The Oriental Hotel was Kobe’s face for more than a hundred years. At the time that this photo was taken, it was known as one of the best places in Japan to stay, and even more, one of the best places to eat.
It didn’t attract only foreigners visiting Kobe, but also well-to-do Japanese who used the hotel as a high-class meeting place. In author Junichiro Tanizaki‘s masterpiece The Makioka Sisters (細雪, Sasameyuki), the Makioka family often go to the Oriental on special occasions. They even do their omiai there.
Food was part of the Oriental Hotel mystique from its very beginnings. Actually the first owner, the Frenchman Louis Begeux, ran the Restaurant Française from around 1886 (Meiji 19) on number 122 in Kobe’s foreign settlement before opening the Oriental Hotel in 1887 (Meiji 20) on number 80 (Kyomachi).
Begeux was clearly a magician in the kitchen as can be evidenced by the passage below from the newspaper The Pioneer. It was written by none other than Rudyard Kipling who’d soon become world famous for The Jungle Book, now better known as a Disney movie. Kipling stayed at the hotel in 1889 (Meiji 22).1
Interestingly, an Oriental Hotel was listed in the Japan Directory of 1879 (Meiji 12). It was owned by G. van der Vlies & Co. and based at number 79. The Dutchman G. van der Vlies is listed on this address as early as 1872 (Meiji 5), but there is no mention of any hotel.
In 1880 (Meiji 13), Club Concordia, a famous German social club, is listed on this address and the Oriental Hotel disappears from the directories until 1888 (Meiji 21). The Japan Directory of 1882 does list an Oriental Inn owned by A. C. Pinto at 57 Native Town (about where Motomachi is located today), but this is clearly unrelated.
In 1897 (Meiji 30), the hotel was bought by several local businessmen, among which Arthur Hasketh Groom, the person who in 1903 built Japan’s very first golf course on Mt. Rokko. The hotel was made into a limited company and the son of Begeux was hired as a manager.
Business went well and in 1907 (Meiji 40) the Oriental Hotel moved to a brand new building on number 6, right on the popular Bund and with a beautiful view of the bay. This is the building shown in the top photo. It was designed by German architect George de Lalande, who also designed the famous Weathercock House which still exists and has become Kobe’s new symbol.
At its new location, guests could hear the low drones of ship horns drift in from over the water, repeatedly accented by the high-pitched hoots of pilot boats. All the while there was the continuous background music of a busy Asian harbor: the masculine shouts of rickshaw runners clearing the road in front of them, interspersed with those of hardy dockworkers unloading ships and the foreign accents of the hotel’s guests in the lobby.
In 1917 (Taisho 6), the hotel was bought by the large shipping line Toyo Kisen. The hotel was completely refurbished and started a new life similar to today’s hotel chains run by airlines. Just nine years later Toyo Kisen sold the hotel to a group of Japanese businessmen who established Oriental Hotel Ltd.
Regardless of the wheeling and dealing, the hotel continued to be extremely successful and remained famous for its excellent food. When Helen Keller (1880-1968) visited Japan in 1937, she stayed for several days at the Kobe villa of Baron Sumitomo who had arranged that a chef of the Oriental Hotel cooked for her. “We have the most delicious food you ever tasted,” Keller wrote in a letter.2
The hotel burned down during WWII, but was soon rebuilt. It was used by the occupation forces before a new building was opened at number 64 on February 19, 1949 (Showa 24). Even now it remained the first choice of visiting foreigners, including many famous people. In 1954 for example, screen legend Marilyn Monroe and baseball giant Joe DiMaggio stayed here.
Unfortunately, the hotel was so severely damaged in the 1995 quake that it could not be rebuild. Some 10 years later it was torn down, ending more than a century of history featuring people like Kipling, Keller, Tanizaki, Monroe, DiMaggio and countless others.
In 2010, a new Oriental Hotel was opened at 25 Kyomachi in Kobe. “The Oriental Hotel’s past has been intertwined with that of the city of Kobe itself, and together, they will build a new future,” the management wrote.
A nice and unexpected tidbit, the New Oriental Hotel acquired several vintage photographs of the old Oriental Hotel from Old Photos of Japan. They are being used for its interior and promotion.
1 Kipling, Rudyard (1899). From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel, Part I. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 368-369.
2 Lash, Joseph P. (1997) Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 645
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Kobe 1900s: Oriental Hotel, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on August 12, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/159/oriental-hotel
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