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Royal trappings grace Akasaka Guest House

by Sayuri Daimon and Satoko Kawasaki

People who visited the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, may have stepped into the old two-story Guest House, which stands behind the 40-story main hotel.

The Guest House now hosts a renowned French restaurant, Le Trianon, the Napoleon Bar and several banquet halls.

What is not generally known is that this luxurious structure, built in 1930, was once the residence of Crown Prince Yi Eun (1897-1970), the last crown prince of Korea, and his Japanese wife, Crown Princess Masako (1901-1989), during the war and early postwar period.

Theirs was a marriage of political convenience following Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, designed to strengthen Japan’s control over the peninsula.

Princess Masako of Nashimoto, who had been a leading candidate to wed Emperor Hirohito when he was still the Crown Prince, was picked to marry Crown Prince Yi Eun of Korea, who had been brought to Japan by the government in 1907 so he could study abroad.

The couple were married in 1920 and initially lived in Toriizaka in the Azabu district before moving to this building on a vast property of some 30,000 sq. meters in the Kioicho district.

The residence, whose total floor space was 2,500 sq. meters and boasted more than 30 rooms, was designed by architect Yokichi Gondo of the Imperial Household Ministry, who also designed the old residence of Prince Asaka in Shiroganedai, Minato Ward.

Crowned by a tower, the mansion features British Tudor-style arches at the entrance and just outside the dining hall on the south side. The dining hall, graced by a huge fireplace, is now used as a chapel and is popular for weddings.

Several twisted columns, in a style called barley twist, are used in the building, with the most notable in the entrance lobby. Each of the dark brown columns, made by carving a log so that it appears twisted, adds a dignified air to the mansion.

Next to the entrance lobby is a rectangular, French-style reception room with an adjacent semicircular alcove.

Sunlight shines on the stairways through large stained glass in the pattern of four-leaf clovers, the artwork of Tatsuo Yamamoto.

On the second floor are side-by-side rooms with bookshelves that were the separate dens for the prince and princess.

The balcony of Princess Masako’s room on the south side of the building provided a view of Tokyo Bay, as the mansion stands on top of a hill, but that was back before high-rises came along.

Despite owning such a grand mansion and other properties, the end of World War II left the Imperial couple in poverty, as all royal and peerage titles were abolished by the Allied Occupation Forces and high taxes were imposed on the assets of the former royal families. The couple had to survive by selling off their properties bit by bit.

To make money, they even rented half the building to the Japanese government so it could be used as the official residence of the Upper House president from 1948 to 1953.

In 1954, the residence was finally sold to Yasujiro Tsutsumi, founder of Seibu Railway Co. and speaker of the Lower House, who a year later turned the property into the Akasaka Prince Hotel with 51 guest rooms.

The building continued to host guest rooms until 1983, when the high-rise hotel designed by the late architect Kenzo Tange was erected in the same compound.

The Grand Prince Akasaka is set to go through a major renovation beginning next March, but Seibu Railway plans to preserve the old Guest House.

The old Guest House is a one-minute walk from Akasaka-Mitsuke Station and a two-minute walk from Nagata-cho Station. Admission is free.