5, 2008

GRAND OLD HOTELS

The Parnassus of Surugadai

Writers such as Yukio Mishima have been confined at the Hilltop to avoid distraction


Special to The Japan Times

Ochanomizu, the Tokyo neighborhood stretching from Yushima, Bunkyo Ward, to Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, gives good vibes. Jazz, rock and reggae spill from music stores and guitar shops lining Meiji-dori as it drops south toward Yasukuni-dori. Mid-slope is Meiji University's Liberty Tower, where one drizzly afternoon recently Co-Op Labor Union members were exercising their right to protest, megaphones in hand, blood-red banner unfurled.

I climbed the adjacent slope to the top of Surugadai Hill. Cicadas were shrilling in patches of greenery at the summit, where there rose a building that looked like it came from the set of a future city in a Buck Rogers flick, what with the strips of masonry down the facade and the narrow setbacks of the terraced crown.

The Art Deco building, designed by William Merrell Vories (1880-1964), opened in 1937 as an institute for enlightening women in the Western lifestyle. Its founder, Keitaro Sato, chose an inauspicious time to create a paean to the West. The building was confiscated by the Imperial Navy. Next it was requisitioned by Occupation Forces to billet the Women's Army Corps. The WACs dubbed their digs the "Hilltop Hotel." Toshio Yoshida, a manager at Asahi Glass Co., kept the name when he leased the building in 1954.

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Larging it: The Hilltop Hotel's Art Deco facade BURRITT SABIN PHOTOS

As I arrived there, bellboys were opening large green umbrellas for guests alighting from vehicles. As I struggled to fit my folding umbrella into the rack, a bellboy holding a plastic bag materialized beside me.

I descended to the Coffee Parlor, on a basement level, like the restaurants, albeit with outdoor views, the hotel being built on a hillside. Its motif was Continental, with music-box melodies and watercolors of everyday Europeans decorating the walls. As I savored my coffee, I noticed the signature "S. Ikenami" on a painting of a shawled balloon-seller.

I returned to the lobby, where paintings seemingly from the same brush graced the walls. There was a writing desk and shelves of books — dictionaries, haiku almanacs, essay anthologies and the complete works of novelist Seiko Tanabe.

Naoki Shirano, chief operating officer, showed me around the hotel. As we talked, I eventually learned of a link between Keitaro Sato and S. Ikenami — the written word.

Sato's passion was literature. So after the building's derequisition, he gladly leased it to Toshio Yoshida, the son of his friend Yahei, a Japanese-literature scholar. Toshio proved an adept hotel manager, and made enough money to buy the building.

Thereafter Surugadai became a sort of Mount Parnassus, the home of poetry in Greek mythology. Writers gravitated to the Hilltop. Because it was near publishers' row in the Kanda district, editors found it a convenient place to confine writers until they completed their novels, a practice called kanzume. Yasunari Kawabata was confined at the hotel for stretches of a week or 10 days in the early 1950s. Yukio Mishima was encaged for fortnights later in the decade.

Novelists chose a tatami room (washitsu) where they could write seated at a desk or tailor fashion at a low table. Shirano showed me a washitsu. I was surprised by the bed.

"Writers preferred a bed," he explained. "After long hours moving a fountain pen they wanted to crash, not spread a futon." Also de rigueur was a capacious tabletop ashtray.

I asked Shirano how these illustrious inmates comported themselves at the hotel.

"Writers are a nervous lot," he replied. "Kawabata spoke little and seldom left his room. Mishima liked to drink whisky in the bar."

One day Mishima handed Yoshida unsolicited promotional copy he'd written for the hotel: "I didn't know a tranquil lodge like this existed in the heart of Tokyo. The facilities are immaculate. In that it's still somewhat amateurish, the service is really good."

This backhanded compliment does not appear in the hotel's brochure. But Mishima had a point. The hotel, while known for its meticulous service, does not have the staff rigidly follow a manual. A single hotel consisting of 74 rooms in the main building and annex, it is no Marriott.

Small in scale, it retains aspects of the service associated with the ryokan (traditional inn), explained Shirano. He gave an example. Shortly after the bellboy carries the guest's luggage to his room, another staffer brings tea. She explains the room's features. She also notes the guest's disposition, an appraisal she shares with her colleagues, who interact with the guest accordingly.

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Novel ideas: The stereo-equipped "Mozart Room" (above); The lobby, which displays Shotaro Ikenami's watercolors
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We got off the elevator on the fifth floor (it goes no higher) and climbed the burgundy-carpeted spiral staircase to the sixth. A portal under the word "Mozart" led to a second spiral staircase. The room at the top was decorated with the composer's portrait and a replica of a page from the score for his "Magic Flute." Before the window sat a stereo set. The sole room on the floor, in "Mozart" guests can play the classics fortissimo.

Back in the lobby, the watercolors reminded me of S. Ikenami. Shirano spelled out the name — Shotaro Ikenami (1923-90), a popular writer of period stories, notably the "Onihei Hankacho" series. Painting was his avocation.

Ikenami left a bigger footprint in the hotel than the cooped-up brooding litterateurs Kawabata and Mishima. He was smitten by the Hilltop after his first stay there in 1983.

He later stayed at the hotel to give his wife a break from cooking and cleaning for him. The hotel staff kept his brushes, palette and pigments. He fleshed out rough sketches made during trips to Europe.

He greeted staff by name and, a legendary gourmand, tucked into the hotel restaurant's fare. He became friends with owner Yoshida. Both belonged to Mont Cave, then an exclusive club in the hotel wine cellar. The president sent summer gifts, and the artist acknowledged these with original thank-you cards. A recumbent brown cat, ears pricked, looks you in the eye from a card on the wall behind the register in the tempura restaurant.

From the hotel, Ikenami strolled through Kanda, and the resulting essays form part of his "Ginza Diary," published posthumously in 1991, and in which the Hilltop is mentioned more than 40 times.

I asked Shirano if writers still lodged at the hotel.

"Shizuka Ijuin is staying here now," he replied, referring to the novelist.

In my mind's eye I saw Ijuin writing a novel in one of the tatami rooms. But unlike the hotel's earlier scribblers, I didn't imagine he would be using a fountain pen.

1-1 Surugadai, Kanda Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-0062. About 5 min. walk from JR Ochanomizu Station. Singles from ¥15,750. Tel: (03) 3293-2311


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