Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

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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.


One of my photographs gets printed on the back cover of the 2011 Hobonichi Brochure!

Hobonichi Brochure

I’m certainly not a professional photographer, so I’m particularly pleased to have one of my photographs printed on the back cover of the new 2011 Hobonichi Techou Brochure! I mentioned the Hobonichi Techo line of personal organisers in a previous post because they’re actually really well designed. It looks like next years collection is going to feature a collaboration with non other than Yoshida & Co.’s Porter bag label. Thanks go to Erica for sending it in – it’s the one on the right with the rainbow in the picture above. Taken back when I used to live in the projects!


The Rebuilding of Ginza’s Kabuki-za


I was going to mention this before it actually happened, but I didn’t get around to it: Ginza’s Kabuki-za is now closed, the final farewell performances having been played out and the doors closed to the public for the last time. Now begins the huge task of preparing the building for demolition, which primarily involves emptying it of all the furniture, equipment, Kabuki accoutrements and priceless objects. In the above picture you can see how it looks now, and at the end of this post how it’s going to look when the new building is finished.

For those who are unaware, Kabuki is a highly stylized form of Japanese drama often involving music and dancing. Costumes and makeup tend to be extravagant and the dialogue, an illegible form of archaic Japanese. The practitioners are usually part of a dynasty of such performers and highly revered. Take for example actors such as Nakamura Shikan VII, Sakata Tōjūrō IV, Nakamura Tomijūrō V, Onoe Kikugorō VII, and Ichikawa Danjūrō XII. The latter of which is possibly the most famous.

The company that owns the building, Shochiku Corp., claims the rebuild is due to concerns over whether the building could withstand a major earthquake, but I suspect there are other motives. Land in Ginza is the most expensive anywhere in the world, and the current low-rise Kabuki-za sprawls over a large area. It’s obvious that the land could be better exploited, and as you walk around the back of the Kanuki-za it actually looks a bit tatty in places. Personally, I like it. It reminds me of the bathhouse from the famous Studio Ghibli anime Sen to Chihiro no Kami-kakushi (Spirited Away). The project is expected to be finished in 2013.

New Kabuki-za


Happy New Year 2010!

Tokyo from Mori Tower

It’s the end of a decade and as you can probably tell, I’m in Tokyo. I saw in the new year on the top floor of the Mori building in Tokyo, at a party that featured DJs from United Future Organization and Kyoto Jazz Massive but I couldn’t tell you for sure if I caught the performances of either one. It was mayhem and the place was absolutely huge. You couldn’t miss however, the stunning panoramic views of the city and the famous Tokyo Tower. The night was not so cold and crystal clear and it was a good chance to remind myself just how massive Tokyo actually is. In this new year I’m going to try to see much more of it, projects allowing. At the turn of midnight, Tokyo tower lit up in white displaying ‘2010’.

Tokyo Tower 2010

Having cleared my head after the actual event, it was then time to participate in the traditional practice of ‘Hatsumode’, where people visit shrines and temples to pray for good fortune and purchase religious trinkets and lucky charms. I got myself an all-purpose talisman and threw some coins in offering and of course prayed in front of the shrine. In order to do this I had to wait for 2 hours, but I was able to watch a documentary about the shrine (Meiji Jingu near Harajuku) on a huge TV screen to kill the time as we all shuffled slowly up the approach.

Meiji Jingu Hatsumode

And then all that was left to do was to file back out and get back on the train, but not before sampling some of the festival fare on offer at the many traditional food stands lining the route. I ate buttered potato to try to warm up enough to make it as far as Yoyogi station. I feel very positive about this year – it was definitely a good thing to be here in Japan for the transition as I plan to be here for the foreseeable future, but I’ve got a lot of work to do this year if I want to achieve my goals. What they are exactly are only known to me and the Deities at Meiji Jingu.

Leaving Meiji Jingu

Happy New Year, and good luck in 2010.


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.


Train Through Tokyo

Train Through Tokyo II from Stephen Smith on Vimeo.

This is a video I shot during a train ride from the center of Tokyo to the airport (1hr 20mins or so away). It gives a good impression of the Tokyo cityscape, the buildings, logos and colours of the city rushing by. There’s also a few more videos from this series on my Vimeo.


Little Old Bookstore of Kuramae

Little Old Bookstore of Kuramae

I’ve been walking past this place for months and I wanted to take a picture of it. It’s a very small, old bookstore, based in one of the oldest buildings in the area. An old woman clad in kimono tends the shop which is open onto the street. A small oil burner keeps the place from getting too cold in the winter months and if you do go inside you can find piles of books everywhere you look. They all look old or used, and in places the shelves have broken and the rows have collapsed down on one another. I can’t read the books at all, but I like going in and looking at the retro covers with the funny typefaces – much to the bemusement of the woman who watches me from the back. I should buy a load just to use to decorate my bookshelves, you can get one for as cheap as ¥100 (about 70p or $1).