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Tokyo’s Art Deco treasure house

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By Vicki L Beyer

Tokyo doesn’t have a great many historic houses, but the ones it does have are real treasures. One historic house in Tokyo is truly unique: Prince Asaka’s Art Deco palace in Meguro. The palace, which was completed in 1933, was opened to the public as the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in October 1983.

The museum was closed for renovations in 2011 and re-opened to the public on Nov 22. Always a pleasant way to spend an afternoon as part of a visit to the Meguro area, the renovated palace now sparkles as it welcomes visitors. A 7-minute walk from Meguro Station, it is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission at 5:30 p.m.), except on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month.

Prince Asaka, the eighth son of Prince Kuni (a minor Imperial prince of the 19th century), married Princess Nobuko, the eighth daughter of Emperor Meiji in 1909. As part of her dowry, Princess Nobuko was given a large tract of land in Shirokanedai, but at the time of their marriage, the couple settled in the Takanawa neighborhood of Tokyo. It was not until the prince and princess spent more than two years in France in the mid-1920s and became enamored of Art Deco that they decided to build a new home on their Shirokanedai land, a home that would be dedicated to the Art Deco style they had both grown to love.

Construction of a residence of an imperial prince falls under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Household Agency. Fortunately, one of their architects, Yokichi Godo, had just returned to Japan after some years studying abroad, including attending the Paris Art Deco Exhibition, which had greatly influenced the tastes of Prince Asaka and Princess Nobuko. Godo was able to design a house suitable for an imperial prince while also heavily featuring Art Deco. It was the job of the Imperial Household Agency to ensure that the house was properly constructed.

Prince Asaka also engaged famed French interior designer Henri Rapin to help produce his Art Deco dream home, ensuring the authenticity of various decorative features of the palace. Other French Art Deco notables who contributed to the interior design were Ivan-Leon Branchot, who designed some of the wall reliefs, and Rene Lalique, whose sculpted figures fill the frosted glass panels of the front doors of the house, overpowering visitors as they exude Art Deco sensuality.

Sadly, Princess Nobuko died suddenly in late 1933, just months after their new home was completed. Prince Asaka became something of a recluse, nursing his grief and the pain of a leg injury sustained in a European automobile accident.

Tragedy continued to dog the family. As a military officer, Prince Asaka found himself commander of the Imperial Army unit assigned to take Nanking, China, in 1937. Never prosecuted for war crimes, the prince’s role in the events that took place there remains unclear.

During the occupation after the war, it was decided that the imperial family would be trimmed to include only the immediate relatives of the emperor. Thus, in 1947, Prince Asaka lost his imperial titles and became a commoner. Taking Asaka as their family name, the former prince and his family relocated to Atami.

The palace served as the official residence of the prime minister from1947 to 1950 and was a State Guest House from 1950 to 1974. By 1983, the palace was the property of the Tokyo metropolitan government. It was designated an important cultural asset of the city and turned into a museum. Because of the extensive gardens around the house, including woodlands, a beautiful rose garden, and a pleasant little Japanese-style garden and traditional tea house, the museum was named “teien”, or garden, art museum.

Like many palaces and homes of public figures expected to entertain, the ground floor is predominately “public” space, designed to be used for entertaining. These are the only areas of the ground floor open to the public now (although it would be fun to see the kitchen and other working areas).

Just inside the Lalique front doors is the Great Hall, where one can imagine the prince and princess greeting guests who would then be shown past a “perfume fountain” in the anteroom leading the salon. In its day, the perfume fountain, a statuesque ceramic tower, would have bubbled and released musky perfume into the air, increasing the sensory Art Deco experience of visitors. The fountain was restored to working order as part of the renovations.

The salon, which features Branchot reliefs, Rapin chandeliers and other geometric Art Deco touches, would have been the central gathering place for receptions hosted by the royal couple. At the far end of the salon is the Great Dining Hall, which is also impressive for its Art Deco style, even without the furniture that Rapin designed for the space.

The palace was designed around a central courtyard that is, sadly, not open to the public, although it can be viewed through windows, including as visitors climb the stairs to the second floor.

The second floor contains the family living quarters; the open area at the top of the stairs has a distinctive “living room” feel. Each member of the family had his or her own suite of rooms. Proceeding clockwise, visitors pass through the young prince’s bedroom, dressing room and sitting room, before moving on to Prince Asaka’s rooms: a library, a beautifully appointed and uniquely designed corner study, and a bedroom. Beyond a bathroom sporting fixtures that would have been very modern for their time, is Princess Nobuko’s sitting room and bedroom. The prince and princess’s rooms also open onto a verandah delightfully tiled in black and white, with pleasant views of the garden.

In each room, the Art Deco influence on light fixtures, woodworking, and other features are obvious. As part of the recent renovations, the wallpaper in the prince’s study has also been restored to its original Art Deco design.

There is a winter garden/sunroom on the third floor of the palace, also with black and white checked tiles evocative of the 1930s. Unfortunately, this space has not yet been re-opened, though hopefully it soon will be.

When the house first became a museum, a large auditorium was built onto the back of it. A bit of a monstrosity, it was, thankfully, torn down as part of the renovation. It has been replaced with a gallery building that is both more tasteful and more in harmony with the design of the original palace. The gallery is connected to the palace by a walkway featuring glass walls that are both modern and evocative of Lalique’s work. In addition to exhibition rooms, there is a museum shop and a small café.

At present the gardens that gave the museum its name are still under renovation. It is likely they will re-open in the spring. As a consolation for not being able to visit the palace gardens, consider stepping next door to the Institute for Nature Study, a free-admission park of more than 20 hectares containing both woodland and marshland, with well groomed trails.

© Japan Today

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