Tokyo’s top ten beautiful buildings

Written by
Ili Saarinen

Originally posted October 8 2014

Tokyo is hardly ever described as ‘beautiful’, and for good reason: many of the most recognisable structures in our beloved city fall into the categories of dystopian monstrosity and/or soulless glass-and-steel rectangle. Nevertheless, the metropolis is also home to quite a few simply gorgeous pieces of architecture – here are our top picks…

1. Tokyo Station

The red-brick facade of Tokyo Station is a prominent reminder of Japan’s rush to modernisation in the early 20th century: completed in 1914, the domed structure suffered significant damage during the war and wasn’t restored to its original form until a six-year renovation project was completed in 2012. It boggles the mind that this Kingo Tatsuno-designed beauty, which has earned frequent mentions as the city’s most visually pleasing building, was under a serious demolition threat in the bubbly 1980s.

2. Nakagin Capsule Tower

Despite countless demolition plans, Kisho Kurokawa’s metabolist masterpiece stands stubbornly on a prime piece of Shinbashi real estate and remains one of the city’s top alternative tourist destinations. A pain in the butt for many a greedy developer, the tower consists of 140 ‘capsules’ envisioned as the single apartments of the future, each one equipped with the most basic of necessities: bed, kitchen stove, fridge, TV and toilet. Only around half of the capsules are in use today, including one that’s being rented out through Airbnb – how’s that for unique Tokyo accommodation?

Photo by Yohei Yamashita

3. Iceberg Building

Even among Omotesando’s parade of ridiculously expensive show-off structures, this deliciously OTT glass miracle stands out. Housing the Audi Forum, the German automaker’s turbocharged showroom and exhibition space, the Iceberg opened in 2006 and looks particularly impressive when lit up at night. Now, if only something could be done about its uninspiring neighbours…

4. Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower

A fashion college needs a fashionable home, and this Shinjuku marvel fits the bill. Marketed as the second-tallest educational building in the world (Moscow State University’s Stalinist main edifice is no. 1, just so you know), the 50-storey ‘nurturing cocoon’ actually hosts three separate schools and up to 10,000 students. Never mind that it looks like a giant bowling pin from afar.

5. Bank of Japan

Although financial institutions the world over tend to be housed in metal towers tall enough to raise a few Freudian doubts about the bankers that inhabit them, Japan’s ‘princes of the yen’ still go about their quantitative easing, monetary base control and bond buying in this handsome neo-Baroque fortress hidden behind Nihonbashi’s Mitsukoshi. Another Kingo Tatsuno design, the 1896 main building was one of the first in Japan with a flush toilet – how appropriate.

6. Dior Omotesando

Dior’s first Japan store, a glass-covered creation that still looks like it popped straight out of a computer rendering, is the work of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. You’ll find exorbitantly priced fashion, fragrances and all that jazz inside, but the real attraction here is the translucent exterior, which exudes an eerie glow at night and hints at the horrors probably going on inside.

7. Kyu Iwasaki-tei

Built in 1896 for Hisaya Iwasaki, son of Mitsubishi founder Yataro Iwasaki and one of the legends of Japanese industry, this well-preserved compound reveals the fin de siècle sheen beneath Ueno’s grimy surface. Josiah Conder’s design incorporates Jacobean and Pennsylvanian country-house elements and is a testament to the luxury available to the late-19th-century 1%. The house and parts of the surrounding gardens have been open to commoners since 2001 and regularly host well-attended events.

8. Fuji Kindergarten

Every kid wants to climb up onto the kindergarten roof at least once, but rules and naggy adults tend to get in the way of such daring pursuits. Not so at this oval-shaped Tachikawa marvel, which boasts a roof deck reaching around the entire building, providing a wonderful opportunity for young ‘uns to expend some extra energy. In fact, that ease of movement extends to the entire facility: all classrooms are connected to each other, which is great for kids but probably makes the teachers’ work just a teeny bit more challenging.

9. Shisei Kaikan

Former home of Domei Tsushin, Japan’s wartime (propaganda) news agency, Hibiya Park’s Gothic icon was erected in 1929 and stands out like a sore thumb in the lush surroundings. The stern edifice may have lost its shock value long ago but continues to invoke rage among some of the city’s architectural gatekeepers, who’d apparently prefer something a little less, um, totalitarian. Come on, no need to sweep this one under the carpet, too.

10. Tokyo Tower

Who doesn’t love Tokyo’s top landmark? Stylish, retro, accessible and unpretentious, it’s everything the upstart Skytree isn’t, and regularly hosts interesting events that tend to be far less promotional that the organisers probably intended. Good old 333, completed in 1958, is the work of tower auteur Tachu Naito and gets a new layer of orange and white paint every five years or so. Look out for the Christmas light-up, which is one of the classiest illuminations around.

Did we miss your favourite building? Let us know.

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