Kengo Kuma - Nijo Jinya Hotel

Kengo Kuma - Nijo Jinya Hotel

Japan's Nijo Jinya Hotel is shrouded in mystery. Some say it was built in the 19th century. But most date it much earlier, to Japan’s Edo era, which started around 1600. Renown architect Kengo Kuma describes it as a paradise for Ninja spies.
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Kengo Kuma - Nijo Jinya Hotel

NARRATOR: What are the forgotten tools of tradecraft? Which items might unlock the hidden world of espionage? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. As one of the world’s most celebrated architects, Kengo Kuma knows that every building tells a story. His designs - like the 2020 Japanese Olympic Stadium - tell a tale of tradition and modernity, function and fantasy. They are soaring, ambitious spaces anchored by humble natural materials. To step inside one of his buildings is to enter a world of conflict, drama, and suspense. So maybe it’s no surprise that Kengo’s selection for this archive of espionage ephemera is a building that tells a hell of a story.

KENGO KUMA: Today I want to talk about Nijo Jinya, a special hotel which was used by Ninjas. 

NARRATOR: Kyoto’s Nijo Jinya Hotel is still standing today. That much, everyone agrees on. But the rest is shrouded in mystery. Some say it was built in the 19th century. But most date it much earlier, to Japan’s Edo era, which started around 1600 and lasted 150 years. This was a time when Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world almost completely and internal control was fiercely contested between two distinct groups.

KENGO KUMA: In the Edo era, in Kyoto, the Emperor was living in a big palace in Kyoto. And in Tokyo - Tokyo was called ‘Edo’ at that time - Tokyo was a city for Shogun. The Shogun is the top of soldiers and the Emperor is the top aristocrat. The structure of the Edo period is a kind of double political system. It is very complicated. The spy was very important in that political complex. 

NARRATOR: So there are two seats of power: the emperor in Kyoto and the Shogun in Tokyo. The Shogun has the real political control but, like all paranoid authorities, he relies on a network of spies, or Ninja, to maintain his grasp.

KENGO KUMA: In the Edo period, the Shogun and the Shogun family were using Ninja to get the intelligence of the emperor’s family and also the intelligence of the Daimyo. Daimyo is a kind of governor, so they’re governing each prefecture, and the relationship between Shogun and Daimyo was very complicated. 

NARRATOR: Are you still with me? The Ninjas are working for the Shogun, informing on the Emperor and on these feudal lords, the Daimyo. Daimyo are supposed to answer to the Shogun, but their loyalty can’t always be depended upon.

KENGO KUMA: The Shogun could not control Daimyo perfectly. They always want to get special information from Daimyo. 

NARRATOR: This is where, according to Kengo, the hotel known as Nijo Jinya comes into play. Nijo Jinya was designed as a prestigious guest house for those with business at the fortress-like Nijo Castle. It was a place where visiting officials - from both the Daimyo and the Emperor’s cohort - could meet and secretly conspire against the Shogun. 

KENGO KUMA: The Nijo jinya were used to get special information from the Daimyo and from the Emperor’s family and Ninja was working in that special hotel. So important people were using that special hotel very often, but the conversations between the emperor and those daimyos were stolen by those spies.

NARRATOR: Where there’s the chance of conspiracy, espionage follows close behind. Nijo Jinya was [filled] with Ninja spies, lurking in shadowy corners, hoping to pick up intel to bring back to the Shogun. Not that you’d know it. As a passer-by, Nijo Jinya is just a small, traditional building, behind a fence and a gatehouse. Nothing out of the ordinary. Unless, of course, you’re an architect.

KENGO KUMA: The detail was so sophisticated and the materials were so elegant, that it was considered as the best small hotel in Kyoto.

NARRATOR: Look a little closer, and you’ll begin to see the hints of Nijo Jinya’s true history.

KENGO KUMA: So the exterior was totally covered by the wooden fence. It’s not open to the town at all. The look of the hotel was very enclosed and had few windows. It is not a big building but it is a unique building. And also there are many small niches and hidden doors; the Ninja could hide in that kind of small space. This hotel was a kind of paradise for Ninja.

NARRATOR: Wood, Kengo says, is a flexible building material - perfect for the work of masking and concealing. Indeed, Nijo Jinya’s wooden frame is home to secret corridors, hidden staircases - a whole plethora of architectural quirks, designed to protect the prestigious clientele who stayed there - but easily exploited by a Ninja in the know.

KENGO KUMA: I visited the Nijo Jinya Hotel. It looks like a normal building but hidden devices were everywhere. After that visit, I sometimes tried to create those kinds of small devices in my wooden buildings. For concrete buildings, it’s not easy to make such kinds of devices but for wooden buildings, we could make anything - or we could hide anything - and the conclusion of today’s talk is that wooden buildings can be a paradise for spies.

NARRATOR: A paradise for spies. If walls could talk, what story would the Nijo Jinya tell? After all, maybe this is only a story. There’s no doubt that an intricate network of spies operated in Japan during the 17th century, but the details of what took place in this specific corner of Kyoto are lost to the sands of time. What we do know is that the legend of this hotel has been a powerful inspiration in Kengo’s contemporary design, where wooden walls whisper the secrets of Japanese tradition. I’m Alice Loxton. For more intriguing tales from the history of espionage, venture back into the archives with me next week.

Guest Bio

Kengo Kuma is a Japanese architect and emeritus professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Tokyo. Architectural Magazine describes him as a 'genius' whose work including the 2020 Japanese Olympic Stadium.

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