re-valuing historic structures in YaNeSen

Hantei Restaurant’s historic 3-storey structure in the context of Nezu 2-chome, Bunkyo ward, Tokyo


Tokyo has undergone several rebirths, returning from the ashes after multiple earthquakes, fires, and fire-bombing during World War II. Historic structures that have been spared these catastrophes are celebrated by their community as representatives of continuity that stretches back to the Edo-period. While some buildings are static as museums representing bygone eras, others such as Hantei and Kamachiku, the two restaurants discussed here, have reinvigorated their context, bringing value and acting as historical landmarks for the city-at-large.

Udon and Kushiage in Nezu

Tokyo has undergone several rebirths, returning from the ashes after multiple catastrophic earthquakes, fires, and fire-bombing during World War II. Modernization and speculation have also re-shaped the urban landscape, decimating any remaining architectural artefacts from previous eras. Some neighbourhoods within the sprawling metropolis have fared better than others and are currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity. The old-world atmosphere of eastern Tokyo is gaining traction amongst younger, bohemian-types with an interest in an alternative to the neon-lit fashionista meccas of the west-end. Those seeking gastronomic delights, pedestrian-scaled Shotengai (Japan’s version of the High Street or Main Street), and traditional wooden architecture of Showa and Taisho-period Tokyo head to YaNeSen. Short for Yanagi, Nezu, and Sendagi, these three neighbourhoods in Tokyo’s north-east have managed to preserve their building fabric as well as the social networks which makes the area function as a cohesive community. The popularity of YaNeSen has been a boon for historic architecture, which until recently was, if considered all, viewed as uncomfortable, dangerous or perhaps inconvenient. Preservation efforts balanced with renovations or additions have been particularly successful as they have brought new life and new uses to formerly dilapidated structures. Two of these buildings, Hantei and Kamachiku will be discussed and compared in this report, including their success in terms of harmonizing old and new, preservation, and functionally re-purposing architecture.

Hantei Restaurant is built around a traditional mud-walled ‘Kura’ (storehouse), now used as a dining room

Both Hantei and Kamachiku are located within the Nezu 2-chome district in Bunkyo Ward about 100 metres apart. Although they are just a block away from each other, they are quite different architecturally, materially, and in terms of history. Both currently function as restaurants, Hantei being famous for it’s fried fare (Agemono) and Kamachiku for its fresh Udon originally from Osaka. Hantei also has a second ‘Tea House’ which is open at lunch-time, serving delicious bentos and seasonally changing Teishoku (set menu) meals. Both restaurants were recently restored and renovated, Hantei in 2001 when the ‘Tea House’ was added along with a new facade overlooking Shinobazu Avenue. Kamachiku was renovated in DATE by the renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who preserved the heavy timber structure visible in the interior, and restored the brick exterior.

Hantei was originally built in 1917 (Taisho 6) and was designated as a ‘Registered Tangible Cultural Property’ on 23 August 1999. The building is a three-storey vernacular Machiya-style wooden structure built around a ‘Kura’ (Japanese-style mud-walled storehouse) which has two main entrances. The entry for the building’s registration reads as follows:


Translation: “The building is built on a site sandwiched by Shinobazu Avenue and on the east by a small street at the corner of a laneway. It is a three-storey wooden shop architecture under a hip-tiled roof. It is known as being a tall Nezu district landmark shophouse, with each of the three stacked floors floors having approximately the same floor area and floor-to-ceiling height. Currently, it has become a fried foods restaurant with renovated interiors.”

Two years after its designation, the Shinobazu side of the building (which is technically not part of the original 1917 three-storey historic structure, although it is contiguous with the first and second floors), was sliced away and replaced with a modern facade. The architects did not hide the fact that the facade was removed as that portion is made a part of the permanent memory of the building with a two-storey glass case. The inner facade corresponding to the older building is left as a raw wood plane reminiscent of a freshly sawn piece of lumber. The outer facade is a vertical screen of louvers, mirroring at a much larger scale, the wooden window screens on the laneway side of the original structure. This vertical louver system does double duty, acting as a solar shade and as a clin d’oeil for cars and pedestrians passing by on Shinobazu Avenue. From an angle, the facade solidify’s as a vertically striated plane, impervious to the gaze, but as one approaches it perpendicularly, it reveals the inner wooden plane of its double skin. Depending on how fast you are passing by, for instance in a car, the inner skin is literally a flash of colour on what seemed like an otherwise opaque surface. On a receded plane is the entry to the new ‘Tea House’ with it’s double height interior space and decidedly modern interiors.

The modern double-skin facade of the Shinbazu Dori Avenue side of the Hantei Tea House

Each floor of the historic Hantei building has its own roof in a pagoda-like configuration with the top floor having a ‘double-roof.’ The effect is to allow the building a certain elegance or distinction from other buildings in the area. While it was already built taller than other Machiya-style shophouses in the area, the extravagance of the hip-tiled roof further distinguishes it as the building of a successful merchant who wanted to express his wealth through architecture. The roof tiles are a glistening grey colour, the ridge end-tile particularly of note as they terminate in a cloud-like form. Materially, the building maintains a somber demeanour, its wood facade unadorned and allowed to weather and age naturally. Ornamentation appears in the layering of bamboo screens, wooden slatted screens and the repetitive texture of a board and batten type of facade. In the evening, lanterns glow softly, illuminating the subtle texture of the surfaces with a play of light and shadow.

The side entrance on the laneway is for the 30-year old restaurant, which was also renovated in 2001. The three storey space is divided into seven separate dining spaces spread not only within the original 1917 building, but also within the expanded floor area reaching the back of the ‘Tea Room.’ Each dining space has a slightly different atmosphere, seating arrangement and orientation to the exterior windows (except for the storeroom private dining area which is landlocked at the centre of the building), which are frosted to keep the lighting diffuse. The upper floors all require shoes to be removed at the ground floor as some of the rooms have tatami mats and Japanese-style dining with seating on the ground. The overall effect is a diversity of spaces, shifts of perception, and an experience which is quite intriguing as it unfolds as you move through the spaces.

The laneway entrance to Hantei Restaurant

The urban environment around the building shifts considerably from the bustling Shinobazu Avenue side, with its broad, sweeping vistas as one travels southward from Nezu Station to Ueno Park. As is typical in Tokyo, as one moves towards the ‘Oku’ or inner space of the city, away from the boulevards and into the quiet atmosphere of the neighbouhood, the environment is much more akin to that of a rural Japanese village. The three-storey building stands sentinel over the close-knit community, traversed by pedestrians, cyclists and the occasional motorcycle. Rarely do cars pass through the narrow streets and rōji (laneways), allowing for a serene environment reminiscent of a pre-modern city.

A block further away from Shinobazu Avenue through a narrow laneway is the compound once owned by a wealthy merchant. Two buildings frame a courtyard with a Japanese garden, while a wall encircles the two opposite sides of the space. The wall terminates at the edge of one of the buildings and continues as a line of tall bamboo stalks. The shorter brick building is a century-old granary which has been recently renovated to accommodate an outpost of the famous Udon restaurant from Osaka, Kamachiku. The adjacent structure is completely new construction designed by Kengo Kuma for a senior citizen’s home. The new building takes its cues from the wooden materiality of Nezu, and is contextually sensitive to the height of its neighbours. The infill building keeps a low profile and looks rather unimposing, its upper floors encircled by balconies, also made of wood with simple balusters and guards made of airplane cable which are almost invisible. The only clues which point to it being a modern building is the cantilever at the front of the building which creates a porte cochere for vehicles entering the driveway. The ground floor’s glassy facade and automated sliding wood doors are also another cue to the fact that the building is sleek and modern inside.

The century-old Kamachiku granary building

The newer residence for the elderly recedes respectfully and allows the granary to take centre stage. The red brick building, formerly a storage facility for the original private compound, stands perpendicularly to the new building, its main entrance on the narrow laneway leading to Hantei. Structural details, exterior shutters, exterior metal hooks (for hoisting delivered goods), and the brick itself have been faithfully restored to their former glory. A new addition at the side of the building facing the garden has a sloping roof, reflecting the sloping roof of the granary itself, but enclosed below in large panes of glass which afford an uninterrupted view of the garden. The intervention by Kengo Kuma is at once demure, but also extroverted (as the granary is introverted with its opaque brick facade) as a transparent glass box. The contrast of materials sets off the new from the old effectively, but this is accomplished in a subtle way as the much lower one-storey structure of the addition remains largely hidden by the garden and the encircling bamboo plantings. Only after you reach the end of the linear pathway leading to the restaurant entrance, do you realize there is a modern addition to the historic brick structure.
The interiors of the granary at Kamachiku reveal the heavy timber structure of the building, its rafters exposed as the two storey inner space is completely open. The walls have been left a simple white recalling painted mud-walls which were probably in the original structure. The floors are beautifully finished wood with an area cut-out at the top of the short stair which takes patrons from the new addition to the granary dining area, about half a storey up vertically. This is the shoe-removing stone with a cupboard on one side to store shoes. Seating is traditional Japanese-style with the area below the table recessed so one can sit comfortably on the floor. The communal inward-looking space can accommodate four or five small groups with the focus being the architecture and the patrons themselves. The secondary dining room in the new addition is much more linear and directional with the view to the garden being the focus. A smaller window on the granary side of the room reveals the Udon-making process with chefs rolling out dough and cutting it into strips of fresh noodles ready to be cooked. The clean simplicity of the space puts into relief the focus of the restaurant, the fresh food, which is certainly delicious and well worth its claim to fame.

The restored interiors with exposed structure at Kamachiku

Hantei and Kamachiku couldn’t be more different from each other, architecturally and gastronomically. Hantei is a traditional wood building which from the outset seems like the older of the two, but in fact it was built 7 years later than the granary. Surprisingly, the three-storey structure, built in the Taisho-period, survived several catastrophic events in the years following its construction, and has been largely spared the axe of development. Considering that one side of the building is on a main thoroughfare, expanded and renovated post-1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, it is remarkable that the building is still standing. Kamachiku, despite being a block further eastward from Shinobazu Dori, is the last remaining structure on what was once a compound of buildings of a wealthy merchant. Everything except the granary has disappeared over time and replaced with a new building and gardens. Kamachiku is much more modern-looking with its brick exterior, a relic of the Meiji-period when the influence of Western architecture pervaded many buildings, especially institutional buildings built in that era. Not far from Nezu are the Josiah Conder buildings of the University of Tokyo (Todai) which are all brick facade buildings. Kamachiku is slightly different from the British and Romanesque style buildings at Todai as it incorporates a roof that is rather Japanese in terms of its materiality. The traditional tile-roof structure is not as whimsical as the hip-roof of Hantei, but it does incorporate a ridge with decorative ridge-end tiles. The effect is a mixture of Western and Japanese architecture, an elegant and imposing brick building topped off with a sloping Japanese roof.

The modern addition at Kamachiku facing the garden which is enclosed to the north by the new senior citizen’s home.

Despite being the older of the two buildings, Kamachiku has not been designated as a Tangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government, perhaps because it does not fit into a particular mould of ‘Japanese’ traditional architecture. The mixture of styles and the original function of the building being a storage space may have played a part in the building being overlooked in favour of Hantei. Despite this, the building has many merits as an architectural monument, having also survived the catastrophes of the Meiji, Showa and Taisho periods. Its intact heavy timber structure, exterior brick facade and details, and history as the granary of a wealthy merchant, are arguments for its inclusion as a Cultural Property as well as its preservation. Luckily, both buildings have been recently re-valued as functional and historically significant by their owners. They have found new life as restaurants and due to the flexibility of the law (Hantei being classified under the less strict ‘Tangible Cultural Property’ category), alterations were allowed and additions were built. Many other designated properties around Tokyo and Japan have found themselves frozen in time as museums, demonstrating how life may have been in bygone eras. Their static quality does not allow them to be functionally employed and enjoyed today as Hantei and Kamachiku are. This also allows the two restaurants to participate in the life and cohesion of communities like Nezu which are being threatened by inexorable redevelopment; particularly relevant today as the possibility of another large earthquake has given rise to government subsidies to upgrade buildings in dense neighbourhoods.

Both of these buildings are celebrated by their community, not just because they are rare or architecturally interesting, but because they are active participants in the life of the neighbourhood. They have reinvigorated their context, bringing value and acting as historical landmarks for the city-at-large. This fact is more significant and impactful than their designation as monuments of Japanese culture as they have created a mutually beneficial relationship, making the members of the community their caretakers, and the buildings representatives of Nezu.


Secondary Sources

はん亭 ”Hantei,” Bunka Shitei website:

Hantei Restaurant website:

Kamachiku Restaurant website:

Swinnerton, Robbie, “Kushi-age on a higher plane”, Japan Times, Sunday February 10, 2002:

Primary Sources

All photos by the author

Copyright © 2012 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.


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