A Walking Tour of Tokyo Architecture

From the functional futurism of the Metabolists to the flashy post-modernism of Omotesando, Tokyo architecture is a wonder. Follow our Tokyo architecture walking tour and discover it all.

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Reflecting on the labyrinth of streets and alleys that make up Tokyo’s urban landscape in Empire of Signs, the semiotician’s take on a travel guide, Roland Barthes wrote, “Tokyo meanwhile reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others”. This sentiment is reproduced time and time again by foreigners, usually of western origin, when they first touch down in Tokyo. The city that is, let’s not forget, the largest on earth. This is a reasonable reaction given that, as Barthes and others have noted, Japanese cities are fundamentally different to those in the west. For architect Arata Isozaki, at the base of this is the fact that:

“No city in Japan is like European cities. In Europe, cities reflect the contrast with nature; nature and the city are two opposite concepts. In Japan, cities are like villages that have  grown naturally from the ‘power of nature’. In Europe, cities have a particular structure, what we call an ‘urban’ structure. In Japan we don’t have such a structure”

Nature, concurrent with the Edo village, is the palimpsest of the Japanese city, then. Cities in Japan, particularly Tokyo, are closer to nature, and like nature, they grow, develop and mutate. The Metabolists (more on them later) agreed with this prognosis, describing the city as an organism with its own advanced metabolism and the ability to modify and transform its own urban fabric. 

This constant transformation has blessed Tokyo with a unique architectural landscape; at once contemporary and traditional, monumental and modest, beautiful and ugly. In what follows we’re going to explore this landscape in an attempt to peer into the chaos and see what we can find. We’ve designed our guide to be practical, to be put to use on the city streets by following the two signposted Google Maps below.  

Fittingly, our guide is fairly nonlinear, jumping between eras and styles at the drop of a hat, hopefully, however, providing a nice route around the city and a decent overview of Tokyo’s wonderfully diverse architecture. To make the tour more manageable, we’ve split it into two parts: east and west. Although taking the train or bus will speed things up, we suggest walking the route. Just as important as the buildings themselves are the spaces in between, the endless streets and alleys that are the arteries, veins and flesh of the city, the things that give it life. 

Tokyo Architecture – East Side 

National Museum of Western Art (1959) 

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Perhaps an odd place to start, built, as it was, by a western architect to display western art, but there is a method to the madness. 

Le Corbusier built only three museums during his career, but the impressive National Museum of Western Art, also his only work in Japan, would lead you to believe he was seasoned in this regard. Despite the quasi-Brutalism of the museum’s facade, within, natural light floods in to create an immense openness, complemented by the excellent use of height in the galleries and the extensive use of ramps to foster a natural circulatory flow.

What makes this building a good place to start is the concept behind it, the idea of the ‘infinitely expandable museum’. Corbusier envisaged his building could be continually enlarged and extended, that it could mimic organic nature. The flowering of the Metabolist movement and the construction of the building are pretty contemporaneous, so it would be no surprise if Corbusier was inspired by their ideas, but whether this was the case or not, the parallels between Corbusier’s ideas about what a museum could achieve and the ideas of the Metabolists regarding the living city are clear to see. Perhaps not such an odd place to start after all.   

Address: 7-7 Uenokoen, Taito, Tokyo 110-0007

Edo-Tokyo Museum (1993)

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Tokyo was once, and perhaps still could be, the birthplace of the future. No single structure reminds us of this more than the hulking, alien, almost intimidating Edo-Tokyo Museum. Given Tokyo’s profound connection to its origins, it is fitting that an aggressively futurist building such as this is home to a museum glorifying the cities Edo-past, almost, we might say, as if the dialectic between past and present is being played out in concrete and steel before our eyes. 

This being the first Metabolist building on our list, and having mentioned it a number of times already, it’s perhaps a good time to give a brief overview of what Metabolism actually was. In brief, Metabolism was a post-war Japanese architectural movement that fused the twin ideas of the megastructure and organic growth. Inspired by Marxist theory and natural science, the Metabolists created a new, iconoclastic architectural language based on the linkages between the built and natural environments, attempting, in essence, to create buildings that could grow and mutate endlessly into the future.  

A late building of Kiyonori Kikutake, a Metabolist grandee, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, though perhaps not as glorified as some of its cousins, is one of Tokyo’s great twentieth-century buildings. A playful but oddly sinister masterpiece.

Address: 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida, Tokyo 130-0015

Shizuoka Press and Media Building (1967)

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Built by Kenzo Tange, the mentor and most prolific of the Metabolists, the Shizuoka Press and Media Building, despite its small size, is one of its most significant accomplishments.  

The building is centred on a tubular core into which modular office blocks are ‘plugged in’. The idea was, by adding more and more modules, the building could eventually transform into a megastructure. This never materialised, the building today still featuring only the original 13 offices, but the idea, one of the movement’s central tenants, was and remains influential. 

Standing in what is today the glitzy Ginza district, the building is in welcome contrast to the bland glass towers that saturate the area. 

Address: 8-3-7 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo

Nakagin Capsule Tower (1970)

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Unlike many similarly esoteric, bizarre post-war architectural movements, the most impressive thing about the Metabolists is that they were actually able to get some of their ideas built. The best and most impressive is the Nakagin Capsule Tower, built by Kisho Kurokawa between 1970 and 1972. 

In a similar vein to the earlier Shizuoka Press and Media Building, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is made up of two concrete cores into which prefabricated living pods can be plugged. These pods, small living spaces with bathrooms and a window, were seen as an answer to the housing problems caused by an expanding population. As need expanded, new pods could be added almost endlessly. 

The building remains semi-inhabited, but years of neglect, mismanagement and problems with the original building materials have meant it is in a dilapidated state, much like many of its architecturally avant-garde cousins across the world. The future, it appears, is falling apart. 

Address: 8-16-10 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo

Tokyo Tower (1958)

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Built just as the Metabolists were getting started, like them, the designers and builders of the Tokyo Tower were very future-minded, seeing their tower as a symbol of Japan’s post-war recovery and technology-led future.

Situated in central Tokyo, the tower also has practical uses as a public viewing platform, aquarium, restaurant and satellite mast. The tower mimics the look of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and, although slightly taller, is much thinner, making it slightly less imposing. Painted in bright red and white, the tower is a classic Tokyo landmark, contrasting nicely with the cubic blocks it stands between or when looked up at from Zōjō-ji Temple not far from its base. 

Address: 4-2-8 Shiba-kouen, Minato-ku

Reiyukai Shakaden Temple (1975)

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Japan isn’t short of temples, but few are as contemporary as this one, the Reiyukai Shakaden Temple in Minato. Connected to the Inner Trip Reiyukai (ITR), a modern Japanese quasi-religion that sprouted from mainstream Buddhism in the 1930s, it is a brilliantly imposing structure, aesthetically somewhere between a giant, granite woodlouse and a Brutalist multi-story parking lot.

Inside, it gets no less interesting, all Lynchian crushed velvet and spaceship furnishings, plus, an eight meter tall Buddha statue carved from ancient wood and, in case of an unspecified emergency, a reservoir containing 400 tons of water. 

Address: 1-7-8 Azabudai, Minato-ku

International House of Japan (1955)

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Inspired by New York’s International House, notable journalist Shigeharu Matsumoto built the International House of Japan in 1955, funded by no other than John D. Rockefeller. Its aim is to foster and maintain cultural exchange and communication between Japan and other countries around the world. 

In terms of architecture, it is one of the most successful fusions between classic Japanese aesthetics and mid-century Modernism that you’ll find anywhere. Its low-rise, blocky, angular form cantilevered over a pond and set amongst traditionally landscaped grounds evoking at once the architecture of Heian-era Japan and the work of Erno Goldfinger. Although a private institution, events and programs put on at the International House of Japan are commonly open to all. 

Address: 5-11-16 Roppongi, Minato-ku

The National Art Center, Tokyo (2007)

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Although outside of his Metabolist period, the second Kisho Kurokawa building on our list still contains within it some of the movements grounding principles, though perhaps presented less obviously. 

One of the few state-funded galleries in Japan, The National Art Center is a home for contemporary art, with space for several permanent and temporary exhibitions. The buildings most distinctive feature is its curving glass wall enclosing the main atrium, accessible, from the outside, through a giant glass and steel cone. The huge space inside is partitioned by movable walls able to accommodate for the strictures of any exhibition. 

The buildings openness lends it a certain sense of impermanence and, above all, a closeness to its surroundings. It is, having seen the earlier works of the Metabolists, a fitting place to end our architectural tour of Tokyo’s east side. 

Address:  7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato

Tokyo Architecture – West Side 

Daikanyama T-Site (2012)

Photo Credit: 淳平 筈井 via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: 淳平 筈井 via Flickr cc

Daikanyama is one of Tokyo’s most enviable postcodes, filled, as is customary for bourgeois neighbourhoods, with endless cafes, restaurants and intimidatingly expensive shops. 

A complex designed to house all of these component parts is Daikanyama’s T-Site, a glass and steel work of post-postmodernism which is, despite the exclusivity it cultivates, a fine example of contemporary commercial architecture. The original design was commissioned for a new branch of the popular Japanese bookstore Tsutaya, hence the name and the use of T shapes that seem to lock parts of the structure together. 

The building is made with a lightness of touch which, particularly on a sunny day, makes it a good place to pass some time and what’s more, a decent place to start our architectural tour of Tokyo’s west side.  

Address: 16-15 Daikanyama, Shibuya-ku

Shibuya Crossing 

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Not an individual work of architecture, granted, but Shibuya Crossing, a swelling, riving, physically disorientating urban crossroads is one of the city’s best spots for tuning into Tokyo’s Blade Runner-esq, capitalist futurist architectural overtures.

As you exit Shibuya Station, the barrage of sound, people, lights and advertising is impossible to protect against. All around you, buildings that are visibly ageing yet intrinsically sci-fi loom over. They are, however, difficult to separate into constituent parts, linked together by endless billboards and screens which blur our perception. All that is missing is flying cars and Harrison Ford.

Address: 2-2 Dōgenzaka, Shibuya-ku 

Omotesando

Omotesando is as close to a Haussmannian boulevard that Tokyo gets. Indeed, the wide, tree-lined stretch of road north of Shibuya Crossing is nicknamed “Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées”. 

This is where the elite shops and where everyone else gawps, exclusive international brands plying their trade along the stretch inside “iconic” custom-built works of cutting edge architectural bombast. There is the entrance to Tokyu Plaza looking like a mirrored black-hole, the Prada building with its concave diamond facade and the nocturnal glow of the Dior outlet, among many more.  

These buildings, designed as advertising as much as architecture, are nonetheless interesting, giving us a look at what top-name international architects do when given an unlimited budget and free reign.

Address: 6-4 Jingūmae, Shibuya-ku 

Meiji Jingu Shrine (1920)

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Our gaze thus far has been on buildings from Tokyo’s recent past, for, due to the twin ruin of war and natural disaster, it is the latter half of the twentieth century that most defines the city’s aesthetics. Yet, in the cracks between the high-rises and office blocks, steadfast and beautiful, stand countless age-old shrines and temples that either escaped the worst of Tokyo’s darkest days or were rebuilt in their aftermath. 

Meiji Jingu Shrine is among the more recent of these holy sites, built, as it was, to commemorate the death of Emperor Meiji. Architecturally, however, it is among the most impressive. Visitors enter through a hulking torii gate, wander up a wide, tree-lined avenue and eventually reach the shrine complex made up of a number of different low-rise pavilions and halls. The unassuming yet intricate designs of these buildings are a wonder, especially to the western eye, though a world away from the garishness of nearby Omotesando. 

Address: 1-1, Kamizono-chō, Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (1991)

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Referencing Medieval ecclesiastical architecture, particularly Paris’s Notre Dame, Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office is one of Tokyo’s best works of Postmodernism. The building features two giant towers with apertures at their peaks, each with granite and concrete geometrically patterned facades. 

The building is actually a series of three buildings, a complex designed as the administrative heart of the city. Nestled within Shinjuku’s business district, it is congruous with its surroundings but visibly more striking. 

Address: 2-8-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku

Golden Gai

Photo Credit: Big Ben in Japan via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Big Ben in Japan via Flickr cc

Within but set apart from Shinjuku’s notorious Kabukicho red-light district, the Golden Gai is a warren of Show-era alleys and one of Tokyo’s most famed bar districts. After the war, the area was a den for the black market, gradually becoming a hip hang-out for artists, intellectuals and those fond of a drink later on in the century.  

Today, tourists are common, but the area retains its charms. The antithesis of sleek, polished Tokyo, it is ramshackle but wholly pleasant and perfect for a boozy evening. The bars, some 200 of them, come in all varieties, though they are all only big enough for a handful of customers at once. Redevelopment has been proposed but defeated in the past, though that’s not to say the vultures won’t be back, so savour it while it lasts. 

Address: 1-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku

Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan (1921)

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Hidden on an unassuming Ikebukuro street 15 minutes from the station, Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan, a former girls school, now used for school alumni events, is one of Tokyo’s most surprising buildings. 

Built by the world-famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1921, the structure is designed in Wright’s signature “prairie house” style. Two symmetrical wings flank a grassy courtyard and connect to a central hall with long, church-like windows and a pitched roof. Inside, the interior of dark wood and art-deco furnishings is lit up by the light from the voluminous windows, making for a nicely calming environment.

Wright, fitting with our theme, believed in a unity between architecture and nature, coining the term “organic architecture” to describe his work. Perhaps a fitting place to conclude our tour of Tokyo architecture, then.

Address: 2-31-3 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku

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Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.



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