Tucked away behind Ueno Park is an exceptionally preserved piece of history. Unknown to not only many visitors but also local residents, the Kyu-Iwasaki-tei is an architecture-lover’s dream destination. With three beautiful buildings and a peaceful garden, this 19th century property deserves a lot more attention!
Located on a quiet side street, Kyu-Iwasaki-tei is not the type of place you would discover while out and about. With very few signs in the area advertising it as a sightseeing spot, its visitors are mainly people who knew about it beforehand. From the street, all you can see is a mysterious gravel road surrounded by a thick forest of ginkgos, maples, and enormous evergreens. Whatever lies inside is completely hidden from sight.
The first thing you see as you make your way up the entrance road is something very much out of place in Tokyo: palm trees! These tall, lanky palms combined with the European-style building are one of the distinctive images of the property.
The Western Residence
Of the 20 or so buildings that were originally built on the property, just three remain today. The main building, called the Western Residence, dates back to 1896. It was designed by Josiah Conder, the same architect that created the Kyu-Furukawa residence. Conder was an English architect recruited by the Japanese government after winning a prestigious award. He greatly contributed to the modernization of Japan during the Meiji Period and went on to become known as the father of modern Japanese architecture.
Conder was employed on many occasions by Mitsubishi and its founding family, the Iwasakis. The Kyu-Iwasaki-tei property belonged to Hisaya Iwasaki, the son of Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of Mitsubishi. Hisaya had spent five years studying in America before returning to Japan and becoming Mitsubishi’s third president. In those days, Mitsubishi was yet to become a car manufacturing company, but rather was all about mining, banking, shipbuilding and real estate.
Hisaya lived here with his family and regularly welcomed guests. They used the Western Residence purely for entertaining foreign visitors as well as an annual Iwasaki family reunion. The house is in Jacobean or English Early Renaissance style, featuring columns, elegant curves, rich colours and deeply carved wood. The elaborate designs on some of the ceilings are absolutely stunning. Each room has a different colour scheme with the most gorgeous wallpaper – some rooms are covered in Japanese leather paper, while others are made with soft velvet! I’ve never seen anything like it in Japan before.
Visitors are free to walk around the house—in their socks. A video presentation and guided tours give a good overview of the residence, but it’s also worthwhile to spend time exploring the house on your own. There are so many details to discover and be amazed by.
The Japanese Residence
Connected to the main building via a long corridor, the Japanese-style building was the living quarters for the Iwasaki family. What remains is just a small portion of the original design which included multiple bedrooms, rooms for the staff and a kitchen.
The two large tatami-floor rooms that we can enter today are a complete contrast to the mansion. They’re very simple with a focus more on symmetrical lines and neutral colours rather than gold detailing and elaborate wallpaper. There’s a small cafe here that serves drinks and snacks, so it’s a nice place to sit, relax and enjoy the view of the garden and lawn.
The Billiard Room & Gardens
The Billiard Room was the men’s hang out area – just like the billiard room at Kyu-Furukawa. Although a stand-alone building, it is actually secretly connected to the main building via an underground passage. It’s made completely of wood in a design inspired by a Swiss chalet. To me though, the fish scale design on the roof made it look like a cute gingerbread house. The inside has wooden floorboards and an open ceiling, both of which are very rarely seen in Japan.
Along with the main building, the Billiard Room was designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan in 1961.