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Modern era gentry’s architectural gems

by Reiji Yoshida and Satoko Kawasaki

This is the first in a biweekly series appearing Fridays (Saturdays in some areas) that looks at photos and background stories of historic, architecturally significant mansions once owned by some of the wealthiest families in Japan.

Near the quiet Shinobazu-no-ike pond in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, one can still see the fine mansions built for the super-rich who laid the foundation of the country’s modern industries.

The mansions were built and inhabited by Hisaya Iwasaki (1865-1955), the oldest son of Yataro Iwasaki (1835-85), founder of the powerful Mitsubishi zaibatsu. Many blue-chip companies trace their history to this conglomerate, which was established in the late 19th century.

When completed in 1896, the compound comprised more than 20 structures. Today only three survive, namely a Western-style guesthouse, a traditional “shoin” Japanese building and a billiard hall.

In particular, the two-story guesthouse, designed by British architect Josiah Conder and based on the Jacobean style of the 17th century, is an example of some of the finest Western architecture introduced after the feudal period ended.

Conder also designed the famed Rokumeikan dance hall, built by the government to promote Westernization of the country and boost Japan’s diplomatic status to achieve revision of the unequal trade treaties with the Western powers.

Yataro procured the land to build a guesthouse to entertain foreign guests in Western style, rather than receive them with geisha at traditional restaurants. The guesthouse’s interior also includes Islamic and Renaissance motifs.

The ceiling of a guest room for women is covered with silk with fine gold Persian stitchery.

The first-floor veranda is decorated with tiles of Islamic design, imported from British ceramics maker Minton. The tiles were an essential element for many Victorian Gothic structures in Britain, including the Palace of Westminster in London.

A three-minute walk from Yushima Station on the Chiyoda subway line, the compound, now renamed Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens, is open to visitors every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for an admission fee of ¥400.