Sumitomo Kakkien Western-style Building

Highlights of the Western-style building with its Art Nouveau décor

Western-style building designed as a practical residence

View of the garden from the dining room in the Western-style building

Kakkien was built in 1904 as a residence for Teigo Iba who had recently retired after serving as the second Director-General of Sumitomo. On a spacious site affording a fine view of Mount Garan and the Seta River is a residential compound comprising a Western-style building and a Japanese-style building and annex. These buildings overlook a Western-style garden with a lawn and a Japanese garden with maples and cedars. The various elements create a harmonious whole with a distinctive atmosphere.

From the early years of the Meiji era onward, several villas consisting of both Japanese- and Western-style buildings were constructed around the country. Typically, the Western-style building was for entertaining guests and the Japanese-style one for everyday living. For the Japanese in those days, Western-style buildings suitable for social occasions were perceived as forbidding and unsuited to domesticity.

By the closing years of the Meiji era, the Japanese were growing accustomed to the mode of living in Western-style residences. Moreover, Japanese architects had familiarized themselves with Western architectural techniques as well as the underlying cultural values and their first Western-style buildings imbued with the Japanese aesthetic began to appear. The Western-style building of Kakkien is a fine example of this hybrid architectural tradition.

Magoichi Noguchi, chief engineer of the Sumitomo Head Office, designed the Western-style building. While introducing stylistic elements that he had encountered and absorbed in Europe, Noguchi successfully fused them with the Japanese architectural tradition.

Elegant Art Nouveau design

The half-timbered building has two floors. The wooden structure with its frame of timber pillars and beams is exposed on the building exterior, with the spaces between the timbers filled with mortar. The asymmetrical uneven wall surfaces show the influence of the picturesque. A terrace overlooking the garden is elegant yet minimalist in conception. Topped by a steep roof, the overall impression is reminiscent of a mountain lodge.

On the eastern side of the building, the walls sheathed with scale-shaped Sawara cypress panels invite the eye. When the building was constructed, the walls were coated with persimmon tannin, a preservative. The original panels are all in place and in good condition, indicating the efficacy of this treatment coupled with timely maintenance.

The handrail of the balcony on the second floor is made of wood joined together using the manjikuzushikumiko technique, which is often employed at temples and shrines. A traditional Japanese motif is adopted.

On the first floor are a dining room and a study separated by a hallway. There are fireplaces in both the dining room and the study. The mantelpiece in the dining room is notable for its gorgeous Art Nouveau frieze of curvilinear plant-like forms. The double doors opening onto the garden feature ironwork with an ivy pattern and their glass panels afford an inviting view of the lawn.

Open the door of the study and the three-sided bay window catches one’s attention. Notable details include the geometric windowpane patterns, the detailed decorative design of the escutcheon on the door, and the ornamental mantelpiece surrounds of mulberry wood.

Eastern wall sheathed in scale-shaped panels. The original panels are all in place.

Use of traditional Japanese architectural techniques

The hallway is notable for its restraint and tranquility. The simple beauty of the wooden flooring, pillars, and stairs is a pleasure to behold. Typically, in Western architecture, this woodwork would be painted. Noguchi embraced the essence of Japanese architecture here. Although Western designs, such as the gas lamps and acanthus relief are in evidence, the impression of unadorned wood prevails, creating a space with a Japanese atmosphere.

The entrance hall links the realms of Western and Japanese architecture. There is nothing aesthetically jarring about the transition from East to West via the annex.

The guest room on the second floor with its distant vista of the Seta River and Lake Biwa has some unusual features. The zelkova parquet floor and the coffered ceiling with its lattice structure are attuned to Japanese taste. The parquetry of the floor is perfectly executed with no deviation from the geometrical pattern. Although Japanese architectural techniques are utilized, the overall impression is that of a Western-style room. It is as if one is looking at the origin of the best of contemporary Japanese domestic architecture combining Japanese and Western styles.

Iba’s bedroom is next to the guest room. The bed is placed near the south-facing window. Upon awaking, Iba would spend the time till breakfast in contemplation, observing the growing light at daybreak while delighting in the dawn chorus of songbirds.

There is a sunroom at the sunniest spot on the second floor. The two reclining wooden sofas—one for Iba, the other for his wife—were unusual in early twentieth-century Japan. Here, it was their custom to take tea while gazing contentedly at the garden and the distant mountain range.

Sunroom on the second floor