The space between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace is a medley of great architectural and city designs where you see the product of careful planning at every corner.
Having just a little knowledge of the history of the cityscape and the thoughts city developers have put into designing it will help to make your next visit to the Tokyo Station area a memorable one.
So here’s a short walk through of one of the best must-go places of Tokyo, which will cost you nothing but the train fare to get there.
- 1. Tokyo Station
- 2. Tokyo Station plaza
- 3. Marunouchi Building and Shin-Marunouchi Building
- 4. KITTE
- 5. Naka-dori Street
1. Tokyo Station
Tokyo Station was originally built in 1914, however the architecture was destroyed from bombing in 1945 during WWII. Through a 5-year project, the station building was rebuilt in 2012, closely resembling how it used to look.
The architecture is built in the British Queen Anne revival style which was popular from the late 19th to early 20th century, and the reason is precisely because there was an Englishman, Josiah Conder, teaching the very first architecture students of Tokyo University back in the early 1900s. Designing several structures still remaining in Japan himself, Conder is considered to be the father of modern Japanese architecture, and it is his best student TATSUNO Kingo who completed the design of Tokyo Station we see today.
I must also mention here that Conder, after his arrival in Japan at age 25, loved Japan and was loved by the country, learning Japanese art, marrying a Japanese woman, being awarded multiple medals of honor for his accomplishments, and deciding to stay in this Eastern-most culture until death at age 67.
A German engineer named Franz Baltzer was first commissioned to design the station, however the original design he proposed was considered too Japanese from the eyes of a government that was promoting Westernization of the country then. TATSUNO Kingo was asked to go next at bat.
Tatsuno looked at the groundwork Baltzer had laid down, and decided to adhere to the German engineer’s structural plan of the station, which made complete engineering-sense. Then, red bricks and white stones were used to build a rather conservative Queen Anne revival architecture, however Tatsuno added the two crown-shaped domes on both wings of the building to blend subtle uniqueness into the overall design.
If you go into the station from the entrances right beneath the domes and look carefully at the ceiling, you will see a flock of birds arranged in the shape of a ring, merging nicely with natural sunlight by day, and warm lights by night.
2. Tokyo Station plaza
The wide open space in front of the Marunouchi Exit of Tokyo Station was refurbished in 2017 and since then has been a magnet attracting both locals and tourists. However when you go there you will notice that it never feels busy or crowded and the place provides enough seats for everyone to sit around and enjoy peace outdoors.
A unique feature should be noted: Because the Japanese summer can get unbearably hot and humid, a traditional ritual to fend off heat has been systemized and installed in the Tokyo Station plaza.
A thin sheet of recycled water spreads across a 22 x 15m square right in front of the station building and this lowers the temperature above it by around 10℃. Anyone is welcome to step into the water bear footed to enjoy this simple oasis.
The plaza is not only meant to be a place for visitors to relax, but also is a part of the pathway (Gyoukou-dori Street) that connects the station to the Imperial Palace. Traditionally, the street has been the setting of formal ceremonies of the imperial family and officially welcoming ambassadors of other countries.
Therefore elegance was a common trait the space and buildings surrounding it had to carry when they were developed.
3. Marunouchi Building and Shin-Marunouchi Building
The two buildings across from Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi Exit are both commercial complexes housing only quality services and retailers of all price ranges catering for locals, businesspeople and tourists. With your back facing Tokyo Station, the beige building on the left is Marunouchi Building and the black one on the right is Shin-Marunouchi Building.
You may notice that these buildings, and also all other skyscrapers you can see from Tokyo Station have one feature in common. The facade of the bottom 5 floors and all floors above them differ. It is as if one day a high-rise building grew out of each structure like a tree does from a pot. And that is exactly the effect the developers of the Marunouchi area intended to create.
Mitsubishi, the real estate developer that has practiced control over the development of the entire Marunouchi area since the late 1800s, strived to turn the neighborhood into a mini-London using bricks and stone. The bottom facades of some of these buildings are restorations of the architectures that survived the bombings of Tokyo during WWII.
Before 1970, there was a restriction imposed on the heights of buildings, and no buildings were to be taller than 31 meters. The restriction was lifted in response to increased demand for high-rise buildings as a result of the exponential economic growth Japan experienced after recovering from the damages of WWII.
On a side note, because developments couldn’t expand upward, they grew down underground and that is the reason Japan has numerous, vast underground facilities – the Shinjuku station underground maze and Osaka station underground labyrinth, to name just a few. Also, really old buildings have ridiculously low ceilings (only as high as 2 meters or so) on each floor because developers back then tried to fit in as many floors within the 31 meter cap.
So the height of the buildings in the Marunouchi area has a lot to do with expressing history and nostalgia. The beige Marunouchi building (built in 1999) is a restoration of the first Marunouchi building that was built in 1923. The black Shin-Marunouchi Building is itself an artwork that blends modern-day environmental-friendly technology and the classiness of the Imperial Palace neighborhood, designed by English architecture firm Hopkins Architects, completed in 2007. These two buildings are by no doubt the symbols of the business headquarters of Japan, Tokyo city.
KITTE is a commercial complex comprising the bottom 6 floors of JP Tower, the office building developed and run by Japan Post. It’s a restoration of the former Tokyo Central Postal Office building that stood at the same spot, right across the South Exit of Tokyo Station between 1933 and 2008.
Its windows are of peculiar design for an interesting reason, but before discussing design, let me clarify the question “Why is a post office running a commercial property” because the answer has a lot to do with KITTE’s very existence.
The post office was a governmental organization for the longest time until it was privatized in 2007. Then-Prime Minister KOIZUMI Junichiro pushed the drastic policy forward in order to avail the almost 350 trillion yen people had poured into the post office’s banking service (the interest rate was high once upon a time) to the private sector, and introduce the idea of competition into the nation’s postal services. Japan Post was re-established as a private company and it suddenly had to start thinking of how they would stay afloat and profitable.
JP Tower and KITTE is one of many new initiatives of Japan Post and since its opening in 2013, it has become an integral part of the cityscape of the Tokyo Station area.
In terms of design, I’d like to draw your attention to the rectangular windows of KITTE. If you look carefully, the heights of the windows increase as you move your eyes down the white facade from the top. The reason for this is so that people looking out the window from inside KITTE, regardless of which floor they are on, will be able to get a full view of Tokyo Station located across the road.
Tokyo Station has long been one of the most representative symbols of Japan and KITTE’s capturing it in a window frame can be considered value in itself.
As if to complement this idea, the restaurants and retailers of KITTE have been carefully selected so as to gather fine crafts, goods and food from all over Japan. Most, if not all, shops in the shopping complex are of Japanese origin, uniting quite literally in the center of Japan.
5. Naka-dori Street
Naka-dori is the street running right behind the two Marunouchi Buildings, and it has become a favorite hangout place for locals and visitors alike since its series of refurbishments starting in 2002. The reason for this can be attributed to the discreet ingenuity of the street’s design.
ASHIHARA Yoshinobu, who was Japan’s very first architecture student to study abroad at Harvard University in 1950 and later became one of the most influential architects in modern-day Japan, claimed the importance of carefully planning outdoor spaces of town through much of his professional career.
Two of his theories pertain to the optimal width of a street. First of all, according to Ashihara, people cannot really identify anything that is located farther than 21 to 24 meters away. People, shops and any other objects that are beyond this distance range are processed in the brain as mere background. Naka-dori happens to be 21m wide, allowing everything pedestrians see relevant to them.
Ashihara promoted another idea that the best ratio between the height of a building and the width of the space in front of it was 1.5 : 1, respectively. Again, the facades of all the buildings in Marunouchi are kept under 31m in height, and the street is 21m wide – an almost perfect 1.5 : 1 balance.
During the day, the street allows only pedestrians in, benches and temporary coffee shops are set up in the middle of the road, and outdoor festivities are held on many weekends. Mitsubishi, the primary developer of the Marunouchi area, dubs Naka-dori as the living room of Marunouchi, and it indeed is.
The roadside trees right outside Marunouchi Building are decorated with warm lights at night throughout the year, and the block creates quite a romantic feel. During Christmas season, every single tree planted along the entire length of Naka-dori gets lit up, making sure people feel happy about visiting Tokyo in that time of year.
If you run into a nice sunny day during your next visit to Tokyo, take a walk around Tokyo Station and you’ll