Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

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Tokyo Station Newly Restored and Open

Tokyo Station’s long restoration is now finally over and the new frontage was unveiled in a big projection mapped light show just last week. It was officially open as of 1st October and is said to include new retail spaces, restaurants and cafes, ‘entertainment’ (but I’m not yet sure what that refers to) and of course, the luxurious Tokyo Station Hotel. If I wasn’t so busy I’d go down there and check it out first hand but it’s just not possible at the moment with all the work I’ve got on, and it’s probably best to wait for the crowds to die down anyway.

If you don’t know about Tokyo Station, it’s a train station in central Tokyo not far from the imperial palace that connects Shinkansen (Bullet Train), JR (Japan Rail) and Metro lines and serves as Tokyo’s main station. It’s not the biggest however, as Shinjuku station beats it in terms of size and sheer volume of passengers, but it’s the biggest in terms of the number of lines and services that converge here. The red brick side of the station has been around since 1914, and that’s the side which has received the renovation treatment. It was damaged by bombing in World War II and has been added to and expanded since then with the Yaesu side being added and modernised around the early 1950’s.

It’s interesting for me to see it finished now, as it’s the first time I’ve done so. Ever since I came to Tokyo in 2008 it’s been undergoing renovation and has been covered with scaffolding and sheeting.


St. Mary’s Cathedral Tokyo

Ever since I went to Metabolism – The City of the Future architecture exhibition at Mori Art Museum I’ve become more and more interested in the golden era of avant-garde Japanese architecture that started around the middle of the last century through to the late 70’s. My love for Nakagin Capsule Tower is already on record, as is that of Kyoto International Conference Center, the latter of which was designed by a member of the Kenzo Tange school of architects. I knew he had also designed buildings in Tokyo, and I knew he was responsible for St. Mary’s Cathedral (東京カテドラル聖マリア大聖堂 Tōkyō Katedoraru Sei Maria Daiseidō) located in Bunkyo-ku in the center of the city. Well this week I managed to find time to go over and take a look. Not knowing what to expect, I took my camera along anyway and made my way by Tokyo Metro to Waseda station as it’s easier for me than Edogawabashi station (although if you’re planning to go, both will do you fine). After about a 15 minute walk through pretty residential streets I saw the bell tower which is basically an obelisk-like stone structure which stands separate from the main building. Once I reached the site I was initially surprised by how modern it looked. It was built in 1964, so this puts it slightly before Kyoto Int. Conference Center, but to some extent it appears to be in better condition. As you walk around the building (and it is possible to view it from all angles if you walk through the car parks) you get an idea of its size, which is impressive, and the reflections on the steel-clad exterior change depending on what angle you view it from. The best was yet to come though, as the interior for me was even better.

In keeping with the architect’s other work, the interior is both brutal and other-wordly with its steep concrete walls which rise up to meet in the center, and the central shaft of light which bisects the vault of the ceiling. Straightaway I was reminded of the final scene of Star Wars IV: a new hope where Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca receive their awards for defeating the empire. This reminded me of when I visited Kyoto Int. Conference Center because I remember being reminded of The Empire Strikes Back when I saw that building – more than just a coincidence? I’m no architecture expert, and I’m not going to repeat what you can already read on the Wikipedia entry for this building, but on a pop-cultural reference tip: it also reminded me of the kind of architecture you see in the Vampire Hunter D movies, especially Bloodlust, where you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a church or a spacecraft, where gothic meets the space-age.

I made sure I had a good look around before I left. Really, I was looking for the crypt. I knew that almost all Roman Catholic cathedrals have one where they interre the remains of key members of the church. After almost giving up I found a door at the back of the confessional booths (yes, finding those was also cool in itself) that lead on to a corridor. There was absolutely nobody there and it was totally silent. The corridor was made of the same stone as the rest of the interior – it felt really oppressive. It was quite a labyrinth and there were a lot of twists and turns which I couldn’t reconcile with the line of the exterior at all. Finally I went down more steps and I was in the first chamber. There were 3 tombs like pyramids of marble with flat tops on my left which were made up of what could be described as blocks, each one studded on 4 corners with dome-headed steel rivets. There are more of these throughout the crypt, which was extensive, but surely the strangest tombs I’ve ever seen. There’s a funeral chapel which also has a secret room with a one-way mirror window. The crypt was pretty heavy so I made my way back up through the corridors to the main part of the Cathedral and I did think at one point how Tadao Ando must have been influenced by the work of Kenzo Tange as his corridors at 21_21 Design Sight are very similar. After one last look down the center of the cathedral and up at the enormous organ on the mezzanine I went back outside to face the hot, humid Tokyo summer once again.

After visiting this building I’m interested to see more of his work, and I’ve since been looking for what other buildings he has designed. It turns out that Tange was responsible for most of the iconic buildings in Tokyo. For example, he also designed Yoyogi National Gymnasium (for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (the building with the twin towers), Shinjuku Park Tower (which houses the Park Hyatt Hotel of Lost In Translation fame) and the very recent cocoon-like structure of Mode Gakuen Tower, also in Shinjuku. All of these more well-known structures I’m not particularly enamored with, although the olympic stadium is incredible, it’s his lesser-known, and certainly less-visited cathedral which stands out for me as his masterpiece.


Tokyo Sky Tree Construction Completed

Construction of Tokyo’s new tower, Tokyo Sky Tree, has officially been completed as of February 29th according to the company in charge of the project Obayashi Corp. It has now been handed over to TOBU Tower Sky Tree Co. who will finish fitting out the interior in time for its opening on 22nd May 2012. You can already pre-order tickets, and when I say can I mean it’s theoretically possible, but I wish anybody luck getting their hands on them as demand is predicted to be very high.

Completion of the tower puts it as the tallest tower in the world, topping the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China. Construction was delayed slightly by the earthquake and events that followed last March. Amazing to think that there were workmen in cranes and on platforms working when the earthquake struck. I was terrified being on terra-firma, let alone being on top of a partially constructed tower.


Bonzai Inspired Sculptures of Takanori Aiba

I heard about this guy called Takanori Aiba through a reader of Tokyo Story and was totally blown away by his work. He creates sculptures and artworks-cum-architectural models partly inspired by the traditional Japanese art of Bonsai. He’s had a really varied career having graduated in traditional Japanese textile design and dyed clothing, then moving onto illustrating for fashion magazine POPEYE before starting his own company called Graphics & Designing. He has since expanded his creative endeavours from art director and concept designer for architectural spaces to exhibiting artist.

What strikes you about his work straight away is the incredible level of detail. Each one is a fantasy world based on reality which resemble real-world buildings and structures but in a quirky microcosm. Some of his works remind me of the worlds conjured up in Ghibli movies.


Tokyo Gate Bridge

There is a new bridge open in Tokyo as of yesterday. It’s called the Tokyo Gate Bridge and crosses Tokyo Bay linking Wakasu in Koto Ward with Jonanjima Seaside Park in Ota Ward. You can see Mt.Fuji and the New Tokyo Sky Tree (due to open on 22nd May this year) from the bridge, and like the rainbow bridge, I’m guessing it also offers a good view of the high-rise buildings and lights of the city. Construction began in 2003, so it’s taken a fairly long while to build. There’s also a walkway that crosses it too, so I’m planning to cycle over it in the near future, as it’s quite close to where I live.


Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center

This year will see the completion of a really interesting new piece of architecture in one of the old parts of Tokyo, Asakusa. Built in so-called shitamachi (downtown), and coinciding with something of an injection of life into the area due to its completion at roughly the same time as Tokyo Sky Tree due open this may, the Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center starkly contrasts its surroundings with its modern, glassy facade and unconventional form.

It’s designed by Kengo Kuma and as you can see from the picture is made up of seven individual units stacked on top of each other. It sits directly opposite Asakusa’s most famous tourist attraction, Kaminarimon which leads through to Nakamise Dori and eventually Sensouji Temple. The building will be built on the site of what was the original Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center fronted by the Karakuri-dokei, an extremely kitsch mechanised clock from which animatronic figures would pop out on the hour like a nightmarish cuckoo clock. Obviously a big improvement, but I’ll still miss it anyway.

Such is the way of things in Tokyo. Old buildings disappear and new ones spring up in their place. It was only last year Kabukiza was demolished to make way for its modernised replacement. There are in fact a handful of new architectural projects taking place all around the city which I’ll try to post on if I get chance.


Kyoto International Conference Center

I was in Kyoto last week for a two day trip. It’s supposed to be good this time of year because the leaves are red in the autumn, but actually I didn’t really go early enough and I just caught the end of it. Some of the trees had already lost most of their leaves, but because it wasn’t the ideal time to be there, it wasn’t so crowded.

Having just been to the Metabolism – City of the Future exhibition at Mori Art Museum, there was no way I was going to visit Kyoto and not go to the Kyoto Kokusai Kaikan known in English as Kyoto International Conference Center. Of course, I visited a lot of shrines and temples and the usual sightseeing spots, but when I arrived at the site of the conference center I was the only tourist there. The only other human beings there were politicians attending the Fifteenth Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting who I saw taking smoke breaks at the back of the complex from where the two pictures you see here were taken.

The building was designed by architect Sachio Otani, who worked under the better known Kenzo Tange. The building is unique in that it has few vertical walls or pillars. Personally, I was blown away by it, and seeing it was the highlight of my trip. Whilst I was there I couldn’t help feeling that I was on the set of Star Wars. This building was built not long before Star Wars came out, so it makes you wonder if George Lucas saw this too, back in the mid-1970’s before he made the first three films. After all, virtually everything else about the movie was inspired by Japonica. Future visitors to Kyoto should also make the effort to visit this building, it’s incredible.


Tokyo Tower! (At Last)

Tokyo Tower

Even though I’ve been in Tokyo for almost 4 years now, on this last Thursday 27th October I paid my first visit to Tokyo Tower. It was made especially good due to the fact that it’s actually pretty old for a building in Tokyo, having been built in 1959, so it’s pretty retro in places. Especially the elevator between the middle and top observatories. I took loads of photos from the observatories but it was a bit hazy so there’s nothing particularly worth uploading, but that added a bit of meaning to the trip. At least I can say I’ve done it now, and I must say I like the the way Tokyo Tower looks. I think I prefer it to the New Tokyo Sky Tree they’re building in Oshiage. I’ll still definitely be visiting that though, as soon as the crowds die down enough to get into it when it opens next year. It’s going to be almost twice as big as Tokyo Tower, but for me the orange and white original will always be no.1.


METABOLISM – The City Of The Future

Metabolism, Mori Art Museum

I don’t know a great deal about architecture but I know what I like, and I’ve expressed love for the Nakagin Capsule Tower on more than one occasion on this very blog, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I heard about the METABOLISM – The City Of The Future exhibition at Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, featuring my favourite building. Not only could you see design drawings and advertisements for the Capsule Tower from the 70’s, but there was also a short film detailing the design and construction of the building and featuring interviews with a dapper, younger-day Kisho Kurokawa, the man behind the building. Moreover, there were buildings, designs on cities, marine cities and enormously ambitious living configurations (most of which have never been constructed) by a group of Kisho Kurokawa’s contemporaries of the Metabolism movement I’d never heard of. The exhibition also put on display the original architectural models, now practically antiques. The exhibition is as much about post-war to present-day graphic design as it is about architecture, so I was drooling over a wall filled with the participating countries’ pamphlets for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. As well as being beside myself with joy at seeing the making of Nakagin Capsule Tower on the big screen, I was also made aware of buildings in Japan designed in a similar vein that I had never seen before, a couple of which are located in Kyoto. So, I’ve decided to take a trip to Kyoto as soon as I can. No need to rush, but do go and see this exhibition which is open until 15th Jan 2012.


MUJI Flagship Yurakucho New Interior


Two MUJI posts in a row? Bear with me, this is important. Well, the interior is not completely new but it’s a major refurbishment with a lot of new sections/features. As well as the entrance area on the first floor being completely changed, and the layout altered, there’s also a new MUJI Megane (glasses/spectacles) department, Atelier MUJI has been updated, MUJI house has been completely changed plus loads of other cosmetic changes. All this via MUJI’s Facebook page. I’ll be there tomorrow to take a look and to see the new Loft store in the same building. That opens tomorrow (1st September).




Nakagin Capsule Tower Vol.2

Nakagin Capsule Tower Vol.2

I recently put up a new series of photographs of Nakagin Capsule Tower here in Tokyo as a follow-up to my original Nakagin Capsule Tower post from way back. The original series was shot on my old compact which I’ve since upgraded to a DSLR. The difference is huge with this new camera. The camera was in fact first bought because I was invited to display the pictures in a gallery in Berlin but I needed to re-shoot them in order to get the quality and size of print necessary for the space. That later fell through anyway, so here is the series originally intended for the gallery on my Flickr.


A Lot Can Happen in a Year in Tokyo

Ginza MitsukoshiMitsukoshi Department Store, Ginza

In addition to the multitudes of building projects taking place in Tokyo right now, not to mention the rebuilding of the Kabuki-Za and the construction of the New Tokyo Tower, there are areas that see concentrated redevelopment, one of which is Ginza’s Chuo Dori, a.k.a. Ginza Street.

In just one year lots of new buildings have shot up along this famous shopping thoroughfare. Most of the new development has come at the Shinbashi end of the street where the fast fashion and middle level brands have asserted their presence. This seems to be in line with the current decline of the luxury brands in favour of cheaper alternatives that has followed in the wake of the economic crisis.

Still, the rate of change has been staggering. The first major project you see as you walk from the Kyobashi end towards Shinbashi is the Mitsukoshi department store renovation with its new building at the rear. The new building is even larger than its predecessor which has had a facelift and the interior completely replaced.

Mitsukoshi Department Store Annex, GinzaMitsukoshi Department Store Annex, Ginza

Then, if you walk fifty yards further on, you come to Uniqlo which has expanded this year to occupy two buildings instead of just the previous one which is next door. This means menswear gets its own building now, also featuring the +J range.

Uniqlo GinzaUniqlo, Ginza

Down from Uniqlo is a controversial new store, Abercrombie & Fitch. They caused complaint after their store opened this year due to the loud music and the overpowering odour of Abercrombie & Fitch aftershave that wafted from the entrance. Walls, floors, racks and displays are all sprayed at regular intervals and rumour has it that it is also expelled from vents and air conditioners. In the warmer months the guys on the door (there are always two guys standing at the entrance) are bare-chested and look uncomfortable as they try to jig along to the awful dance music blaring inside (staff’s orders). Apparently you can find the same inside but I’ve never been able to bring myself to enter. Still, the building is impressive enough and the brand seems to have survived its first year to the chagrin of many fashion and marketing aficionados.

Abercrombie & Fitch, GinzaAbercrombie & Fitch, Ginza

The final major new building is a little further down the street next to Zara and H&M. Yamaha has built a huge store there with instrument showrooms on several floors and a 333 seat concert hall. My favourite section has to be the electronic instruments and accessories, but all musicians should visit here for range of products often not available outside of Japan and the interior is as impressive as the exterior.

Yamaha Store, GinzaYamaha Store, Ginza

So, all-in-all it’s been a busy year on Ginza Street with lots of changes and interesting new shops that have reinforced its reputation of being one of the most upscale, upmarket and vibrant shopping districts in the world. The scale of construction in this area alone has been massive but there are yet other pop-up shops and smaller construction projects I haven’t mentioned such as the Asahi Extra Cold Bar that was around temporarily during the summer and the construction work still going on in secret behind screen walls and advertising hoardings probably due to be unveiled in the new year, so the pace of progress shows no sign of easing.


Visit to Muji Village

Muji Village Gallery

This has actually been on the back burner since early Spring this year, and it’s only now that I came across the great brochure pictured at the bottom of this post while rummaging through my bookcase which finally reminded that I should post this information as a continuation of my previous post on Muji Village from last year.

Well, by now, some of the new tenants should be settled into their new Muji apartments on the east side of the city. The apartments went on the market at about the same time as I visited the show homes based off-site in the gallery building you can see at the top of this post, which would have been around late February this year.

I was shown around the show home by a guy from the real estate firm collaborating with Muji on this project, Mitsubishi Jisho, and he didn’t fit the role at all. Sporting a dark blue, double-breasted suit jacket with large gold buttons, he jarred with the Muji brand image and was the picture of the slimy salesman. I wonder if he had realised that I wasn’t really planning to buy an apartment and was only there as a sort of architecture tourist?

Muji Village Model
A model showing the layout of the common space

The show home was impressive though, but the Muji aesthetic seemed to have been watered down by Mitsubishi contributing to the interiors and the furniture. This said, I still would’ve taken one in an instant should I have been in the market for a new apartment – the kitchen by itself was enough to sell me.

After the gallery visit I declined the salesman’s offer of accompanying me to the actual site and took a walk there myself to see the exterior. What I saw was nothing different to any other new apartment building in Tokyo, except it had been left plain white with patches of grey (no doubt at Muji’s request). The complex was still deserted at this time but the building work was finished inside and out. Muji Village banners were draped on the fences surrounding the grounds.

Muji Village
The fairly dull facade to the complex

Muji Village Banner
A banner on the perimeter fence

As I left the Muji Village Gallery I was given a buyers’ pack containing various goodies in a typical Muji mini tote bag – the kind of canvas ones you get in their stores. Inside was my free bottle of chilled green tea, various small pamphlets, salesman Tony’s eyesore of a business card and this great brochure (pictured below). It seems like they spared no expense printing this hard-bound, thick-spined, full-colour photo book:

Muji Village Book
Muji Village Brochure

All in all, not a bad day out.


9h Capsule Hotel Kyoto

9h Capsule Hotel Kyoto

The capsule hotel concept has been familiar to the Japanese for several decades, but still hasn’t taken off in the west. This may have been because of the often tacky and unrefined nature of the capsule hotels themselves, or an inbuilt response to unfamiliar concepts such as these as being weird and uninviting. Japan has never had any such problem embracing novel or strange solutions to everyday life, but when I was living in the UK, I certainly couldn’t have imagined them taking off. Even so, they would make great alternatives to expensive inner city hotels, could prove extremely useful in airports (as we saw during the recent disruption caused by the Icelandic volcanic eruption), and could even provide shelter for late night revelers in urban areas, maybe even reducing drink driving.

If it ever were to cross the continents and make it to the west, let’s hope it arrives in the form of Kyoto’s new 9h Capsule Hotel designed by Fumie Shibata of Design Studio S. The name 9h comes from the concept of having 1 hour to shower, 7 hours to sleep, and 1 hour to rest (a total of 9 hours), although you can actually stay anything up to 17 hours in one day. The thing that really sets this capsule hotel apart from all the others that have gone before are the futuristic minimalist interiors, excellent facilities and the technologically advanced features, such as the biorhythm-aware Panasonic pod management systems that wake guests individually with simulated dawns of controlled lighting instead of noisy alarm clocks. Really though, it’s the industrial design that I love about this project. It is perfectly aligned with the discerning tastes famous in Kyoto with sleek black, dark wood and brilliant white being found throughout. The design of the electronic elements, the shapes of the capsule windows and the tasteful graphic design further reinforce the Japanese feel and serves to firmly set this apart from the awful Yotel at London Heathrow and makes the Nite Nite hotels look distinctly average.

I’m thinking of taking a trip to Kyoto soon, so I’ll make sure I spend one night here. I’ve never been so excited about the idea of sleeping in any other type of accommodation. That means something, surely.


Asahi Bar Ginza

Asahi Bar Ginza

On Chuo Dori, a.k.a. ‘Ginza Street’ (in Ginza, Tokyo) there’s a new bar open ready for the summer. It’s operated by Asahi, one of Japan’s biggest beverage companies, and sells only their mainstay, flagship brew, Asahi Super Dry. What’s unique is that the beer is freezing cold, as is the interior temperature of the bar – perfect for escaping the balmy Japanese summer.

Asahi Bar Ginza

Each glass costs ¥550, is served at a strict temperature of between 0°c and -2°c, and you can even pour the beer yourself from the bar taps! The temperature of the interior is shown on the outside of the bar and you can just see it in the picture I took at the top of this post. The Asahi Super Dry Extra Cold Bar in Ginza is open now until the end of August 2010.