KUSATSU

TREASURED HIDEAWAYS: HOT SPRING AND SKIING HAVENS OF JAPAN

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THE BEST HOT SPRINGS IN JAPAN

Located approximately 3 hours away from Tokyo by car, is Gunma – a prefecture adjacent to Nagano, which is home to a number of world-renowned ski resorts including Hakuba and Nozawa. Gunma is most famous for its brilliant hot springs – Kusatsu Onsen, as well as serving as the location for the irst ski lifts in Japan at Kusatsu International Ski Resort, which boasts over a hundred years of history. The two attractions combined make Gunma a holiday resort paradise, yet it still remains relatively unknown to the Western world.

What makes Kusatsu Onsen so iconic, is its impressive hot spring fields. The thermal waters trickle through the earth’s surface or flow through wooden pipes, gathering and dissolving mineral salts along the way to become mineral rich hot springs through these fields. The onsen (hot springs) are then cooled to a more comfortable temperature before being piped around. The hot spring fields of Kusatsu are renowned for being the largest in all of Japan.

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The giant hot spring fields are illuminated at night, bringing about a wondrous atmosphere. These illuminations have gained more attention recently due to their revamp in December 2016. The new illuminative attractions were created by lighting designer, Kaoru Mende, who is famous for his bright projects on the buildings of Roppongi Hills. The latest technology LED lights cycle through various colours including shades of purple, blue and white as they light up the water flowing down the hot spring pipes and the steam wafting up from them. The gorgeous colours absorbed by the white curtains of steam make for a spectacular sight.

Sainokawara Park, a short walk away from the hot spring fields, will also be filled with illuminations from the end of March 2017. The park is popular for leisurely strolls as it is located in a central location by the riverside. 1400 litres of hot water flow around the river every minute, making it a bubbling river of thermal waters. A 10 minute walk through the fantastically lit-up park brings you to a giant, open-air hot spring bathing area of over 500 square metres inside of the park itself. There is no other place where you can gaze at the stars above, as you soak in the soothing springs, surrounded by magical lights.

The history of Kusatsu Onsen is said to date back to mythological times, however, the first recorded mention of the locale was in 1472. Even during that era, the hot springs were already renowned across the country for the high quality of the water itself. The pungent aroma of sulphur at Kusatsu is indicative of the mineral rich waters, which are said to help with various skin ailments and nerve problems. There are, in fact, 6 different wellsprings, each of which differ in terms of mineral composition. It is a joy in itself to take a dip in all of the different hot springs in the area to reap all of the various health benefits. A number of restaurants and souvenir shops surround the hot spring fields for those who are after a cultural or gourmet encounter unique to the locale. Visitors can also watch or take part in yumomi experiences – the traditional act of cooling the hot thermal waters using wooden paddles originating in the Edo period. For more information about the hot springs, visit the Kusatsu Onsen website at http://onsen-kusatsu.com/ and follow the link for a downloadable English pamphlet.

A MUST-STAY HOTEL – KUSATSU NOW RESORT

With the rise in tourists visiting Japan from overseas, various spots in Japan have started
to become more foreigner-friendly through improvements in language skills and adjustments to infrastructure. However, for older resorts that receive more domestic visitors, the trend towards international accessibility is still in its early stages. For overseas visitors who are looking for a fulfilling stay without the stress of various barriers, look no further than the Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel.

The alpine resort hotel is located at the base of a mountain 1200 metres above sea level. Inside of the hotel is the Big Bath, a public hot spring area comprising of a large open air bath and an indoor bathing area for visitors to enjoy the finest waters Kusatsu has to offer. There are also private baths, which can be reserved, for those who prefer to soak in privacy. Each of the private outdoor baths are made from a variety traditional Japanese materials such as cypress or Shigaraki wares, creating an elegant atmosphere to relax in.

There are four restaurants located inside of the hotel: an international buffet, French, Japanese and Chinese establishments – all of which serve exquisite food. The hotel offers packages which include dinner, as well as packages with only breakfast included for those who prefer to dine out in town. There is also a wide selection of rooms to choose from, such as standard Western-style and Japanese-style rooms, suite-rooms and the newly introduced forest-view-bath twin rooms, to suit the needs of people from all walks of life.

While the hotel is walking distance away from the centre of the hot spring fields, the regular shuttle bus service it offers is still highly convenient. During the ski season, it also takes passengers to and from the ski fields a minute’s drive away. The hotel also provides an endless source of recreational facilities including a pool, table tennis, tennis courts, karaoke rooms, a bar and even a beauty spa – everything all under one roof.

The direct bus from Tokyo to the hotel makes it convenient for visitors centring their trip around Tokyo to visit hassle-free. Check out the website for more information and make your first trip to Kusatsu unforgettable with a stay at the Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel
Shirane 750, Kusatsu, Agatsuma, Gunma 377-1711

No. of Rooms: 154
Accommodation Capacity: 528 people
Wi-Fi available throughout the hotel (excluding the communal and private bathing areas)

Tel: 0279-88-5111
Web: https://www.kusatsu-now.co.jp

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Hakone

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A DAY-TRIP FROM TOKYO TO A LAND OF MYSTERY

Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

Hakone, an onsen (hot spring) town located in Kanagawa, a prefecture adjacent to Tokyo, is a well-established tourist destination in Japan renowned for the steamy, volcanic valleys of Owakudani and the magnificent Lake Ashi amongst a myriad of other sightseeing hot spots. While it boasts its own share of accommodation options, many travellers opt to take day-trips to Hakone from Tokyo because of how easily accessible it is. This feature article documents my own day-trip experience to Hakone.

ENJOYING HAKONE’S HOT SPRING SCENERY

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I hopped onto the Odakyu Romancecar at Shinjuku and departed for my adventure. As the train raced along the tracks, the view outside my window gradually changed from blocks of generic buildings to luscious green scenery. After an 85 minute ride, I reached the hot spring paradise – Hakone. Of the many different ways to reach Hakone, the Odakyu Romancecar, departing from Shinjuku Station, is the most convenient and comfortable of them all.
The Romancecar can be accessed through conventional train lines by paying an additional fee and the enhanced holidaying experience provided through the “saloon seats” makes the Limited Express train trip popular amongst many travellers. Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Line also has a counter for international visitors that offers assistance in a variety of languages. The “Hakone Freepass” allows for unlimited travel on different modes of transport for 2-3 days and comes highly recommended.

The mountainous location of Hakone means that different forms of transport have been set up to traverse the town, such as: the Hakone Tozan Railway, the Cable Cars which climb up precarious slopes, The Hakone Ropeway stretching between mountains and the cruise ships sailing around the lake. Not only can you experience the different sights Hakone has to offer by taking a ride on the various modes of transport, but you can do so without the hassle of buying individual tickets by taking advantage of “The Hakone Freepass”.

Onboard the Romancecar, vendors walk through the train-carriage aisles with drinks, lunchboxes and even alcohol available for purchase. Being able to sit back with a drink in hand as you watch the scenery go by from the comfort of your seat is the Japanese way to travel by train.

After relaxing in the Romancecar for the short 85 minutes, the train came to a stop at the entrance of Hakone – Hakone-Yumoto Station. From there, my plan was to transfer over to the Hakone Tozan Railway and head over to the Hakone Open-Air Museum, which is famous for its sculptures displayed outdoors amongst the majestic mountains, however, I decided to take a stroll around the town surrounding the station first.

Numerous shops line the streets in front of the station. The shops are jam-packed with local delicacies, snacks and souvenirs. As the main thoroughfare for day-trippers to and from the hot springs, it is always a bustling hot spot. Taking a step behind the hustle and bustle treats you to a view of a grand river flowing between the mountains. The ability to find little captivating treasures in unexpected places is one of the joys of exploring Hakone.

VISITING THE NATURE-FILLED OUTDOOR MUSEUM – HAKONE OPEN-AIR MUSEUM

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From Hakone-Yumoto Station, I took a trip on the Hakone Tozan Railway. At an altitude of 340 metres above sea-level, the train zig-zagged along the 6km long railroad, weaving through the mountains. After about half an hour of enjoying the view whilst being gently rocked by the train, I arrived at my destination – the Hakone Open-Air Museum.

The Hakone Open-Air Museum embraced the natural beauty of Hakone and opened its doors in 1969 as Japan’s first ever outdoor museum. It spans across approximately 70,000 square metres in area and the nature-abundant garden houses 120 impressive sculptures on display. A leisurely stroll through the great outdoors reveals the many different faces of the grand sculptures. The sight of the mysteriously profound objects towering over everything outside left me with an indescribable feeling of awe.

As I walked down the promenade and delved into the grounds, I came across the Picasso Pavilion displaying a collection of works by  the one and only, Pablo Picasso. Operating in conjunction with the gallery are a café and an onsen footbath, where I found groups of families and couples taking breathers after their stroll. The ability to leisurely stroll through the open-air museum, with scenery that changes along with the seasons, was a truly unique and exciting experience. This is definitely a spot to drop by when visiting Hakone.

EATING LONGEVITY-BOOSTING BLACK EGGS AT OWAKUDANI

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I left Chokoku-no-Mori Station (Open-Air Museum Station) and got off at the next stop, Gora Station, to take the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to Sounzan Station, which acts as the
hub to transfer onto the Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani – my next destination.
Caught up in the thrill of ascending the steep slopes in the cable car, I arrived a Sounzan Station in no time at all. From there, I transferred over to The Hakone Ropeway. With services operating at one minute intervals, I did not have to wait very long to hop onto my transfer. As I gazed upon the beautiful scenery below, an astonishing sight took my breath away.

A station away from Sounzan is Owakudani. Owakudani (literally, “Grand Boiling Valley”) was formed approximately 3000 years ago from an eruption of steam causing a landslide, coupled with a small scale pyroclastic surge approximately 2900 years ago that brought about a large deposit of volcanic sediment. The mineral rich hot springs create a dreary atmosphere as plumes of white smoke fill the air with the force of volcanic activity still ever present. Until the Edo period, it was known by locals as the “Valley of Hell” and now, despite the fear it once garnered, it is a top tourist attraction in Hakone for the unique scenery it offers. With the awe-inspiring sight suddenly appearing before my very eyes, I was speechless.

The smoky scenery can be experienced up-close upon arrival at Owakudani and, on clear days, Mount Fuji can also be seen framed by the colours of the changing seasons. While it was once possible to hike to the source of the rising smoke, it is now prohibited due to the increased volcanic activity.

One experience that absolutely cannot be missed, is the eating of kuro tamago (black eggs), which are said to add 7 years to your life. The act of boiling uncooked eggs in Owakudani causes iron (a prominent hot spring mineral) to permeate through the porous egg shell. Hydrogen sulphide then reacts with the iron, turning it into black-coloured iron sulphide, resulting in black boiled eggs. As time went by, the health benefits from the hot spring minerals somehow translated into increased longevity through the ingestion of the eggs. The highly unique black boiled eggs are definitely worth a try.

ALL ABOARD THE SIGHTSEEING CRUISE FROM TOGENDAI

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After enjoying the magnificent view and delicious black eggs at Owakudani, I hopped back onto the ropeway for my next destination – Togendai Port. Togendai is situated on the northern bank of Lake Ashi and is a highly trafficked hub for different modes of transport including the ropeway, buses and tour boats. The perfect way to see all the great sights around would be to set up base at Togendai and head further north to see the Hakone Venetian Glass Museum or The Little Prince Museum (opened in 1999 to honour the author’s, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 100th birthday). Alas, with only a day to spend exploring Hakone, I decided to take the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise to the northern Hakone-machi Port and then make my way back to Hakone-Yumoto from there.

Paying an additional fee of 500 yen on top of the basic fare, grants you access to the luxurious first-class cabins on the ship. While the basic fare seating areas are often full, access to the first-class cabins allows for a relaxed experience seated at the front of the ship. In addition to the spacious seats, first-class ticket holders can also head out to the exclusive viewing deck to soak up the beautiful lake scenery in peace. The trip from Togendai Port to Hakone-machi Port takes approximately 30 minutes. Grand, mountainous scenery envelopes the ship and as it nears its destination, torii gates start to come into view and almost appear as though they are floating in the lake itself. On clear days, this mysterious sight is also coupled with a beautiful view of Mount Fuji in the background. While I was unlucky to be met with clouds on the day of my trip, it was still very
pleasant, nonetheless.

HAKONE TOKAIDO CHECKPOINT AND HAKONE SHRINE

The Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint greets me as I sail into to Hakone-machi Port. Upon the commencement of the Edo period in 1603, various checkpoints were placed at various major roads as observation posts by the Tokugawa shogunate. The checkpoint at Hakone played a vital role during the Edo period in monitoring the Tokaido Road (the most important of the Five Routes in Edo Japan) in much the same way border security patrols country borders today. Nowadays, tourists are able to explore the fully restored historical checkpoint after 5 years of hard work put into excavational digs and restoring old furnishings. Make sure to include the Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint on your list of places to visit!

Located at a 10 minute ride on the Sightseeing Cruise or a short 30 minute walk from Motohakone Port, is the gorgeous Hakone Shrine which can be seen beyond the torii gates on the lake. This is another great spot steeped in history for a deeply spiritual, cultural experience.

A FAVOURITE OF EDO PERIOD FEUDAL LORD PROCESSIONS – AMAZAKE-CHAYA

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After getting my art fix at the Hakone Open-Air Museum; walking in mid-air on the ropeway; eating unique black eggs whilst gazing upon an intrepid view; and soaking up the sights of Hakone on a lake cruise, I was ready to wash my exhaustion away with a relaxing dip in a hot spring, however, there was one more place I wanted to drop by on my way back to Hakone Yumoto. I hopped onto the Hakone Tozan Bus from Motohakone Port and took a little break at Amazake-chaya.

Amazake-chaya is situated precariously on the Tokaido Road halfway up Mount Hakone. The teahouse, which boasts a 400 year history, famously served the feudal lord procession travelling along the route to and from Edo (now Tokyo) for many years. Today, it is a much-loved refuge for hikers traversing Hakone. The current owner is a 13th generation ancestor of the original owner some centuries ago. Even to this day, their ecipe and brewing methods for amazake have not changed since the Edo period, with local Uruchi rice and rice malt the only two ingredients used in their organic concoction. Amazake is a type of traditional, sweet drink and is known for its characteristically cloudy appearance. While the character for word for wine – sake – is contained in the name, it contains an almost negligible amount of alcohol, making it more of a sweet beverage.

As expected of a Japanese purveyor of amazake, you can also enjoy delicious Japanese sweets and marvel at the impressive thatched roof while you sit around the indoor hearth. To able to sit back and feast your eyes on the unchanged Edo period furnishings in the tea house before setting off for the hot springs is a seasoned traveller’s dream.

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Tokyo Shinjuku

ー ROAMING THE STREETS OF SHINJUKU with Shinji Tsuchimochi ―

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The home of Kabukicho, Japan’s largest entertainment quarter; where department stores and electrical appliance stores are abound; a shopping precinct full of large scale book stores and other knick-knacks; a business district with skyscrapers towering over the city; the grounds of a national park with an abundance of greenery; a giant town with multiple faces – Shinjuku.

With approximately 3.47 million people (as of 2016) rushing through the station every day, Shinjuku Station is not only the most trafficked station in Japan, but the entire world. The ward of Shinjuku, centred on this hub, is a microcosm of Japanese society in itself. It is a wonderfully chaotic place full of secrets waiting to be unlocked. My task in this feature article is to introduce to you a small snippet of Shinjuku with the help of drawings by Shinji Tsuchimochi, illustrator of “100 Views of Tokyo”.

SHINJUKU – THE URBAN SUBCENTRE

As you make your way out of the west exit of Shinjuku Station, you are greeted with a bus terminal and a Yodobashi Camera, alongside various other well established electronic goods stores and restaurants. Looking beyond the immediate view reveals a background of high-rising skyscrapers, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Shinjuku-Nishiguchi, along with Umeda over in Osaka, is known for its bustling business district filled with clusters of tall buildings. Hotels such as the Shinjuku Washington Hotel and the Keio Plaza Hotel are also concentrated in this area for business travellers and international tourists to set up base.

Many of the high-rise buildings, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and the Shinjuku Center Building, have free observation decks with open spaces that offer great views of Tokyo. The seemingly endless city skyline of Tokyo is sure to impress with its sheer enormity. I highly recommend the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building as it offers a 360 degree view on its observation deck.

Image A is Tsumochi’s depiction of the night skyline as seen from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. He originally drew the skyline for use as an album cover by the Japanese rock band, Koochewsen. Tsuchimochi spoke about the piece and remarked, “I get a retro-futuristic sense from the cluster of skyscrapers at Shinjuku-Nishiguchi.”

Shinjuku-Nishiguchi is also where you can find department stores operated by railway companies such as the Keio Department Store and Odakyu Department Store, which makes the area a vibrant place for those who live around Shinjuku, however, due to its strong image as a business district, it seems slightly more subdued compared to the east side. In fact, some people prefer to stroll around the western side precisely because it is less chaotic. Just beyond all of the high-rise buildings is the impressive Shinjuku Central Park – the perfect place to relax with a book or watch as people walk on by.

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Image B

One spot around Shinjuku-Nishiguchi Station, which absolutely cannot be missed, is Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho (image B), which Tsuchimochi describes as, “A place which maintains the unique air of the Shinjuku that started off as a post-war black market city, to what it is now in the present day.” It is a hidden treasure that has preserved the essence of old Japanese drinking establishments; a gem of post-war history.

“Gazing upon all of the izakaya lining the back alleyway as I walked through it made me feel as though I’d stumbled upon a mysterious world.” (Tsuchimochi)


FROM THE SHINJUKU EAST EXIT TO SHINJUKU-SANCHOME

The Shinjuku East Exit is the heart of shopping in Shinjuku with a plethora of various stores lining the streets of the area. Upon exiting the east exit of Shinjuku Station, you are greeted with the district’s main road – Shinjuku Dori. In the 500 metres along both sides of this main road towards Shinjuku-sanchome are all kinds of different stores. For example, Kinokuniya Books, a well-established Japanese book store which has branches worldwide, including Sydney, can be found in this vicinity. On the ground floor of this particular branch is an “inbound corner”, targeted at the ever growing number of visitors flocking to Japan from overseas. There is also a section for international books on a floor above, so it might be worth dropping by for a browse.

Alongside Kinokuniya Books on this street are stores such as, Bicqlo, a collaborative store by the large-scale home appliances chain, Bic Camera, and the international clothing brand, Uniqlo; and the American luxury department store chain, Barneys New York. The variety and reach of the stores found along this street is impressive, to say the least.
Further down Shinjuku Dori, on the left-hand side, is Isetan – a Japanese department store founded all the way back in 1886. The large intersection where Isetan sits is Shinjuku-sanchome.  While Shinjuku-sanchome is home to a number of stores, such as the fashion department store, Marui with the huge Shinjuku Wald 9 cinema on the top floor, there are also lots of little restaurants full of character nestled in the back streets.

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Image C

“As I walked around Shinjuku-sanchome, I came across a restaurant with walls covered in vines and ivy. The contrast of reds and greens caught my eye and upon entering the restaurant, I found it to be a fun little hideaway. The renowned author, Yukio Mishima, and the legendary director, Akira Kurosawa, apparently used to be regulars of this joint.” (Tsuchimochi, image C)
On the southern side of Shinjuku-sanchome is Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a respected historical park and garden. If you’re looking for a quick escape from the city, then this park is the place to relax as you gaze upon the towering high rises in the background. It gets particularly busy during the cherry blossom season, so if you happen to be there when they’re in spectacular full-bloom, then make sure you partake in the Japanese tradition of hanami (cherry blossom viewing).


KABUKICHO, THE TOWN THAT NEVER SLEEPS

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It is not an exaggeration to say that Kabukicho is the main attraction for the many tourists who visit Shinjuku. Kabukicho is the largest entertainment district in Japan and has been depicted in various different movies and games as the grounds for yakuza rivalries. As its entertainment district badge suggests, the streets are full of bright neon lights and the slight sleazy air about it makes it a truly unique place. While it is worth a visit for the flashy atmosphere, it is very important to be on guard as there are a fair few brothels as well as shady establishments aiming to rid you of all your money, and then some. An innocent stroll through the area to soak up the atmosphere won’t get you into any trouble at all, but just be careful of walking into suspicious establishments.

A recommended spot just outside of Kabukicho is a historically important Shinto shrine – the Hanazono Shrine. Also, right next to Hanazono Shrine, is the Shinjuku Golden Gai, which is a tiny area occupying approximately only 6,600 square metres jam-packed with rows of over 200 quaint, low-rise wooden restaurants.

Literary bars and other quirky little places can be found everywhere you turn with writers, editors, directors, actors and other cultural intellects regulars to these establishments. The influence of these patrons and the eccentricity of the area has turned this place into a sub-culture of Tokyo and a home for grassroots underground art. A walk through this area is certainly an enriching experience.

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Image D

Tsuchimochi described his work (image D) as follows – “This is the view of the cramped alleyway with all of the different signs bearing the unique names of the bars around. It happened to be raining that day and I almost felt a sense of sorrow from the sight of all the people walking around with their umbrellas. I feel like the sight of Hanazono Shrine in the distance behind all of this is very Japanese.”

The picture drawn by Shinji Tsuchimochi depicts the mysterious charm of the area in a way that no photo seems to be able to capture. I would highly recommended a stroll around the area to experience this atmosphere for yourself.

While I’ve only given you a taste of Shinjuku, I can assure you that Shinjuku is very much a huge place of so many different charms and wonders. Now that you are familiar with the treats the area around Shinjuku Station has to offer, perhaps I can delve even further to the other places to see around Shinjuku next time.


THE TREASURE OF SHINJUKU-NISHIGUCHI
THE KEIO PLAZA HOTEL

– Welcoming guests with the finest stay around at the Premier Grand

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The Keio Plaza Hotel – the pioneer to all of the skyscrapers in Shinjuku and the first high-rise hotel in Japan. Comprised of 1438 rooms in total, the gargantuan hotel is a convenient 5 minute walk from Shinjuku-Nishiguchi. Inside of the hotel are a number of fine dining restaurants, as well as a beauty salon, a tea room for traditional tea ceremonies and even kimono fitting services, just to name a few of the perks. However, all of these luxuries pale in comparison to the unveiling of the Premier Grand in December 2016, which is a club and lounge floor of unmatched opulence garnering a significant amount of attention.

Designed by the leading London-based interior and architectural design firm, G.A Design International, the carefully planned out space and the experience of gazing out towards the view from the spacious bathroom of one of the high rise rooms, combined with the feeling of truly relaxing in the natural, yet luxurious room, is absolutely first class.

Another feature that cannot be missed is the Premier Grand exclusive Club Lounge that looks after any needs you may have during your stay. The Club Lounge is an open space to relax in 160m above the city streets and is exclusively for patrons staying in Premier Grand or Premier Grand Suite rooms. The specially-made breakfast is also served in the Lounge.

From dinner reservations, to meeting arrangements, your dedicated concierge will take care of everything you need. For those who are after the best hotel experience in Shinjuku, look no further than the Premier Grand at the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo.

INFORMATION

Premier Grand Club Lounge
Hours: 7:00am – 10:00pm (breakfast, tea time and bar time)
Capacity: 154 seats (no smoking, free Wi-Fi available)
Facilities: reception, lounge zone, library area, meeting room, dining area

KEIO PLAZA HOTEL TOKYO

2-2-1 Nishi-Shinjuku,
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 81-3-3344-0111
Web: www.keioplaza.com 
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