Nacasa & Partners

The Reborn Oriental Hotel Kobe
- Opening Report
Part 1.
Talk with Takashi Okada / Plan Do See Inc. and Ryu Kosaka / A.N.D.
“A First-Class Team for a First-Class Project”

From the front lines of the Oriental Hotel project, we joined Takashi Okada, director of Plan Do See development, and Ryu Kosaka, interior design director, on February 17, 2010. Just two weeks before the grand opening, they still had their hands full with the project, but they both took time to open up and share their thoughts about everything, starting from the very beginning of the three-year journey to complete this hotel. (March 2010)

01. From “Raffles Hotel” to “Melting Pot” of Asia

02. Owner and Designer: trustable relations
03. First and Foremost, a Hotel Locals Can Love
04. On to the Next Stage

PhotoTakashi Okada

Manager of Corporate Management Dept. / Plan Do See Inc.
Born in 1975, Okada studied architecture at Saitama University and joined an architectural firm after graduating. Upon realizing that softness is just as vital as hardness, he joined Plan Do See in 2001 and has worked on the business planning for numerous restaurants and hotels built by the company.
Under president Yutaka Noda, Plan Do See handles operation, planning, and consulting for hotels, restaurants, and weddings and in recent years has spread out to the Tribeca area of New York City.

PhotoRyu Kosaka

Creative Director / A.N.D.
Born in 1960, Kosaka graduated from the architecture department of Musashino Art University and entered Nomura Co., Ltd. in 1985. He is currently the creative director of A.N.D. (Aoyama Nomura Design) within Nomura’s commercial space department. He has worked on several high-profile restaurants and hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo Main Dining Room, With the Style Fukuoka, and the environmental design for the Shin-Marunouchi Building. In the last few years his activities reached as far as Hong Kong and Macao.

01. From “Raffles Hotel” to “Melting Pot” of Asia

PhotoOkada: I was first approached by corporate real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle about participating in the Oriental Hotel project in the spring of 2006. After hearing their pitch, I signed on to the project in June of 2007. From there, Ryu’s team worked out the basic design.

Kosaka: This project was not just a simple remodeling, Plan Do See acted as a kind of consultant on everything from the building’s branding onward. Balancing regulatory and budget issues was quite a challenge, but it was interesting because we were able to create the type of worldview we desired from the ground up.
For example, as you can see by looking at the 17th floor, the sea side juts out further than the floor of guest rooms below it. We built it that way so that when guests come down the elevator, they can go all the way around the outer periphery of the floor. By the way, that was Mr. Noda’s idea.

PhotoOkada: The Oriental Hotel was originally built in 1870, so it’s long-established even compared to other long-established hotels. It has a history of having changed locations several times within the area where it used to be, such as when it relocated after being damaged in the bombing during the war. Now, this prestigious hotel is being re-opened after 15 years. At first, Mr. Noda had an image in his head of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.

Kosaka: Bringing Mr. Noda’s ideas to life was the most difficult thing. It was supposed to be Raffles Hotel style, but that would have just ended up being an imitation, not an original.
PhotoYou can make a great building, but you have to carefully consider the surrounding location or else it won’t fit the landscape. Since we had an opportunity to create a hotel from the very beginning, I thought we should start by asking ourselves, “What is ‘oriental’ anyway?” We also thought about how visitors to the hotel could get a feeling of the Oriental Hotel and what would give them some of the flavor of “the orient.”
We realized how “In terms of how Japan sees Asia and how the world sees Asia, the way of seeing and thinking are somewhat different, but ‘oriental’ is the key word for both points of view.” For Japanese, Asia means China and Korea, but for non-Japanese it also evokes the exciting atmosphere of Asian resorts. The non-Japanese idea of Asia has a more far-reaching meaning that includes Japan as well. We set out to blend these varying views into a “melting pot” of Asia, a feeling of “the orient.”
For the surface of the walls and floors, we used simple stonework in the usual way. From there we scattered various Asian touches in strategic places, giving the effect of a chaotic combination of Asia. It is a mixture of Asian sensibilities, with Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian features all incorporated together. As a harbor city and center of trade, the city of Kobe itself was always a place overflowing with international flair, making it a perfect match for this image.
inspired my career.

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02. Owner and Designer: trustable relations

PhotoKosaka: Many of Plan Do See’s projects like The Hanezawa Garden and The Luigans, which I worked on, have involved ways of reusing old structures, such as renovations of historical buildings. So the history of a building carries a lot of weight. With that kind of background, as with our design of With the Style Fukuoka, we tried to avoid a “brand new” feeling as much as possible. We purposely built the chapel and two other separate structures as if they we additions. Since this is a completely new building, it can’t help but look pristine from the outside. Personally, it’s kind of embarrassing to have a “shiny and new” feel to a building. So, getting rid of that “brand new” feeling is where I really needed to show off my talent as a designer. From the moment of its completion, I wanted it to already have the feel of a historical building, especially considering this hotel’s particular situation.
With hotels, in order to keep from following just one pattern, the usual tendency to use different designers for the guest rooms and the public spaces. But this time, while following with the thread of “oriental,” I was given the entire mission of completely eradicating any “brand new” feeling. It was a nearly impossible task, but Mr. Noda placed his full trust in me, and that’s exactly why it’s great to work with Plan Do See.

Okada: Well, I think I am about to get all misty-eyed just hearing about the relationship of trust between Ryu and Mr. Noda. At Plan Do See, we don’t approach building from a concept, we start by asking “What’s cool?”, “What’s fun?”, and “How can we make guests say ‘wow’?” There are practically no conversations about “We need to target this age demographic…”
Kosaka: Yeah, you’re right. We didn’t have any limitations like that in terms of the design either.

Okada: We were thinking from an abstract base, so it was easy for ideas to become jumbled and disjointed, but I think Ryu and Mr. Noda struck the proper balance there. There was an immense mutual respect. It made me jealous just to see their relationship.

Kosaka: But I think it was hard for you to hold this thing together by yourself. Over the three years, we had to pitch ideas to Mr. Noda many times, but as slowly it turned into a “If it’s okay with Ryu, then it’s okay for me” kind of thing. I was thrilled that he trusted me, but there were also the thoughts like “Oh great, so I have to handle everything.” But seriously, Mr. Noda spend a lot of money to get this hotel built, so we didn’t want to make something disappointing that would make us look back and wish we had done things differently. That’s where Okada jumped in as a sort of intermediary between us and Mr. Noda.

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03. First and Foremost, a Hotel Locals Can Love

PhotoOkada: We want a wide range of people to use this hotel. Now, if you look at relatively high class hotels, including those in Tokyo, the price limits the number of people that can use them.
While preserving the feeling of a top-class hotel, we also wanted to make it a place where visitors could have a nice day by treating themselves to a nice meal or a night’s stay. Even dinner at the main dining room, The House of the Pacific, has multi-course meals starting at 4,000 yen.
For starters, we don’t accept the idea that hotels are only for out-of-towners, we think of them as something for the local people. First, raising awareness is the initial step towards being loved by the people, so we look forward for the hotel restaurants and banquet halls to be used by locals and their families for eating out, special occasions, and celebrations. Actually, after we announced the name as the Oriental Hotel, the reaction from local residents who were over 50 years old was bigger than we expected. A lot of local celebrities had their weddings at the old Oriental Hotel in the past. With this background of high expectations, our feeling of “We gotta do this!” grew even stronger than before. But because we run Plan Do See, we felt like it would just be boring if we left out a sense of play and freshness. Balance was quite important.

PhotoKosaka: A feeling of excitement is one way this hotel can draw in wedding customers. But customers aren’t drawn by the historical construction; you need to have the kind of creativity and the kind of atmosphere that makes parents and brides think “I’ve got to get married here! Let me have the ceremony here!” Both Mr. Noda and I tend to prefer a darker, evening type of ambiance. For example, if we use stones, our choice reflects our own personal taste, so we end up using gray stones.

Okada: For the bridal area, we needed a female point of view. So in that sense it was a difficult task for Mr. Noda and me. That’s one place where the women who are active on the front lines of Plan Do See broaden our range, so we incorporated those women’s opinions all throughout this project.

Kosaka: So you can see why for the chapel we used bright beige stones instead of just choosing what we liked.

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04. On to the Next Stage

photoOkada: I have been in charge of development for renovations and remodelings before, but this was my first experience of beginning from square one, with no visible starting point. It certainly was a learning experience. Although, personally, I don’t put place much emphasis on the fact that the business we worked on was a hotel. From my perspective, from the company’s side, I don’t focus on the type of building per se; instead I always keep in mind the goal of making each building into something that everyone will love for a long time to come.

Kosaka: Yeah, you don’t get many chances to build a hotel from the ground up. I think it was a learning experience for A.N.D.’s younger employees. There were a lot of rough patches, but each time we never gave up. We were thinking “We’re out of time, what are we gonna do!?” But also “Even if you are out of money, if you use your head you can still think up good ideas, can’t you!” And when we thought about it together, we were able to find answers. This project was an ongoing cycle of struggling with problems, thinking hard, and coming up with great ideas.

Okada: As I look back I can remember fondly how in the middle of the project everyone was on the verge of tears and getting caught up in negativity saying “The big guy messed up. We don’t know what to do.” But we really did have a great team on this project.

Kosaka: You mean “the big guy” was me? I made mistakes? Well…I guess I did. But this really was a great experience. For Mr. Noda as well, there was a new kind of ownership regarding this hotel. I have known him for a long time, and as a friend, it meant a lot to me to see Plan Do See arrive at the stage of handling this kind of city hotel. As our sights kept aiming higher and higher, there was an intensity that felt like giving a live performance. As a designer, I feel lucky to have been trusted by the owners and to have been involved in the process and its ups and downs. It really was a great three years. I would jump at the chance to do it again!

Okada: Yesterday, I was talking with some of the colleagues that I have spent the last three years sweating it out with, and I told them that “In five years or maybe more, when we have to develop something in New York, I’d love to get this team together again.” And with a team like this, I am sure that day will come along soon!

Oriental Hotel

25 Kyomachi, Chuo-ku, Kobe,
650-0034, Japan
Tel +81-78-326-1500

Text: Hiroki Yanagisawa (Freelance Editor)
Edit: Nobuko Ohara (Nacása & Partners Inc.)