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Tokyo Architecture

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By Chris Jongkind

Westernized and utilitarian to the point of being drab, the skyline and architecture of Tokyo is a bit disappointing to anyone naturally expecting an exotic and eye-catching Asian metropolis, but perhaps an industrialist photographer’s paradise.

There are two reasons for this alleged architectural mediocrity. The first is the relatively young age of most of the buildings. Between earthquakes, war, and a Japanese penchant for constant renovation, the age of Tokyo architecture is scant compared to its European urban counterparts, despite having an equally lengthy and impressive history. Secondly, for a city of its size and sophistication, Tokyo has a surprisingly low skyline. Four tectonic plates meet in Japan, and it is thus frequently bombarded with earthquakes. So, for safety reasons, the current tallest member of the Tokyo skyline is the City Hall at a modest 248m, and several other buildings top out around this limit. As engineering technology improves, this number creeps up; a 338m office tower is proposed for west Shinjuku.

Tokyo International Forum

Tokyo International Forum

That is certainly not to say that Tokyo is without its architectural gems, far from it, this is Japan after all. A convenient and spectacular example to start with is the Tokyo International Forum, south of Tokyo Station. The result of a contest in 1989, won by Rafael Vinoly Architects, this colossal 225m long glass hall, which is said to resemble a whale skeleton, is a marvel to walk through. The Fuji Television Head Office in Odaiba catches your eye with its massive spherical observation platform. Tokyo City Hall is modelled after the Notre Dame cathedral, while maintaining Tokyo’s futuristic persona with its microchip pattern throughout. On a smaller scale, head to Den-en-chofu’s arced streets to see how Tokyo’s wealthiest design their intricate and extremely unique homes.

For the best views of the Tokyo skyline, several buildings have observatories open to the public. Tokyo City Hall, at the heart of the Shinjuku Skyscraper District, offers the best 360-degree views. For other excellent vantage points, also consider the Bunkyo-ku Civic Center (Kasuga Station), the Carrot Tower (it’s orange, Sangenjaya Station), the Sumitomo Building (next to City Hall), Ebisu Garden Place Tower (Ebisu Station), the Marunouchi Building (Tokyo Station), St. Luke’s Tower (Tsukiji Station), Tokyo Tower (Kamiyacho Station), the World Trade Center Building (Hamamatsucho Station), or the Sunshine 60 Building (Ikebukuro Station); only the last three in this list cost money.

Tokyo Skyline

Tokyo Skyline

Of course, if blocks of modern urban utilitarianism are your thing, there’s a bounty of subject matter in Tokyo. Head to Nihombashi and environs, particularly along Chuo Dori and Showa Dori. Also, the new skyscrapers around Shinagawa Station, the Shiodome Sio-Site at Shimbashi Station, and the Shinonome Canal Court complex just west of Tatsumi Station. And for true manufacturing industry, wander through the Keihin Industrial Island, the meaty part of Japan’s gargantuan industrial machine, best reached from Kojima-Shinden Station on the Keikyu Daishi Line.

Chris is a freelance photographer and writer. You can find more of his work on his website.

Tokyo View

Tokyo View

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Mike has lived in Tokyo for more than 10 years and loves sharing his knowledge about Japan's metropolis.

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