Until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the later Tokyo Fire Bombings during WWII, Tokyo used to be primarily made up of the type of wooden houses which still grace Kyoto. With the modern revamp, Tokyo gained a unique mix of architecture, with a strong emphasis on steel, concrete and funky shapes. Natural materials are making a comeback however and the city recently announced plans for a 350m tall wooden skyscraper. While that’s not scheduled to open until 2041, here are some architectural gems you can ogle right now.
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A rare example of Japanese Metabolism architecture, Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza has 140 apartments (although at 10m² each, you can hardly call them that), but only half of them are still used today, mostly as office or storage space. It's been slated for demolition multiple times, which has been met with outcry in the name of national heritage each time. For now, some of the capsules are still available for rent, and tours are held on a semi-regular basis (as of current, there is an English-language tour every Thursday or so). Book fast when they do, as they tend to be very popular.
A spectacular landmark in Bunkyo, this modernist Roman Catholic church is an architectural masterpiece designed by the renowned Kenzo Tange. The reflective stainless steel exterior is instantly recognisable, but it’s the use of light that really dazzles.
Sunlight streams into the nave, which is laid out like a cross, through a skylight and diffuses from the ceiling and across the curved walls to create a magical environment that changes as the day progresses. Moreover, Tange replaced the conventional stained glass window behind the altar with thin marble panes to create additional soft lighting.
Built by architects/artists Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins in 2005, this funky residential building was created with the aim of helping people achieve longevity. Called the ‘ultrachromatic undying house’ by novelist Setouchi Jakuchou, the building features nine units and 14 different colours. It is inspired by Helen Keller, the blind-deaf American author and activist, hence it includes features specifically designed for individuals with different physical abilities – for example, some of spaces work better for children than adults, with others are created with the elderly in mind. Certain units are available for short and long-term stays, but you can always go for a tour.
The largest mosque in Japan and one of the most beautiful in East Asia, Tokyo Camii brings to mind the great mosques of Istanbul. And that’s not surprising, considering its ornamentation is inspired by Ottoman architecture.
Completed in 2000, this mosque is a replacement of a former structure built by Turkish immigrants in 1938. This current three-storey building was designed by architect Muharrem Hilmi Senalp and most of the materials used, including the marble, were imported from Turkey.
Non-Muslims are welcome to visit, but please be careful not to disturb or take photos of people praying. Women are advised to dress modestly and cover their hair. The adjoining Turkish Cultural Centre offers an introduction to both Islamic and Turkish culture.
Opened to much fanfare in 2007, the stunning library of this renowned art institution feels a lot more airy and spacious than your average book repository. It was designed by renowned architect Toyo Ito, in a bid to make the library more of a community space than a contained, gated building.
Belonging to the Reiyukai new religious movement, this spaceship-looking temple is hidden away in the backstreets of Kamiyacho. Despite its forbidding exterior, the Shakaden is actually quite an open and friendly place: for one, it hosts a variety of free Japanese language classes for Tokyo residents (book in advance here), should you want to get up close and personal.
Omotesando is full of dazzling architecture, but this photogenic wood-weave facade somehow manages to slip underneath many a visitor’s radar. The building was designed by Japanese starchitect Kengo Kuma, and houses a branch of Taiwan's famed SunnyHills, a chain of pineapple cake shops. The pineapple cakes here are as good as any you'll find in Taipei apparently, but come with a pricetag to match.
A temple for Jodo Shinshu, the most practised brand of Buddhism in the country, this unique structure features an eclectic architecture style that’s a blend of both Japanese and Indian Buddhism aesthetics. While the exterior brings to mind the grand temple styles of South Asia (with a hint of Angkor Wat), the equally ornate interior stays faithful to the classic Japanese ornamentation.
The temple had its fair share of damage since its inauguration in 1617. The current iteration, completed in 1934, was designed by architectural historian Ito Chuta, an honorary professor at the Tokyo Imperial University (currently known as Tokyo University). Recently, a café has opened on site, with a good view of the grand facade. Get here before 10.30am and order the gorgeous Japanese-style breakfast set – it consists of 16 dainty dishes plus rice and miso soup.
With six floors starting from the basement level, this is Prada's largest flagship store in Japan. The striking building is certainly attention-grabbing, appearing like a stack of glass blocks, and is the work of Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. You'll find this iconic structure between the Omotesando intersection and Nezu Museum. Don't be surprised if you see a crowd here: many people visit the store solely for the purpose of seeing the building itself, thus making Prada Boutique Aoyama a true 'flagship store'.
Right next to Azumabashi on the Sumida River, the Asahi Beer Hall (aka Super Dry Hall) stands out for its rather specific 'Flamme D'Or' design. In case you're wondering why, the building itself is supposed to have the shape of a beer glass, while the 'flame' mimicks both the head on a beer and 'the heart of Asahi beer'. Besides the brewery, you'll also find an art space on the fourth and fifth floors, dubbed the Asahi Art Square.
University buildings have never been as nice as this: the University of Tokyo's research centre devoted to 'ubiquitous computing' (a type of computing which is everywhere at anytime) was designed by Kengo Kuma. The building itself has multiple sensors installed behind Kuma's signature wooden panels, which can measure temperature, wind speed, radiation and more, the data of which can then be used for further research. If you don't happen to be pursuing a PhD in the Internet of Things, you can pop by the Kurogi café on the ground floor – it's a wagashi specialist with a just-as-sleek interior and some stellar kakigori.
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