Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


New Tokyo Tower (Tokyo Sky Tree)

New Tokyo Tower (Tokyo Sky Tree)

Construction is well underway of the new broadcasting and observation tower, Tokyo Sky Tree – it now stands at around 100m tall. Designed by Tadao Ando and costing a whopping ¥60,000,000,000, the tower will be one of the world’s tallest at 634m and, judging by the CG mock-ups, looks like the kind of tower you would see on the front cover of 80’s sci-fi novels. You can see the current state of affairs in the bottom right of the picture (inset).

The tower is located in Oshiage, Sumida-ku, on the east side of the city, also known as Shitamachi or ‘Downtown’.


Mokuzai Kaikan

Mokuzai Kaikan

Tokyo has a new feature of its architectural landscape, being heralded as yet another success by most. It even received a nomination at the this year’s Barcelona World Architecture Festival. It can be found in the Shinkiba area of Tokyo (in the East of the city). The large number of timber wholesalers in this area has been acknowledged in the design of this building, it being one of very few structures to use wood so abundantly and to such great effect in the construction of its facade. The wood theme is continued throughout, with interiors and detailing also making use of the material. To me this is very Japanese, and when I look at the building, it reminds me of the detailed rectangular patterns in the wood of traditional Japanese ryokans and… Muji bookshelves!

Building designed by Nikken Sekkei Ltd.


Nakagin Capsule Tower – The Future Was 30 Years Ago

Nakagin Capsule Tower
Check out the full set of pics of the Nakagin Capsule Tower on my flickr.

There’s a building in Tokyo that, to my mind, represents Tokyo. When I looked at the Nakagin Capsule Tower yesterday and imagined what lay behind it’s rusting porthole windows, I realised that it fits with all of the pre-conceptions I had of Tokyo, of people living in tiny modular spaces, futuristic, geometric buildings, grungy concrete facades with anonymous, gloomy peepholes. Brutally modern, but still unmistakably Japanese in origin, the Tower has the same appeal as an old Casio digital watch. It’s obviously a past attempt at realising the future, but it succeeds at doing this on so many levels. It still puts to shame every shiny steel structure in the vicinity in terms of it’s presence. A brutal, decaying monolith sticking out between two high rise buildings in the Tokyo business district of Shinbashi.

Nakagin Capsule Tower Sign

The building was completed in 1972, designed by a young Japanese architect called Kisho Kurokawa. The designer himself said, in an interview with TAB, that the capsules were meant to be replaced and maintenance was supposed to be carried out every 25 years, but the building is now 37 years old, and nothing has been done since it’s original construction. For this reason, it has recently fallen into disrepair, with problems arising from water leakages and electrical faults, as well as the rusting and general degredation of the capsules themselves. The building has 13 stories, with each of the capsules which make up the floors being attached to the enormous central shafts by just 4 high-tension bolts. The idea was that the capsules could be individually changed without disturbing the others, fulfilling objectives of sustainable architecture rooted in the metabolist architectural movements popular at the time. The Nakagin Capsule Tower was the first of it’s kind, designed to provide affordable housing to office workers unable to make it back to their real homes on weekdays.

Nakagin Capsule Tower Room

When Nakagin went bankrupt some years ago, they were bought out by U.S. hedge funds. Now the companies behind the acquisition are planning to have it demolished. Some architectural preservation groups are campaigning to save the tower and have it listed as a world heritage site, and I agree with that. It’s unlike any building I’ve seen before – it’s got a kind of immortal quality, probably derived from its very sci-fi appearance. Trouble is, there are doubts as to whether the building is resistant to earthquakes, and there is some controversy over the possible use of asbestos in the building’s construction. Time will tell as to whether such a doomed building is possible of saving, or whether such a seemingly invincible, obtrusive, controversial structure is capable of being destroyed at all.

And so I’m stood in the side street with The Tower looming overhead and there are some business men in suits smoking cigarettes outside the convenience store at the foot of the building. I’m looking in their direction, and further up the street there’s a small shop or office which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a small real estate agent. I thought it would be too good to be true if they had an advertisement in the window for a capsule to rent in the Nakagin Capsule Tower itself, but there it was.

Nakagin Capsule Tower for Rent!

Check out the full set of pics of the Nakagin Capsule Tower on my flickr.