FAR EAST: BEDS IN BALLROOMS AND BOXES. - Asian hotels are regularly voted the best in the world. There are others - equally memorable.

by Peter Popham.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Asian hotels are regularly voted the best in the world. There are others - equally memorable.

It is possible to enjoy fine, even memorable accommodation in the Far East, but the traveller should be warned that it is just as easy to be sucked into a nightmare. The Far Eastern hotel trauma comes in a range of star qualities, from nought to five.

Beware extreme size. One of the best-known hotels in Tokyo is also one of the world's largest, and here the nightmare has been fine-tuned to something approaching perfection. This hotel has everything: a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, a tea ceremony cottage set in a tiny, jewel-like Japanese garden with a little bridge, banqueting halls, health centre, and branches of half a dozen world-famous restaurants. The drawback is that it also has about 5,000 rooms. An expensive hotel can be expected to provide refuge from the city and its crowds: here the crowd follows you inside and stands densely all around you, tapping their feet in the elevator hall. A swanky hotel should make you feel big: this one confirms your status as an ant. And once you have reached the 25th floor and crawled along the endless corridors, you discover that the room you are paying £150 a night for is the size of the average welcome mat.

The advantage of the small rooms of Japanese hotels is that you can save energy: everything from ordering dinner to pouring a drink and brushing your teeth can be done while sitting on the sofa. But if you feel penned in, or if you need to pace about, there is nothing for it but to tramp again those intestinal corridors and rejoin the mob in the lobby.

Once you have recognised this as the authentic nightmare, you will begin to discover with grudging admiration that it has been thought through to the smallest detail. As the hotel's literature promises, your room enioys a view of the Japanese garden, though you would need a telescope to appreciate it. But the windows do not open and the air-conditioning is always too hot. The static from the door handle makes your hair stand on end. Room service takes ages and the human staff have been replaced by fairly convincing automata. They are programmed to run after you and return your tip if you attempt to leave one, which is cute, but after a while you start to hanker for a little human frailty.

The other extreme of the nightmare, with a star rating of nought, is the sort of place the ill-paid salaryman, who misses the last train home because he is drunk, repairs to with a certain morbid glee. If he is your host for the evening you may find yourself repairing there with him. Here the Japanese urge to economise on space is taken as far as 76e it will go. There are no rooms, only boxes - coffins for gorillas, piled four high and 10 wide, reached by ladder and entered like a bird box through a hole in the front.

They call them capsules. The concept originated in the early '70s when an architect called Kisho Kurokawa designed a building in central Tokyo to provide businessmen with tiny pieds-a-terre in the form of converted and fully fitted out steel containers, all heaped up in an artful imitation of randomness. He called it a capsule building, shrewdly invoking the glamorous miniaturisation of the American space programme.

The local reaction was that Kurokawa had been absurdly over-generous in apportioning space. American astronauts were not free to stand up and sit down - why should Japanese businessmen claim the right? Thus was born the capsule hotel. Each visitor is provided with a yukata (sleeping kimono) and a locker. Once you have deposited your clothes and changed into the yukata you climb the ladder to the capsule. Inside there is everything you could desire, except room to stand up - or a window. There is a little air conditioner, a reading light, a small television. For the first 10 minutes it is really quite cosy. Gradually the cosiness wears off. Into the mind swim images from Edgar Allan Poe tales of people walled up with cats, or prematurely buried. Sleep is about to come when someone two coffins along starts talking to himself and your neighbour starts striking matches. It is a long night.

To experience the capsule hotel it is necessary to go to Japan. But the five-star nightmare can be accessed right across the Continent. Seoul's great palaces of tourism are strong contenders, as are the behemoths of Guangzhou in southern China. Taiwan and Hong Kong offer their own versions, each with their own distinctive ways of making your stay hell.

Further south, however, in the Philippines and Indonesia, a certain affable ropiness takes the place of East Asian automatism, and while you may have cause to fear for your health and safety, at least you are being looked after by human beings.

As anywhere else in the world, the hotels of the Far East which it is a pleasure to return to are those which, by some genius of management, contrive to feel like particular places rather than just agglomerations of accommodation. This is achieved more easily when a hotel has a certain pedigree. Arriving at Macao's Bella-vista by rickshaw, one could tell at once by the greenery sprouting through the stucco that this was a place with tales to tell. When I stayed there it smelled of must, the floorboards were spongy and the drapes frayed and dusty, but when taking tea on the verandah overlooking the sea one had no doubt that it was worthwhile: the place had such character. It has been refurbished since then. If they have been clever its character will have survived.

The Peace Hotel in Shanghai, formerly Victor Sassoon's Cathay Hotel, had a strong enough character to get through the Cultural Revolution unscathed. The service is by turns imperious and slovenly, the food unremarkable, but the whimsical grandeur of the place triumphs. It is partly the views over the bustling Huangpu river, partly the huge suites where the drapes, chandeliers and sofas have not been seriously tampered with since the war: it all takes you back to another age, to Shanghai's cosmopolitan pre-war prime - which had style if nothing else.

It is not strictly necessary to risk discomfort in pursuit of character. A good rule of thumb is to go either to the very top or the very bottom of the market.

At the top you find the hotels which are, with monotonous regularity, voted among the best in the world. The Manila Hotel is a champion among these, because, like the city itself, it is so magnificently theatrical. Its immense lobby, dripping with Hispanic dignity, is a stage where the sub-Hollywood dramas of Philippine high society are played out nightly.

The Okura in Tokyo is one of the few first-class hotels in Japan to possess this elusive quality of character - the result of the owner's stubborn, quirky determination to infuse this totally 'western' environment with the aesthetics of the ryokan, the elegant Japanese inn. The carpet in the lobby, for example, seen from a distance, is suggestive of tatami, the straw flooring of Japan. The lamps are shaded with rice paper and daylight filters through shoji, translucent paper windows.

The real thing, however - the ryokan itself - should not be missed, and while modestly-priced ones are always decent, the more you pay the more memorable the experience is likely to be: with a room overlooking a small private garden, for example, a fragrant wooden bath, and extraordinary food. In its austere fashion, the ryokan is a very sybaritic experience.

The other legendary hotels of the Far East - the Mandarin in Hong Kong, the Oriental in Bangkok, the Chosun in Seoul have done a more or less good job of maintaining their cachet while keeping up to date; while one of the most celebrated of the lot, the Strand in Rangoon, is much less shabby and dilapidated than travellers' tales a few years back used to paint it.

Yet if the memorability of the experience can be allowed once in a while to take priority over convenience, it is sometimes wise to spend as little as you can get away with. The minshuku for example, Japan's answer to bed and breakfast, and the humble but often delightful yoinshook of South Korea, offer better, cheaper, richer insights into those countries than any five-star hotel.

Back in the palmy days when journalists were expected to stay in the best hotel in town, I spent a week in Seoul's noble Chosun, in a room so big that I had trouble sleeping - it was like bedding down in a ballroom. Finally it began getting to me, so I moved out to my favourite place in the city, a converted nobleman's residence called Un Dang Yogwan - Floating Cloud Inn. It is a series of courtyards, the centre of each occupied by a pavilion with a steep roof with upswinging eaves, the sides lined with tiny rooms, heated from underneath, which in the old days were inhabited by the family's retainers. That is where I ended up, in the cheapest but most tranquil spot in the city.

They have torn it down now. So when you go to Seoul you will have to stay in the Chosun - and suffer.

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