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By Laura Eckstein Jones | Photo: | | January 25, 2018
Devotees of all-American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature organic style should know that, in Japan, his legacy stands firm.
When Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited Japan for the first time in 1905, like many visitors, he was taken by the country’s undeniable beauty and charm. It was a fascination that drew him back to its shores time and time again, and left a deep impression on his famously strong vision. I was surprised to learn that Wright became one of the world’s foremost dealers of Japanese woodblock prints, something that helped him survive a number of tough financial times. Concurrently, his enchantment with the Land of the Rising Sun—the only nation outside of the United States that has existing works by Wright—led him to leave his own mark there through several important structures, some of which can be visited today.
While in Japan for the first time this past fall, I was lucky enough to tour a few creations by Wright and his disciples. After my cushy business-class flight on All Nippon Airways—unlimited Champagne, Ippudo ramen, the latest movies and a fully reclinable seat (yes, please!)—I arrive at the Imperial Hotel Osaka. The elegant five-star property is located within Osaka’s central downtown area on the banks of the Okawa River and was inspired by the Wright-designed Imperial Hotel Tokyo (more on that later). During my stay, I observe several architectural trademarks of the design legend, including geometric stained glass in the Old Imperial Bar, along with decorative wood screens and graphic brickwork.
One afternoon, we drive 30 minutes to Nishinomiya, where we tour the Mukogawa Women’s University’s Department of Architecture. Located at the former Koshien Hall, which was designed by Wright-disciple Arata Endo, the Mayan Revival-style structure is peacefully set on rolling green hills and looks out toward treetops and expansive skies. Koshien Hall opened in 1930 as one of the area’s top hotels and eventually became a Navy hospital and accommodations for U.S. military officers before being turned over to the university. It was fascinating to walk through the grounds and see students soaking in the heavy influence of one of the world’s most notable architects. As they set up their easels and begin to draw, how can they not be touched by the deco details, heavy stacked columns and impressive woodcarvings?
On our way to Tokyo—a 2 ½-hour bullet train ride from Osaka—we take a detour to Meiji-Mura, an incredible open-air museum that, in the same vein of Colonial Williamsburg, Va., aims to preserve a period of time through a reconstructed village. In this case, it’s the Meiji period from the 1860s to the early 1900s: a time when Japan transitioned from an isolated feudal society to one influenced by the modern world. The museum saved many important buildings from destruction, notably one of Wright’s most important commissions, the Imperial Hotel Tokyo—his first large-scale project outside of building houses. Amazingly, the Mayan Revival-style building opened the same day in 1923 that a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Tokyo. It was one of the few buildings that stood, thanks to a protective moatlike pool that surrounded the structure and kept fires from burning it to the ground. When the hotel was dismantled in 1968, the main entrance and lobby were rebuilt at Meiji-Mura.
Walking through the symmetrical structure is like stepping back in time across hallowed ground. Constructed of Oya stone (a gray-green volcanic rock), yellow brick and concrete, the lobby was designed around a central courtyard. No matter where I stand, I can see what happens on each floor as light filters in through the vertical windows, highlighting Wright’s signature elaborate decorative carvings, stacked brick and weighty columns. The building is impressive and commanding, yet, at the same time, warm and comforting, and represents what Wright was commissioned to accomplish: to merge Western and Japanese styles.
After touring Wright’s original structure, I’m relieved to see his influence is as strong as ever at the current Imperial Hotel Tokyo. Located within Tokyo’s premier luxury shopping district, Ginza, steps from an incredible assortment of high-end boutiques and restaurants, the Imperial Hotel Tokyo possesses the same commanding symmetry of Wright’s iteration and boasts several original details. The Peacock Room—which happens to be one of the biggest ballrooms in Tokyo—boasts terra-cotta tile and lighting inspired by Wright’s designs; the minimally redone Old Imperial Bar has original Oya stone and terra-cotta relics, light stands and more from the 1923 hotel; and the lobby has an Oya stone relief inspired by Wright. Those seeking a fully immersive experience can opt to stay in the Frank Lloyd Wright suite, which is outfitted in light fixtures, stained-glass windows, carpets and more bearing the architect’s motifs.
Amid exploring the city and its vibrant neighborhoods, we take a short drive to another Wright-designed complex: Myonichikan, a former school that was designed at the same time as his Imperial Hotel Tokyo and even used some leftover materials from the project. The four buildings—now used by school alumni for various activities—exude characteristics Wright employed in his Prairie House designs, such as extending horizontal lines to blend with the surrounding landscape. Utilizing graphic motifs and plenty of contrast throughout, Wright’s stunning vision turned what could have been a ho-hum utilitarian structure—small classrooms and a cafeteria—into one worth celebrating.
Now, reflecting back, I can see the connection between Wright and Japan more clearly. While waiting for the train to Tokyo, a friend and I wandered around the station in search of a snack before boarding. We settled on some delicious-looking red bean cakes. I think they cost $1.50 each, but the care and attention to detail put into the packaging was unlike anything I’ve ever seen at Union Station in Los Angeles or Penn Station in New York. Each cake was placed in a delicate paper bag and adorned with a decorative sticker and a carefully tied ribbon. We marveled at the beauty of it, and, again, each time, we witnessed that same integrity and pride woven tightly into the Japanese culture. I’ll remember the intention similar to Wright’s—beauty in simplicity, appreciation in the everyday and attention to the smallest details—for the rest of my life.