The divine spirit inside the building is eternal.

(Tadao Ando)

The remarkable Japanese architect Tadao Ando once said:

The divine spirit inside the building is eternal.

Ancient Japanese architecture began with shrines and temples, which were generally constructed of wood. This material has been breathing the natural environment and protecting local towns for many centuries. It may be the primary reason why visiting a temple or shrine exudes a spiritual mysticism equated with eternity.

In the midst of Japan’s progressive urban development, however, there is only a handful of remaining pre-war architecture in Tokyo today. The age of modernism has taken an inevitable detour towards industrial materials like glass, steel, aluminum, or plastic, out of economic repercussions. Gradually, the preservation of the past has become a toil on cost and manpower skills.

Fortunately, for the Hotel Gajoen Tokyo in Meguro ward, the challenge of preserving Japanese ancient culture was met with perseverance, will, and firm adherence to the nourishment of Japanese traditional aesthetics. The hotel, which started as a Japanese and Chinese restaurant, opened in 1931. But, this was not the original pivotal point in this establishment’s story. The hotel founder, Rikizo Hosokawa, first came to Tokyo from Ishikawa Prefecture as a youngster, and worked as an employee at a public bathhouse, where he spent days scrubbing customer’s backs. His diligent work gradually drove him to acquire his own bathhouse, and divert his assets into real estate. This endeavor, hence, eventually expanded his business into a restaurant, and later into a hotel and wedding complex. Having lived a rags-to-riches life, Hosokawa empathized with the harsh impoverishment of the Tokyo people who had just been recovering from the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 1923. He opened Gajoen not only to the elite, but to the commoners as well, who could enjoy the opulent ornamentation and sophistication, and envision their hopes and dreams. Consequently, Gajoen earned the name “Palace of the Dragon King of the Showa era,” and some of the remaining rooms with their decorative artistry have been stupendously preserved inside the Hyakudan Kaidan (100 steps-staircase). In 2009, Hyakudan Kaidan was designated as an important tangible cultural asset.

Hyakudan Kaidan consists of seven fully decorated rooms, each representing varied components of traditional Japanese art and culture. Walking up the old wooden staircase is itself a breathtaking experience, while your eyes rove the ceiling paintings of seasonal flowers, birds, fans, and sceneries. The first room, Jippo Room, is named after the honorable painter Araki Jippo (1872-1944) whose artworks fill the exquisite chamber. You can view coffered ceilings of twenty-three planes of mirror plates showcasing Jippo's flowers and birds. Such coffered ceilings are found in most of the other rooms, which identify the most distinctive artistic feature of the Hyakudan Kaidan. The lattice frameworks around the squared ceiling panels are decorated with enamel flowers using the cloisonné technique. The ceiling beams are also embedded with mother-of-pearl. The latticework embellishment on the fusuma sliding doors is absolutely captivating.

Perhaps, the most decorative room in Hyakudan Kaidan is the Gyosho Room. The name, “Dialogue of the Fisherman and the Woodcutter” has been given to it in reference to the heavily carved pillars that illustrate a fisherman on the left, and a woodcutter on the right. It was believed that the humble lives of fishermen and woodcutters, embraced by the sea and the mountains, symbolized spiritual gratification. The rich and colorful paintings on the walls and upper panels above the fusuma are truly remarkable, illuminating auspicious ceremonies held during the Heian period.

Depending on the exhibition event, some rooms, such as the Soukyu Room, have the sliding doors opened so you can grasp a glimpse of the picturesque scenery outside, like Mt. Fuji, from the encircled veranda. This room is named after the artist Sōkyū Isobe (1897-1967). You may need extra time to gaze at each of the circled paintings on the coffered ceilings, depicting flora and nature scenes of every season. They perfectly complement the powerful artwork of forest details on the upper walls and create an aesthetic balance with the ornamental woodwork on the windows and veranda railings.

The Seisui Room, Seikou Room (after Kyoto painter Seikō Itakura), Kiyotaka Room (after Nihon-ga master Kiyokata Kaburagi), and the Summit Room (highest room at the top of the staircase) each emanate its own artistic flavor—some less flamboyant than the others—with subtle fan and women motifs and lightly colored leaf patterns. The coffered ceiling in the Kiyotaka Room is quite unique from the other rooms, consisting of a tetragon-like formation within another tetragon. The window woodworks also show variable cuts and patterns. The rooms have generally preserved the wood, mostly from Chinese pagoda tree, more than 200 years old. There is so much art to capture in every room that seems to muster seven museums altogether. On your descent from Hyakudan Kaidan, the ornate elevator should not be missed. The doors and interior are covered with brilliant mother-of-pearl engravings of leaves, flowers, butterflies, and a lion, encapsulating the mysterious harmony between a beast and the alluring flora. In Hyakudan Kaidan, the soul of the Japanese ancient beauty appears to soar to the heavens of the past, and alight once more to the human threshold of the present. It reminds us that beauty, in its most simplistic form, can remain taintless and ephemeral.