South Indian snacks, Darjeeling tea and the sound of talavaadya… Taj Coromandel pulled out all the stops for the Chennai visit of the Emperor and Empress of Japan
“The emperor wakes up at 7 a.m. At precisely that time, a cup of Darjeeling tea must be placed on the breakfast table.” Pause. The plush Presidential suite falls silent as a solemn team of suited men from the Taj consult a thick yellow file. Finally, one looks up. “The room temperature must be at 25 degrees Celsius,” he says. The butler nods. “And the emperor’s bath must be at 40 degrees Celsius.” Nod. “Also, make sure the partitions they requested are ready.”
A staffer pulls two specially procured wooden partitions across the suite, carefully positioning them so the dining room is completely hidden.
A day before the visit of Majesty Emperor Akihito and Her Imperial Majesty Empress Michiko, the Taj Coromandel hotel is bristling with anticipation. The Presidential suite and adjoining Grand Luxury Suite (published prices are Rs. 90,000 and Rs. 55,000 plus taxes respectively) have been booked for the royal couple. In keeping with royal protocol, the Japanese palace staff, an entourage of 20 people, includes a ‘chambermaid’ who will stay in a room next door to the couple. Then there are about 40 other Japanese officials and press persons, also staying at the hotel.
Just before the suite is handed over to Indian and Japanese security personnel, the Taj team does a final walk through to ensure everything is in order. Including the banana chips. “A recce team was here a few months ago,” says a Taj representative. “So we gave them a collection of Indian snacks, which they took back to Japan for the emperor to taste. He liked the seedai, thattai, sesame chikkis, groundnut chikkis and banana chips, so they will be kept in the suite, along with the usual bowl of nuts and dried fruits.”
Other requests? A treadmill attached to a television is set up in an alcove adjoining the living room for the emperor to work out. In the living room, a piano has been installed for the empress to play. There are DVDs of Japanese movies by the television. A tray clinking with fancy bottles of sake, flown in especially for the occasion. And designer gold-plated crockery for the emperor and empress to eat from, when they dine in their suite.
On Wednesday afternoon, when the couple arrived, they were welcomed with a pookalam, and invited to light the kuthuvilakku, while a talavaadya (percussion) ensemble.
Anticipating the visit, the hotel’s South Indian restaurant Southern Spice, had translated their menu into Japanese, and planned a special Mahavirundhu dinner experience which included tomato rasam, kuzhi paniyarams and prawn pepper stew served with coconut rice, appams and Thallassery seer fish biriyani, amongst other things. To underline the Chennai connection, the meal ended with curd rice and Kumbakonam kaapi ice cream.
Interestingly, after all the high stress planning, fevered anticipation and reams of intricate menus, the couple finally opted for comfort food on their first morning in Chennai. Chicken soup and braised broccoli with mushrooms for the empress, followed by toast, butter and marmalade.
As for the emperor? He ate toast with a three-minute soft-boiled egg, the yolk still runny. And an apple — peeled and grated.