With its elegant oblong shape and captivating cover image, this historical survey would look great on any coffee table. But after you savor its photos and pore over its archival building plans, you should give architect Andrea Leers’s cogent text a good read. This fascinating story of Japan’s early resort hotels is an important addition to the study of the country’s architecture and is the only book available in English, or in any other language, investigating these unprecedented works.
Contrasting starkly with Japan’s traditional small-scale inns, these palatial edifices were built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the country was eager to attract foreign visitors. As Leers relates, the first wave of Western buildings had arisen shortly after Japan opened its doors to the world at the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912), ending some 200 years of near isolation. In its quest to quickly modernize, Japan mimicked European and American antecedents when it began constructing public and commercial buildings. As the Japanese absorbed technology from abroad, copying gave way to blended architectural vocabularies. In the case of these hotels, this resulted in an intriguing new expression.
Apt reflections of the political and economic shift, these buildings incorporated eastern and western architecture, clearly expressing both construction cultures. Hotel builders and their architects imported Western functional elements, such as porte cochère entrances, spacious lobbies, and formal dining rooms, and adorned them with pagodas, tiled roofs, and woven bamboo ceilings. Termed “Japanese Picturesque” by the author, these curious hybrid buildings were exotic, yet familiar to overseas guests.
But because these early experiments were overshadowed by Japan’s exquisite traditional timber buildings as well as innovative modern design, the resort architecture has been long overlooked by architects, as well as scholars who questioned its historic significance. Leers disagrees. “I discovered there was something in between [the contemporary and the traditional],” she says. Her interest was initially piqued by a chance visit to the Fuji View Hotel, where woodsy Adirondacks lodge meets rustic Japanese farmhouse. When she won a National Endowment for the Arts study grant in 1982, she was able to visit and research hotels at several locations around Japan, such as the Nara Hotel (1909) in the Kyoto-Nara area, the Nikko Kanaya Hotel north of Tokyo (1882–1904, 1935), and the Gamagori Hotel south of Nagoya (1934).
Appealing to both general readers and a professional audience, the book includes individual descriptions, general interest anecdotes, and historical references as well as an analysis of architectural planning and design elements. Since the visual images are culled from a variety of sources, the presentation is a bit uneven, but it is reminiscent of an old-fashioned travel log. Similarly, the book’s rectangular shape evokes the lacquer-covered souvenir albums produced for Meiji-period tourists. Though most of the remarkable buildings included in this volume are still standing, many have undergone substantial renovations and additions. Due to stylistic trends, structural code upgrades, and the national appetite for the next new thing, vintage buildings throughout Japan are very vulnerable to demolition. By documenting these resort hotels and highlighting the importance of their unique architecture, Welcoming the West may encourage their preservation. Let’s hope so.