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71006-0003 - Tea Service at the Grand Hotel

Yokohama 1920s
Grandeur at the Grand

Artist Unknown
Publisher Ueda
Medium Postcard
Period Taisho
Location Yokohama
Image No. 71006-0003
Purchase Digital File
Author

Japanese waitresses in kimono stand ready for the tea service in the lounge of Yokohama’s celebrated Grand Hotel, sometime between 1918 and its destruction by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

The Grand Hotel was opened on August 16, 1873 (Meiji 6), and considered to be the most elegant hotel of Japan. In a letter home, the wife of the American Minister to Korea (1894–1897) called it “equal to any first class hotel in Europe.”1

It was opened just as the revolution in transport technology, like steam ships and railways, started to make global tourism both possible and popular for the rich. Everywhere in the world, luxury hotels sprung up to cater to the new globetrotters. The Grand Hotel rode this wave perfectly, and in 1889 (Meiji 22) it was greatly expanded by the addition of a large wooden structure with over 100 rooms. Designed by French architect Paul Pierre Sarda (1844–1905), the new building had a large garden in the back.

An advertisement in the 1894 edition of A handbook for travellers in Japan, just a few years after the opening of the new building, gives a proud account:2

With the new and elegant additional building containing upwards of 100 apartments, and surrounded by fine verandahs (sic) over 200 feet long, making an extensive promenade, affords its occupants a magnificent view of the Harbour and a cool and pleasant residence, even in the hottest days of the sultry season.

In addition to this, the hotel grounds comprise fine tennis lawns and walks. The company can safely challenge any hotel in the East for pleasantness of situation, comfort, and elegance.

120821-0061 - Yokohama Grand Hotel, 1890s
The new annex of the Grand Hotel soon after its opening in 1889 (Meiji 22). Nobukuni Enami, hand colored albumen print.
110804-0051 - Yokohama Grand Hotel, ca. 1918–1923
Rickshaw pullers waiting for customers at the Grand Hotel sometime between 1918 and 1923. The chauffeured cars show the winds of change. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.

The hotel was famed for its dining experience. A live band played music during meals that people wrote home about. At a time when menus were still handwritten, the Grand Hotel offered printed menus that were changed daily. Each dish had a number. Guests told the waiters the number of the dish they wanted instead of its name.

80115-0006 - Grand Hotel Menu
Cover of the dinner menu of the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture for September 20 1903.
80115-0007 - Grand Hotel Menu
Dinner menu of the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture for September 20 1903.

British designer Christopher Dresser, appointed as an emissary to Japan by the British Government, even mentioned the food in his book about his visit to the country in 1876-1877:3

Fish, entrees, and joint were presented in due sequence, as though I were sitting in the Grand Hotel at Paris; while grouped on dishes were tins of Crosse and Blackwell’s potted meats, and Keiller’s Dundee marmalade and jam. I confess that while these luxuries were in the most perfect state of preservation, and in every sense enjoyable, I was disappointed in seeing such familiar forms of food instead of the tentacle of an octopus, the succulent shoot of a bamboo, the fin of a shark, or some other such natives dainties as I looked for.

We actually have to thank Dresser for the photographs on this page. Without him they could not have been taken. During his stay, he extinguished a fire raging on the floor above him and thereby prevented the hotel from burning down. Surprisingly, the manager considered it wasted energy. “I was informed that our landlord considered it no part of my duty to put out fires on his premises, and that he was well insured.”

110804-0011 - Grand Hotel Lounge
Guests relax in comfortable chairs in the lounge of the Yokohama Grand Hotel, ca. 1918–1923. Notice the elevated stage for the live band in the back. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.
71129-0030 - Interior of the Grand Hotel Lounge
The lounge seen from the other side. The elevated bandstand can be seen on the left. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.
110804-0010 - Yokohama Grand Hotel Lounge, 1918–1923
The lounge seen from just below the bandstand. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.

What gave the Grand Hotel its great ambiance was it magnificent view on Yokohama Harbor. The hotel took advantage of this by building a large lounge with huge windows that was furnished with comfortable chairs pointed towards the outside. American traveler Burton Holmes (1870–1958) gushed about the hotel’s view in his 1917 (Taisho 6) travelogues:4

Our windows look out upon the harbor of Yokohama, the most important open port of the Mikado’s Empire, and though the scene before us is in appearance a quiet one, an enormous amount of shipping is borne by these blue waters. Nearly every day an ocean steamer reaches Yokohama from some one of the great seaports of the world. Men-of-war of England, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States are constantly at anchor here, while the countless fishing-junks of the Japanese are continually passing, sometimes casting their nets within a stone’s throw of our windows.

Even British novelist W. Somerset Maugham, who stayed at the Grand Hotel in August 19175, was impressed by the view. He felt that he could almost physically touch the romance:6

One afternoon I was sitting in the lounge of the Grand Hotel. This was before the earthquake and they had leather arm-chairs there. From the windows you had a spacious view of the harbour with its crowded traffic. There were great liners on their way to Vancouver and San Francisco or to Europe by way of Shanghai, Hong-Kong, and Singapore; there were tramps of all nations, battered and sea-worn, junks with their high sterns and great coloured sails, and innumerable sampans. It was a busy, exhilarating scene, and yet, I know not why, restful to the spirit. Here was romance and it seemed that you had but to stretch out your hand to touch it.

110804-0009 - Yokohama Grand Hotel Lobby, 1918–1923
The lobby of the Grand Hotel, 1918–1923. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.
110804-0012 - Yokohama Grand Hotel Ball Room, 1918–1923
The ball room of the Grand Hotel, 1918–1923. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.
71129-0031 - Yokohama Grand Hotel Banquet Room, 1918–1923
The banquet room of the Grand Hotel, 1918–1923. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.
101004-0058 - Yokohama Grand Hotel Dining Room, 1918–1923
The dining room of the Grand Hotel, 1918–1923. Ueda, collotype print on postcard stock.

Thanks to a letter Philadelphia businessman Simon Adler Stern (1838–1904) wrote during his stay in 1887 (Meiji 20), we also have a rare account of the atmosphere and sounds of the hotel:7

If the dining-room is not a Babel in the way of noise, it is one so far as a ‘‘confusion of tongues” can go to make it so. It seems to be a gathering place for specimens (not always of the choicest) of all sorts of nationalities; for you can meet Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Dutch, Spaniards, Russians, Hindoos and even Armenians there. The servants are Japanese, the steward is a Chinaman who speaks excellent French, the clerk in charge of the office is Portuguese, the comprador is of course a Chinaman and, if I remember rightly, the night watchman is a Wallachian.

Our hotel is delightfully situated on the Bund, the name by which the highway along the water front is designated in these Eastern cities. It affords a fine view of the beautiful bay, which has a peaceful, quiet look, but which, I am told, can be very turbulent, and often is so, at very short notice.

The evenings in such a place are, as a rule, very quiet. Sometimes, late at night, when all the guests have retired, I find it pleasant enough to light a cigar and take my seat on the veranda. The Wallachian watchman, going his rounds, will stop for a minute’s chat, and then will leave me to myself and my thoughts of what the day has brought and taught me, of the people I have met, of the sights I have seen, and of the friends at home. The silence is broken at intervals by the passing of a group of jin-ricshas (sic), conveying their passengers homeward from some festive gathering, the spell of which is still evident in the noisy gayety of the merry riders.

Then, too, there is the shampooer or rubber [masseur], usually a blind man, who wanders the streets at night seeking employment, and obtaining it, too. He carries a little fife or flute, on which he sounds two notes, an ascending fifth, so that those who are weary and yet unable to sleep may know of his coming.

161110-0002 - Ruins of the Yokohama Grand Hotel after the Great Kanto Earthquake
The ruins of the famed Grand Hotel as seen from the Bluff in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture after the Great Kanto Earthquake (Kanto Daishinsai) of September 1, 1923 (Taisho 12). Unattributed, Gelatin Silver Print.

Sadly, the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923 completely destroyed this Victorian treasure. Only a few chimneys were left standing. One wonders, how many of the women of the tea service survived?

The story does however have a happy ending. In 1927 (Showa 2), the Hotel New Grand was built near the former location of its predecessor. This hotel still stands and is popular as ever. It looks pretty much as it did when it opened. Absolutely worth a visit!

see current map

Notes

1 Neff, Robert (2012). Letters from Joseon: 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador’s Wife. Seoul: Seoul Selection: Chapter 1.

2 Chamberlain, Basil Hall, Mason, W. B (1894). A handbook for travellers in Japan. London: J. Murray; Yokohama: Kelly & Walsh.
by John Murray (Firm), Advertisements 2.

3 Dresser, Christopher (1882). Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures. London : Longmans, Green, and co. : New York : Scribner and Welford, 3–4.

4 Holmes, Burton (1917). Burton Holmes Travelogues, Volume Ten. Chicago, New York: The Travelogue Bureau, 128–129.

5 Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri (Spring, 1976). W. Somerset Maugham: Anglo-American Agent in Revolutionary Russia, The Johns Hopkins University Press: American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1, 95.

6 Maugham, W. Somerset (1938). Cosmopolitans: A Friend in Need. London: William Heinemann, 98.

7 Stern, Simon Adler (1888). Jottings of travel in China and Japan. Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, 44–45, 47–48.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Yokohama 1920s: Grandeur at the Grand, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on May 26, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/872/yokohama-grand-hotel-interior-1920s

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