Historic building used to be a brothel, now its ornate interiors are in danger of fading away.

From the early 1600s to the early 1900s, legal red-light districts known as yukaku flourished in Japan. Prostitutes and brothels operated legally within these areas, with many establishments displaying their workers to the public through wooden slats.

▼ An example of an ‘exhibit’ in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district, one of the country’s largest yukaku, around the turn of the 20th Century.

Image: Wikipedia

During the U.S. occupation following World War II, the U.S. General Headquarters issued an order to abolish legalised prostitution in Japan, and in 1946, brothels in yukaku areas were forced to rebrand themselves as “cafes” or “ryotei” (“high-class Japanese-style restaurants”) instead.

Although prostitution covertly continued, once the Anti-Prostitution Law was enforced in 1958, yukaku ceased to exist as they once were, leading many of the ornate buildings to fall into disrepair. However, in Osaka, where Tobita Shinchi or Tobita Yukaku, the largest yukaku in western Japan was once located, at least one former brothel remains, now operating as a restaurant.

▼ Taiyoshi Hyakuban was originally built as a 21-room brothel in 1918.

Taiyoshi Hyakuban was converted to a restaurant in 1970 and designated as a national registered tangible cultural property in 2000. The building still retains original features of the brothel, including themed rooms and paintings, but is in dire need of repairs, which has led a group of locals to form the Micro Heritage project and start a crowdfunding campaign to help the owner preserve this part of Japanese history.

Now that the building is over 100 years old, the foundations, exteriors, and interiors have all deteriorated significantly, and while the second-generation owner had hoped to restore it, the drop in customers due to the coronavirus pandemic has left them in a bind, as they are now unable cover the costs of restoration.

▼ Restoring precious artwork is just one of the repairs needed.

With few buildings like this left in Japan, locals are keen to preserve its architectural and cultural history, which stems from the Taisho Period (1912-1926), a time when Japanese culture was beginning to blend with trends from overseas.

There are so many wonderful design flourishes to be found throughout the two-storey wooden building, which contains larger rooms on the ground floor and 13 smaller tea-room style rooms on the second floor, with each one decorated differently.

Repair work can be costly, which is one of the reasons why so many of these old buildings in former yukaku districts were sold and demolished.

The Micro Heritage project aims to protect privately owned national registered tangible cultural properties in the Osaka area, and before setting up the crowdfunding campaign, they attempted to draw interest in the restaurant with a special VR video that allows you to walk through every room inside the building.

The VR video reveals the awesome beauty of the building, and the sad state of it, peeling murals and warped beams and all.

While there’s a tendency to romanticise yukaku, project coordinators want to remind everybody that there’s a dark side to this era of history and the treatment of women during this period. Preserving the history of the building isn’t about romanticising its dark history but allowing people to educate themselves and learn more about the city’s urban culture in a tangible way.

The crowdfunding campaign aims to raise 15 million yen (US$136,786) by 10 August, and has currently raised 3.3 million yen, or 22 percent of the target goal, with 33 days left on the project. Reward tiers start at 3,000 yen and go all the way up to 1 million yen for meal tickets, tours and photo books.

The campaign is being run on an all-or-nothing basis, which means funds will be returned and repairs will stall if the target goal isn’t achieved, so if you’re a fan of Japanese architecture, you’ll want to act now and cross your fingers and toes in the hope that the project is successful.

Because after losing the Nakagin Capsule Tower, a Kyoto bath house, the oldest ryokan at an onsen resort, and a restaurant founded in the Edo period, it would be heartbreaking to have to say goodbye to any more historic Japanese establishments.

Restaurant information
Taiyoshi Hyakuban / 鯛よし百番
Address: Osaka-fu, Osaka-shi, Nishinari-ku Sanno 3-5-25
Hours: 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. (Closed Mondays)

Related: Readyfor/Micro HeritageTaiyoshi Hyakuban (Tobita Hyakuban), Taiyoshi Hyakuban VR Project
Images: Readyfor/Micro Heritage unless otherwise stated

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