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Tokyo's architecture: from wooden hovels to skyscrapers

Tokyo tower and central Tokyo at dusk
Tokyo tower and central Tokyo at dusk.

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1 A bit of history
2 The age of skyscrapers
3 A few good viewpoints in Tokyo


A person who visited Tokyo in the 1990's and who were to revisit it now could wonder if it is in fact the same city. Of course, it isn't. Every city evolves with time. Some buildings are torn down and others rebuild instead.

But the metamorphosis which the Japanese capital has undergone since the years 2000's in simply startling.

A bit of history

Tokyo during the Edo period

Tokyo first became a city under the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 17th century under the name of Edo. At that time, virtually all the city was wooden, and fire regularily destroyed the whole or parts of the urban area.

Edo was officially renamed Tokyo (which means "Eastern capital") at the Meiji Restoration of 1867. The quick westernization saw the rise of European style buildings in centers such as Ginza or Nihombashi, most of which have disappeared to this day.

The vast majority of the buildings remained frail wooden ones. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed most of the Western-style building, while fires ravaged entire quarters of wooden dwellings.

Wooden building in central Tokyo

Tokyo was rebuild again, but just over 20 years later, the American bombers flattened the city one more time.

In the aftermath of WWII, Tokyo laid in ruins. Defeated and financially exhausted, Japanese people had no alternative but to reconstruct their capital as quickly and cheaply a possible.

Wood was still the prefered material of the time, but concrete soon grew more popular and the 1970's and 80's became the age of the "mansions" (block of concrete apartments).

The first impressive skyscapers were build in Shinjuku in the early 1970's, for instance the Mitsui Building (225m) or Sumitomo Building (210m), both completed in 1974.

The age of skyscrapers

Roppongi Hills
Nishi Shinjuku
Tsukuda Towers

Not until the 1990's, especially toward the end of the decade, did Tokyo become more of a skyscaper city. Because of frequent earthquakes and the risk of a major earthquakes every 80 years or so (which means it could be very soon), Tokyo and all other Japanese cities's architecture was no comparison to Hong Kong or Singapore.

What exactly motivated the change is hard to say. It could be the developement of better earthquake-proof technology, but also the dramatic fall in land prices since the economic and real estate bubble burst in 1990-1. Anyhow, Tokyo is now sprouting high-rise building faster than almost any other places on earth.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government moved from the Chuo-ku to its present Nishi-Shinjuku location in 1991 and its highest tower remains the highest building in the capital to this day (243m).

In 2003, there were 47 towers over 150m high. Among them 28 were less than 4 years old. 12 of the 19 remaining can be found in Shinjuku, which in other words means that before 1999, there were only 7 towers exceeding 150m in Tokyo outside Shinjuku.

Marunouchi Building

Among the recent construction, the "Sunshine 60 Tower" (240m) in Ikebukuro in 1999 is the second highest. Some districts have been entirely redeveloped, like Harumi and its Triton Square, completed in April 2001, or Shiodome, which is only half completed at the time of writing but already boast 2 towers of 165m, one of 193m, one of 210m and yet another one of 216m - all completed in 2003.

Then come the much acclaimed Roppongi Hills, which gives a totally new face to the (in)famous nightclub district of the capital. The area around Tokyo station is undergoing a complete facelift, first with buildings such as the Century Pacific Tower, Nomura Building (138m, opened 1997) or New Sankei Building (146m, opened 2000), then the recent masterpieces that are the exclusive Marunouchi Building (179m, opened Nov. 2002), then the Nihombashi 1-chōme Building (opened Apr. 2004).

A few good viewpoints in Tokyo

1) Shinjuku's Tochō (都庁 Tokyo Metropolitan Government Towers). It's free and at the top of the 45th floor it's probably the highest place you can go in Tokyo. The view on the surrounding skyscrapers is fabulous, especially at night. Mount Fuji should be well visible during clear (non hazy) winter days.

2) You can access freely to the 2 highest floors of the Marunouchi Building, which have upmarket restaurants facing all sides. Superb view on the Imperial Palace, Ginza, Nihombashi and most of central Tokyo. Access from Tokyo Station.

Shiodome City Center

3) Shiodome's new skyscrapers district is one of the best places to observe the city under different angles. You can access a viewing platform on the top of Dentsu Building (via the Caretta Shopping Mall) for free. The Shiodome City Center building has possibly the best views, but you'll need to eat or drink at one of its expensive top-floor restaurant or bar - but it's worth it, especially at night.

4) Observatory at the 47th floor of St Luke's Tower (聖路加タワー Seirōka Tawa-) in Akashichō (Chūō-ku), near Tsukiji. Free access to the observatory, but the vie wis limited to the South and East. The rather expensive "Luke's Restaurant" just beside the observatory has a view on the West and North.

With 221m, this is the 4th highest tower in Tokyo outside Shinjuku, and the highest East of the Imperial Palace. Great view on the Sumida river, Tsukuda towers, Tokyo Bay, Rainbow Bridge, Tsukiji Market and Shiodome.

5) Revolving restaurant at the 17th floor of the New Otani Hotel, Akasaka. Not only does is offer a perfect 360 degrees view, but its central location allows to see the whole of Tokyo at equal distance, from Shinjuku to Otemachi or Shimbashi. The only drawback is that you have to pay and just a tea/cofee will cost you at least 700 yen.

6) The Yurikamome (monorail) ride from Shimbashi to Odaiba pass above most building and gives a great view on the bay of Tokyo, Rainbow Bridge (that you actually cross), Shimbashi new scyscrapers and other towers such as the Triton center in Kachidoki or the blue and orange Tsukuda appartment towers.

7) Yebisu Garden Place Tower (40 floors, 167m, opened 1994). You can go for free at the 2 top floors, which have plenty of restaurants in the midst of a splendid Graeco-Roman mythological decoration. You can see Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akasaka, Mount Fuji and even Yokohama.

For more information about Tokyo's high-rise building, please consult Emporis.com

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