Absolutist baroque, where one wouldn’t expect it
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Nobody would travel to Japan, if his/her pet passion was palaces in finest neo-baroque. After all, Japan really isn’t famous for baroque pomp (except, of course, the Japanese variation of this style that can be seen in Nikkō). The more surprisingly, Tōkyō has a gorgeous example of this style – which looked already kind of outdated when it was built. However, everything seemed possible in the decades directly after the opening of the country under the reign of the Meiji Emperor (明治天皇 / まいじてんのう). So, why not built a small Versailles? Why no urban Schönbrunn Palace? If others can afford it!?
Thus, between 1899 and 1909 the palace, which was called “Crown Prince’s Palace“ (東宮御所 / とうごうごしょ), was built on a site that was once the Edo estate of the Kishū Tokugawa clan, one of the powerful branches of the ruling Tokugawa family (Tokugawa Shogunate). The building, made of bricks reinforced with steel frames, consistes of two floors above the ground and one below. It is supposed to be an earthquake and fire resistant structure – and it has proven some resistancy already, as it survived the Great Kantō Earthquake (1923) an the fires of World War II.
It is also regarded as one of the biggest surviving buildings of the Meiji era – and the only example of neo-baroque in Japan. The leading architect was Katayama Tōkuma (片山 東熊 / かたやま とうくま), one of Josiah Conder’s disciples – one of the most prominent foreign architects of its time, and the one I appreciate the least of all of them. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, if also this palace shows some style elements which are not entirely in line with the book of pure baroque.
Even though beeing built as a residence for the crown prince, the palace hasn’t been used as the crown prince’s residence for a long time. The Showa-Tennō – at that time called Crown Prince Hirohito – had his residence here from 1923 to 1928. And also the present emperor is said to have lived here for a while.
After World War II., the management of the building and its land was transferred from the Imperial Household to the Government. It was subsequently used for public institutions and bodies such as the National Diet Library, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and as an office of the Tōkyō Olympics Organization Committee 1964.
During the postwar period, Japan reintegrated itself into the international community and developed closer ties with an increasing number of other countries. Since it was starting to welcome state and official guests from abroad, a policy was developed to build a facility to accommodate them. In line with this policy finally it was decided in 1967 to restore and remodel the former Akasaka Palace to serve as a State Guest House.
The restoration and remodeling works were completed in 1974 (it’s said that the total cost was 10.8 billion yen – today’s exchange rates considered, that would be around 105 million Euros). This price, however, also included a Japanese style annex, as the foreign guests were obviously longing for some Japanese „wabi-sabi“ (詫び寂び / わびさび), simplicity & style, rather than an admittedly gorgeous interpretation of absolutist grandness.
Since then it has become an illustrious stage for diplomatic activities with leading figures in the political, business and academic circles. It has also served as a venue for important international conferences including the Tōkyō G7 Summit meeting (1979, 1986 and 1993).
After a large-scale repair work, which started in 2006 and continued for about three years, the operations of the State Guest House restarted in April 2009. In December 2009 the main building of the former Crown Prince’s Palace, together with the front gate and the fountain in the main garden, was designated as a National Treasure and has enjoyed particular appreciation since.
The interior of the place will remain inaccessible for us average Joes. Also the gardens surrounding the palace are usually striclty off-limits. However, between November 1st and 3rd, 2012, the northern part of the gardens were partially open for the public – an instance that should not pass unused. All pictures of this posting were taken on that occasion, when I had gain access to the garden after some tight security controls.
For the sake of completeness also the major halls of the palace should be named and described here:
Sairan-no-Ma (彩鸞の間 / さいらんのま）
The Sairan-no-Ma is named after the legendary bird “Ran” (phoenix), which appears on the golden relief above the large mirrors on either side of the room and also on the gray marble-topped fireplace. The white ceiling and walls are adorned with gilt stucco relief, while the 10 large mirrors on the walls make the room look more spacious.
This room is used as a waiting room for ushered guests, until meetings with state and official guests begin.
Kachō-no-Ma (花鳥の間 / （かちょうのま）
The Kachō-no-Ma derives its name from the numerous flowers and birds depicted in the 36 oil paintings on the ceiling. The surrounding boards-walls wainscoted with liver-colored ash-tree are the place where the cloisonné plaques are decorated.
This splendorous room is mainly used for official banquets hosted by state and official guests, with seating capacities up to 130 persons.
Asahi-no-Ma (朝日の間 / あさひのま）
The “hall of the sunrise” is named after the painting on the ceiling, depicting a goddess driving a chariot with the rising sun behind her. The 16 columns surrounding the room are made from Norwegian marble. The walls are covered with artistic brocaded velvet.
This room is used as a salon, holding audiences and important meetings of state and official guests.
Hagoromo-no-Ma (羽衣の間 / はごろものま)
The Name “Hagoromo-no-Ma” comes from the imposing 300 sqm painting on the ceiling, which depicts scenes for the Noh play “Hagoromo” (Robe of Heaven). The three chandeliers in this room are the most gorgeous ones in the palace. Each chandelier is composed of 7.000 pieces, three meters in height and weighting 800 kilograms. The walls are decorated with stucco relief of musical instruments and scores. On the mezzanine floor is an orchestra gallery which reminds us of the days when it was originally designed as a ballroom.
Today this room is mainly used for welcoming ceremonies in case of unfavorable weather, as well as receptions and conferences. When an official banquet is held at the Kachō-no-Ma, beverages are served to the guests in this room before and after the dinner.
Chūō Kaidan (中央階段 / ちゅうおうかいだん)
The “Central Stairway“ is made from Italian marble, overlaid with a red carpet. The walls on either side of the stairway are inlaid with shiny French marble.
Nikai Daihōru (２階大ホール / にかいだいホール)
On the second froor in front of the Large Hall are two pieces of large oil paintings, “Painting” and “Music”, by the artist Ryohei Koiso. The painting on the ceiling of the Great Hall is named “The Seventh Heaven” by Shunichi Terada of the Tōkyō National University of Fine Arts and Music. I was painted in 1974 when the State Guest House was restored.
As mentioned above, these gorgeous premises are not the place for us mortals – but they could make us consider striving for the highest governments posts….
As from May 31, 2016 not only the garden of the Akasaka Palace will be made open to the public, but the palace and the buildings in the park as well. Further information can be found on the website of the “Cabinet Office: http://www8.cao.go.jp/geihinkan/koukai_e.html
How to get there:
Take the JR Sōbu/Chūō line (JR総武線/中央線 / JRそうぶせん/ちゅうおうせん) or the subway lines Namboku (南北線 / なんぼくせん) or Marunouchi (丸の内線 / まるのうちせん) to Yotsuya (四谷 / よつや). From there it’s about 3 to 4 minutes in southern direction. Usually the palace can only be seen from the closed main gate on the north side of the palace’s grounds.