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In artist Hiroko Otake’s Sakura room, a large windblown cherry tree stands before a gold-leaf backdrop, its pink blossoms turning into butterflies just before they reach the ground.

When Yuko Matsubara slipped her passkey into the lock of room 3123, her hand trembled with both anxiety and joy. This was understandable. Matsubara is the PR manager for the Park Hotel Tokyo, which has experienced no small amount of anxiety and joy itself over the years. When the 273-room property opened in 2003, its location was the main distinguishing feature: the hotel sits not far from the Ginza district atop the triangular Shiodome Media Tower, occupying the 25th to 34th floors. Still, that was enough to draw visitors, at least for a time.

“But then came the Lehman Brothers,” said Matsubara, referring to the investment firm’s 2008 bankruptcy and the global recession it triggered, during which the Park’s occupancy rates fell precipitously. The hotel was just beginning to recover from its woes in March of 2011, when a 9.0 earthquake—the most powerful in Japan’s history—brought widespread devastation, a deadly tsunami, nuclear accidents, and further economic travails. Bookings at Matsubara’s hotel dwindled to “almost nothing.” 

In what seemed like an act of utter hubris at the time, the Park made plans to commission an art work in honor of the hotel’s 10th anniversary. Which is when the epiphany occurred, recalled Matsubara. “We thought, rather than decorate with a piece of art, let’s have an artist create art directly on the walls.”

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In Hidetaka Furukawa’s Edo-Tokyo room, photorealistic scenes of the city’s past overlap those of the present.

And not just any walls, mind you, but the walls of room 3123. In 2012, the hotel hired artist Hiroyuki Kimura to reimagine the guest room, stipulating only that he create something reflecting Japanese culture and aesthetics. As it happens, Kimura is both an artist and sumo wrestler, so the Park management can’t have been surprised when he turned the room into something of a shrine to the sport. But did they really expect him to plaster its walls with enormous black ink depictions of the wrestlers?

Matsubara led us through the doorway, down a short hallway and into the room proper, at which point a reporter’s jaw literally dropped. There were the paintings in sumi ink, first of all, large and powerful and bold in the way hotel art never ever is. There were little sumo sculptures in terra cotta, even a tiny rendering of the artist himself in sumo drag.  

“I never thought the room would sell,” admitted Matsubara with a smile. “But we received a very good reputation for this room.” Word spread about Kimura’s Sumo space, and soon the Park decided to convert all 33 of its rooms on the same floor into artist rooms, each the vision of a different Japanese artist. Now, four years later, most have been completed (all will be done by next year), and the Park’s 31st floor has become a stunning, if accidental, museum of contemporary Japanese art.

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The Park decided to convert all 33 of its rooms on the 31st floor into artist rooms.

“The Sumo room remains the most popular,” Matsubara said, “although this one is very popular with the ladies.” By then, we’d moved on to what’s known as the Sakura room, where, over the bed, a large windblown cherry tree stands before a gold-leaf backdrop, its pink blossoms turning into butterflies just before they reach the ground. Young artist Hiroko Otake’s vision of repose and softness, completed in early 2014, forms a powerful contrast to the view—a skyscraper jungle presided over by Tokyo Tower.

A clash of a different sort may be seen in Hidetaka Furukawa’s Edo-Tokyo room, where photorealistic scenes of the city’s past overlap those of the present. Woodcut artist Naoki Takenouchi’s Washi room, meanwhile, is devoted to wind, thunder and other atmospheric elements. In addition to abstract works painted directly on the walls, the artist made abundant use of washi paper, which Takenouchi printed, crumpled, and fashioned into lampshades and wall hangings.

“How do you like your room?” asked Matsubara, having offered us a few nights in the Washi room. To be honest, we said, it brought us both joy and anxiety. Takenouchi’s space was an undeniably gorgeous one, but we found ourselves tiptoeing around it after an incident in which our luggage rolled into one of the washi lamps.

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Woodcut artist Naoki Takenouchi’s Washi room is devoted to wind, thunder and other atmospheric elements.

“Guests are always worried,” Matsubara said, “but we encourage people to touch the art and take photos.” (Our bag had done more than touch the lamp, but we pressed on.) Had the hotel paid the artists, we wondered? Yes, she replied, “but only 100,000 yen”—about $975. Nonetheless, the hotel was besieged with applicants. “They like having the opportunity to do a room and make a museum-like experience, but in a relaxed environment.” Once selected, the artists typically spend a few nights in their room “to get additional inspiration from the room itself and its location” before getting down to business. For some, the project is completed quickly—one room was done in just 10 days—although another artist worked for more than a year.

In any event, the Artist rooms represent a significant investment for the Park, said Matsubara. “To make one room, it takes three”—one for the art, one for the artist to stay in while making the art, and a third to temporarily house all the furniture from room number one. But the gamble seems to be paying off. Occupancy rates are the highest they’ve ever been.

“We needed to find a way to get guests to come back again,” Matsubara said, “and now they’re coming back again and again.”

Artist rooms at the Park Hotel Tokyo start at around $400 a night, although other rooms at the property are available for as little as $180. Visit parkhoteltokyo.com for further information.

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