Photo/IllutrationTourists enjoy a panoramic view of the Sagami-nada sea from the Coeda House (left) in the Kamitaga district of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture. (Eiichi Murano)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories featuring the aesthetic landscapes of Mount Fuji, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture and Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, which have been visited by an increasing number of tourists from overseas. Based on conversations with travelers, the series casts light on sceneries and cultural heritages that gave form to these areas.

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About 10 participants were enjoying a view of the garden from the living room on the first floor of the Kyu-Hyuga Bettei villa, about an eight-minute walk from JR Atami Station in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.

“It is like a stone garden, except there are no stones,” a guide told the group that was touring the former villa, which stands on a slope leading down to the Sagami-nada sea, on Sept. 17.

“Hatsushima and Izu-Oshima islands that you can see in front of you serve as garden stones. It is designed on an idea that the whole location is my garden,” the guide continued.

The extension to the villa, which stands below the staircases from the first floor, was designed by German architect Bruno Taut (1880-1938). Made with steel-reinforced concrete, the building was completed in 1936.

Taut was known for introducing the beauty of Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto to the world, and his Atami annex is designated by the government as an important cultural property.

A lot of oak was used for the lounge, with whitish paulownia wood and bamboo materials incorporated for the ceiling.

The adjacent Western-style room features walls covered with burgundy-colored silk cloth. There is a five-step staircase at the boundary between the room and the upper level that appears to be an alcove, which offers a panoramic view of a forest and the ocean when one is sitting. There is another staircase in a Japanese room at the back.

The extension is located in the basement floor.

“It was made into bleachers to view the sea while making use of the incline of the slope,” the guide said.

A video shown to spectators explains that each room offers a different look of the ocean spreading out toward the horizon.

One of the tour participants was Kang Seon-dae, 37, a South Korean graduate student studying Taut in Germany. When asked about the purpose of the staircase in the Western-style room, he said he thought that Taut wanted to control the angle of the line of sight and that the architect intended to make visitors focus on sections not blocked by the walls.

“What was important for Taut is architecture that combined nature and humans,” Kang added.

Kengo Kuma, a leading architect who designed the new National Stadium, which will host the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, said in a commentary he contributed to The Asahi Shimbun in 2008 that Taut tried to create “a soft and discreet work of architecture that would blend in with the ocean” with the Kyu-Hyuga Bettei and that he “attempted to bring the ocean in front (of the villa) into the interior.”

“It is a work of architecture, which is like a love letter to Japan,” Kuma added.

Kuma designed the Coeda House cafe on a hill of the Akao Herb and Rose Garden, which is about 3 kilometers south of the villa. Completed in autumn last year, the glass-walled cafe offers a panoramic view of the Sagami-nada sea and Hatsushima island from inside and outside the building. After the start of the year, Coeda House has attracted an increasing number of tourists from Taiwan and China who enjoy the space where the ocean, hills and flowers harmonize with each other to complete the entire view.

The Kyu-Hyuga Bettei is the only building designed by Taut in Japan.

In response to requests from an architectural society and other organizations, Atami city bought the villa in 2004. Local residents have made concerted efforts to preserve the building. It will be temporarily closed at the end of this year before it will reopen to the public after a renovation project that will require about four years.

More than 10 Germans also joined the tour on Sept. 16, the day before Kang visited the villa. One was Ulf Meyer, 48, an architectural journalist.

“It’s precious and very valuable,” he said, adding, “It’s a blend of East and West.”

Meyer also said he heard that the preservation of the building was compromised at some point. But he felt it was wonderful when he heard that a volunteer used her own money to help the city government preserve the villa’s heritage.

“We are very thankful for that. I think it’s a ‘jewel’ and Atami should be very proud,” the journalist added.

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Eiichi Murano is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Odawara and Atami bureaus.