Built in 1905, Hongokan is Japan’s oldest 3-storey wooden lodging house. The L-shaped building has approximately 70 rooms and a total floorspace of 1500 sqm which is very large in scale for a wooden structure.
It was built by an aristocratic family from Gifu Prefecture and was initially used as a boarding house for the Tokyo Girl’s Highschool (now known as Ochanomizu Women’s College), but soon became a high-grade lodging house that provided luxury accommodation.
By 1929, over a third of all lodging houses in Tokyo were in Hongo-ku (now known as Bunkyo-ku), and Hongokan was considered the most luxurious of them all. At a time when lodging houses were known for serving horrible meals, Hongokan was serving meals such as pork cutlets and eel. The landlady soon became the leading taxpayer in the Bunkyo-ku area due to the rental income she was making. There was a great number of servants, and lodging guests had access to shared baths and telephones. Some of the residents at this time included author Fumiko Hayashi as well as the 1st and 3rd Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China, Chiang Kai-shek.
During and following the war, the property owners and operators changed hands many times, but it was always used as share-type rental accommodation. It has also had several additions to add extra rooms and bathrooms.
The owners first announced plans for reconstruction in 2006, but residents refused eviction orders which led to a lawsuit. Although the tenants lost the lawsuit, action to preserve the property was brewing. In September, 2010, the Tokyo branch of the New Union of Architects and Engineers submitted a letter to the head of Bunkyo-ku requesting that the building be registered as an important cultural property and that the owners make an effort to protect and restore the building. One month later, the same association also sent a letter directly to the Hongokan’s owners requesting they preserve the building. Non-profit organization, Forum for Wood Architecture, also issued an official statement regarding the situation. The Bunkyo City Government replied that without the property owner’s agreement, any preservation efforts would be difficult.
On April 28, 2011, the Tokyo Shimbun reported that a petition had been started to gather more support for the conservation of the Hongokan. This petition was started by a group of concerned members of the public and architects who wanted to bring attention to the building’s historical value. The petition had over 3000 signatures. One of the main petitioners was the curator of the Meiji Mura outdoor museum.
However, it seems that these efforts were in vain as demolition work is scheduled to start from August 1, 2011. The owners say the building has deteriorated against the point of conservation, but it may be that they cannot afford the maintenance and restoration. A contractor from the demolition company said they had heard about the historical value of the property, but they could not comment about conservation.
The leader of the group set up to protect the Hongokan says they have not yet given up hope and want to make more people aware of its significance. Starting from July 23rd, they will hold an open exhibition called “Watashi no Hongokan” in the Hongo neighborhood and post photos and drawings of the building on street corners, along with other activities.
The Tokyo Shimbun, July 16, 2011.
A recent selection of interior photos can be viewed here.