This Mr and Mrs Smith are returning to Tokyo less than a year since their last visit. Why so soon? Because once Tokyo bites you, it’s hard not to be drawn back into the immense energy of a city that 37 million people call home and where cultures of all shapes and sizes constantly jostle for attention.
On this trip, rather than gravitate towards the shiny steel, bright lights and flagship stores of Ginza or Shinjuku, we're keen to sample Tokyo’s more subtle and contemporary beauty. It’s a protean city where culture, crowds and trends move fast and, for the past five years, Tokyo’s definitively cool boutique retail and furniture design scene has been creeping down off the hills of Daikanyama into Nakameguro and Ebisu. Claska sits right at the apex of this new cultural hotspot and, as it was opened in 2004, is in many ways a forerunner to what are now considered to be the coolest suburbs to be in Tokyo. This will be our basecamp.
Designed by Tei Shuwa (from the legendary British design firm Tomato), Claska is an exceptional new version of an old hotel. It rises like a Rubik’s Cube above the low-slung surrounding neighbourhood, making it easy to spot for weary and disorientated guests. We’re palpably excited as we approach, which might explain why the taxi driver asks if we are on our honeymoon.
Though modern in design, the service at Claska has all the hallmarks of traditional Japanese hospitality. Bags are whisked away before you know it and the ever-cool and attentive Katsu Shimizu-san at the front desk makes the effort to prepare our room, despite the fact we are six hours early. We are ushered towards the lobby café, which serves salted caramel and banana jam from heaven and coffee that can spike the energy level of even the most exhausted tourist. We watch the adjacent dog grooming parlour go about its lucrative business of providing the neighbourhood’s treasured pooches with fashionable haircuts and manicures. It’s wild, ridiculous and fascinating – we are definitely in Tokyo!
After a walk through the local park, where we watch everyone from grandparents to kids (and some tame turtles) making the most of a hot summer day and cool waterfall, we return to Claska, where our Japanese Modern Room is waiting. The colours are cool chocolate-browns, off whites and indigo-blue, the materials natural and the ambience so refined and relaxing that the long-haul flight is already a distant memory. The Claska design philosophy is most obviously at play in the hotel bedrooms, which are beautifully composed. The room is a harmonious sum total of parts, where objects like our stunning tea set perch perfectly on the type of modernist furniture that you can buy up and down Meguro-ku. It is timeless and tranquil, but in no way boring or generic.
The next two days are nothing but a dream for the Smiths. We make the most of the Claska in-room menu, which is artfully illustrated and provides a humorous A-Z of products to enhance your stay: we borrow iPods with bespoke playlists to enjoy while exploring the neighbourhood, we drink quaalude tea at night to help us relax before sleep and we take in epic views of the city from a rooftop terrace that’s blissfully free of other people. Best of all, we commandeer Claska’s free 'tokyobikes', that put us within an easy 10-minute pedal of the great experiences featured on Claska’s 'Tokyo by Tokyo' iPhone app.
As always, the departure from a great hotel is bittersweet. The joy of knowing you’ve discovered something special is offset by the sorrow of having to leave. We soften the blow at Do, Claska’s gallery and shop, which is the perfect place to buy gifts for all the people you love back home. I walk out wearing ‘Shoes Like Pottery’, which have soles that are fired in a kiln. I’ve also managed to fill a large bag with ceramics, clothing and daruma dolls that confer good luck on the recipient. The storm outside is biblical, but the youthful and energetic Taka-san braves the tempest to hail us a cab, provides us with an umbrella and gives the ageing taxi driver direct instructions for our onward journey. Just like Claska itself, it’s the best of old and new Japan at play.