Mikawa House sits on the banks of the Shinmachi River near the Prefectural Office in Tokushima, Shikoku. Built in 1928, it is the oldest European-style residence in the prefecture. Thankfully, the building survived the U.S. bombing of the city during the Asia Pacific War and was designated as an ‘Important Cultural Property’ by the national government in 2007.
Mikawa House is currently owned and maintained by the Tokushima City Government and is inaccessible to the general public. I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the building and grounds to appreciate its layout and unique features, along with other members of Tokushima City Board of Education.
The house was originally owned by Yoshiyaki Mikawa, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology who had studied radiology at Universtat zu Berlin. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Mikawa realised the importance of creating earthquake resistant buildings. He enlisted the help of Kinouchi Toyojiro, an industrial engineer who had also studied in Germany, at Leipzig.
Mikawa House was built in the Jugendstil style (‘The style of youth’), a movement influenced by English Art Nouveau as well as Japanese applied arts and prints. Made from ferroconcrete, the house is said to resemble a German country house or castle – one of an array of cultural connections between Tokushima and Germany from this period. German prisoners of war were held at Bando in Tokushima between 1917 and 1920. The camp was renowned for the relative freedom afforded to the inmates. German prisoners exchanged knowledge of music, agriculture and construction with the local population. The first performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony in Japan was given by the prisoners in 1918.
The exterior of the house and surrounding garden are all that can currently be enjoyed by the general public, either from the roads along the banks of the Shinmachi River or from trains bound for Mugi on the JR line (which runs alongside the property). The house boasts curvaceous, mosaic tiled, balconies, a turret-style chimney and a gargoyle perched on the roof overlooking the river. The garden is a fusion of east and west, with moss-covered statues of lions and athletic figures in thoughtful poses standing amongst more traditional Japanese stone arrangements. This juxtaposition is continued throughout the interior of the property.
The layout of this large house is very different from that of other Japanese homes of the period. A grand porch leads to the main hall with doors to the drawing room, dining room and access to a corridor leading to the kitchen and utility rooms. A marble staircase can be taken up to the second and third floors, each with spacious landings and corridors. The landing on the first floor has parquet wood flooring and it opens on to a wide balcony over the porch below. There is also a games room with the original carom billiards table (pocket-less) standing in front of a large fireplace, in a state of disrepair.
The amount of period Western style features in the house is overwhelming, there are sash windows throughout the property and there is stained glass over the double doors to the porch and balconies. In the majority of rooms the walls are papered and the floors are carpeted but they are badly worn and in a poor condition. Coving and skirting boards are other obvious European features while a number of rooms contain fireplaces and chandeliers hang from the ceilings. Nevertheless, Japanese influences remain, there is an eight-mat tatami room complete with sliding doors and an alcove, meanwhile, the main bathroom, on the ground floor, contains a large mosaic depicting traditional Japanese scenery.
Although the current condition of the interior is unfortunate, it is perhaps understandable given the most recent occupants – until approximately twenty years ago, the house was used as accommodation for student nurses. Air conditioning units, modern bathing facilities, additional lighting, and western style toilets are just some of the notable later additions that would need to be removed to return the property to its former glory.
Although there are ambitions to transform Mikawa House into a museum open to the public it would require a tremendous amount of hard work and funding to restore the original features and remove later alterations. For the time being, we can be consoled by the fact that Mikawa House and the surrounding garden are being well preserved by the local government until funding can be found.
When I first published details of my visit to Mikawa House I was surprised by the response, locals recalled seeing laundry hanging from the balconies and bikes parked outside, there are even rumours that the building is haunted. I was pleased that the pictures I had taken had been able to bring back so many memories for the people of Tokushima, despite language barriers. I hope this article increases that exposure and raises awareness for the need to preserve local culture across Japan.