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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010
Kyoto's Miyako at 120, inn for the long haul
KYOTO — In a city where some traditional inns are more than 400 years old, the Westin Miyako Kyoto, which celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, is a relative newcomer to the world of Kyoto lodgings.
But since the Meiji Era, the hotel now known as the Westin Miyako has greeted a long line of visiting royalty, heads of state, Hollywood stars, artists and musicians, and all manner of Japanese dignitaries.
In the lobby are photos of past guests ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Helen Keller to Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
Located in eastern Kyoto, at the edge of the Higashiyama mountain range and not far from Heian Shrine, the Westin Miyako was, from the time it opened, an unofficial state guesthouse for visiting foreign dignitaries at a time when Japan had just opened itself up to the West after centuries of isolation.
Like Tokyo's famed Imperial Hotel, the Westin Miyako became a symbol of Japan's relationship with the West and a combination hotel and international exchange center that drew the famous, the notorious, and the just plain curious.
The hotel actually began life as a tea house and Japanese-style garden, which was built by a wealthy merchant named Nihei Nishimura in 1890 and was visited by prominent Westerners and Japanese. In 1900, the garden reopened as the Miyako hotel.
"The hotel was the first Western-style hotel in Kyoto and quickly became the place to stay for eminent guests passing through," said Richard Suter, the Westin Miyako's general manager.
International guests were usually from Western Europe or the United States, and the hotel functioned as a combination de facto embassy and social club for many, as well as a center of international exchange.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, the club's official history notes Western guests would raise champagne toasts to their Japanese hosts whenever the newspapers brought word of a Japanese victory.
Many guests dropped money in a box that had been set up inside the hotel to collect funds for relatives of soldiers killed in action.
During the early years of World War I, fewer European guests were present, but those from the United States, which remained neutral until 1917, increased.
"The Miyako was especially noted for its Christmas parties, which attracted large numbers of guests and their Japanese friends. It was also a major venue for social occasions, including receptions and balls," Suter said.
The hotel was requisitioned by the government during World War II, and afterward the U.S.-led Occupation took it over for use as a hotel for officers.
In the postwar years, the Westin Miyako saw a parade of foreign dignitaries pass through, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Marlon Brando, India's Jawaharlal Nehru, John Steinbeck, Queen Elizabeth, George H.W. Bush, Chinese President Deng Xiaoping, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, as well as numerous members of the Imperial family and visiting royalty.
Today, the hotel still welcomes heads of state passing through on their way to or from Tokyo, or are attending U.N. or other international meetings in Kyoto.
One of the Westin Miyako's most enthusiastic supporters was writer Yasunari Kawabata, who donated a scroll that hangs in the lobby and reads "Ame Sugite Yama Arau ga Gotoshi" ("Too much Rain is like Washing the Mountains"). The hotel's artworks include a painting by Chikkyo Ono, winner of the Order of Cultural Merit.
The Westin Miyako is also well known among Kyoto's long-term Western residents for not only its quiet, scenic views, famous guests and traditional art, but also for something more down to earth.
During the bubble economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s in particular, it was not unusual to see local foreign residents start their Sunday morning (or finish their Saturday night) by joining guests at the hotel's brunch buffet, which at the time was one of the very few places in Kyoto offering a Western-style Sunday brunch buffet.
Today, about 75 percent of the hotel's guests are Japanese, and the remaining 25 percent are from abroad.
Like other hotels, the Westin Miyako is adjusting the ever-increasing numbers of individual Chinese tourists coming to Japan, by offering more Chinese-language information.
But Suter said most Chinese guests have tended to be the country's wealthiest and most-traveled, although some Westin Miyako employees were sent to other Westin hotels in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore to foster a better understanding of Chinese culture.
The Miyako did not pair up with the Westin chain until 2002, and one of the challenges it faced was remaining competitive in the 21st century.
The hotel has benefited from its past reputation. But it has also been lucky in the sense that, unlike Tokyo and Osaka, there are few luxury hotels in Kyoto offering a similar international standard of service.
This is especially true when it comes to the level of flexibility and creativity needed to meet the various demands of visiting international VIPs and their staff, and Suter said that the combination of the Westin's international expertise and the Miyako's traditions have ensured that it will be around for at least another 120 years.
"With the comfortable mix of heritage (Miyako) and modernity (Westin), we'll be here for our 240th anniversary," Suter said.