Dear Alice,
I’m very curious about a building I passed the other day on my way to Shinagawa Station. It’s an old Western-style building, probably from before the war, and it has a tall, way-out-of-proportion tower on top. To be honest, it looks like a lighthouse. But what the heck would a lighthouse be doing in the middle of a landlocked city neighborhood?
Irina P., Tokyo

Dear Irina,

That building is the Nihonenoki Branch Fire Station, located in Takanawa 2-chome in Minato Ward, just around the corner from Meiji Gakuin University. It was built in 1933, and that skyward extension is not a todai (lighthouse) but a rodai (fire watchtower).

The station is a working firehouse but welcomes about 1,200 visitors a year, most of whom come out of an interest in architecture, according to Deputy Branch Chief Wajiro Takahashi. The attraction is partially that there aren’t all that many buildings left in Tokyo from so early in the Showa Era (1926-1989), and also that, with its rounded lines, the old firehouse is a rare example of architecture in Japan influenced by the German Expressionist movement. For reference, probably the most famous extant example of Expressionist architecture is Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein tower in Potsdam, Germany, which was built in 1920-21.

The architect who designed the fire station was Misao Ochi, an employee of the Tokyo police department who has been otherwise forgotten by history, or at least lost to Google — I didn’t get a single hit on him that wasn’t related to the fire station. If you’re wondering why a police architect was given the task of designing a firehouse, it’s because firefighting was under the purview of the police until 1948, when an independent fire department was first established.

Actually, Ochi designed the Nihonenoki fire station together with a companion building, a police station that formerly stood right across the street. His rather unusual concept was that the two buildings together would represent the battleship Mikasa, something of a national icon at the time and now preserved as a floating museum at Yokosuka. The tower on the fire station was supposed to evoke one of the battleship’s two funnels (that’s ship-speak for “smokestack”), while the tower on the police station across the street represented the other.

Unfortunately, we can’t see what the architect had in mind because the police station was torn down and replaced in 1977 with a modern building. The fire station was slated for demolition too, but local residents joined forces with the Architectural Institute of Japan to launch a successful preservation effort. I asked about a photograph of the two buildings together, but Takahashi said he and his colleagues at the fire station have never been able to locate one.

Standing in front of the building, a sharp-eyed observer might notice that the blue spike on top of the tower seems like a mismatch. In fact, it’s a 1984 addition, stuck on by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government during a burst of enthusiasm for bunka dezain (“cultural design”). It replaced a rusted out radio-transmission antenna, and was intended to transform the building into a cultural symbol for the neighborhood.

To be honest, I was more interested in the round walkways at the top of the tower. Right into the 1970s, the station’s firefighters kept a lookout there, around the clock and in all weathers, watching in one-hour shifts for signs of fire. The fire station is built on a hill 25 meters above sea level, and back in the days when Tokyo was a low-rise city it afforded a sweeping view for fire surveillance. In 1953, for example, nearly 12 percent of fires in Tokyo were discovered by fire watchers, but by 1963, as the city got taller and the spread of telephones made it possible for citizens to phone in reports of fire, that rate had dropped to 3.3 percent. By 1972, when boro kinmu (fire-watch duty) was abolished throughout Japan, such surveillance had become almost completely ineffective, accounting for only 0.26 percent of fires reported.

The “Nihonenoki” in the station’s name comes from an old place name for the area, which in turn came from two enoki (Japanese hackberry) trees that used to grow nearby. The road in front of the firehouse was once a major road into Edo (present-day Tokyo), and the two trees were a well-known road marker until they were destroyed by fires, one in 1702 and the other in 1745.

As an aside, the Takanawa area wasn’t always landlocked; it was right by the sea until major land reclamation began there during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). If you walk a few hundred meters down the hill from the Nihonenoki fire station, following the road that runs between the firehouse and the police station, you’ll meet up with a major road called the Dai-ichi Keihin. At the corner, you can see a historical marker and stones preserved from the old Takanawa sea wall. If you then cross the Dai-ichi Kehin, you’ll be at approximately the point where the bay began during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Now, after long years of land reclamation, you’d have to keeping walking for over a kilometer to get to the water’s edge.

It’s possible to visit the fire station, and even go up the tower, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you make an appointment in advance, by phoning in Japanese to (03) 3473-0119, they can arrange for an English-speaking guide. Please understand that they cannot accept visitors when an emergency is in progress; the trucks go out on shutsujo (call) pretty much every day.

The Nihonenoki Branch Fire Station is located at Takanawa 2-16-17, Minato-ku, Tokyo, and is about a 9-minute walk from Takanawadai Station on the Asakusa Line or a 15-minute walk from any of the following stations: JR Shingawa Station, Shirogane-Takanawa on the Mita and Namboku subway lines or Sengokuji Station on the Asakusa and Keihin Kyuko lines. Here is the location on a Google map.

Later this year, all residences in Japan will be required by law to have smoke detectors or similar residential fire alarms (jyutaku-yo kasai keihoki). The rule goes into effect on April 1 for most of Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture; some localities are earlier or later. For a map in Japanese with effective dates by locality, go to www.nohmi.co.jp/jukeiki/ guidance/regulation.html. For brief information in English on what sort of alarms meet the requirement, and where to place them, go to www.tfd.metro.tokyo.jp/eng/inf/firealarm.html. Be sure to put the emergency number for fires by your phone — it’s 119.

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