With the narrative of old meeting the new, there’s a bit of blip when it comes to most central Tokyo streetscapes. Architecturally, there just isn’t much of old Tokyo left – certainly not in the way that you encounter cobbled historic quarters in many European cities – because a history of fires and earthquakes has made Tokyo rebuild itself numerous times over the centuries.
Japan, of course, tries to preserve some of its most historic temples, shrines and other landmarks – although traditionally some of the most sacred shrines are purposely rebuilt every 20 years – but there’s an acceptance of impermanence; and in Tokyo an acceptance that the city will always be in a state of redevelopment.
There are some old moments, though. The original Tokyo Station building from 1914 – a grand red-brick structure facing the skyscrapers of the Marunouchi business district – is a reminder of how European architects influenced Japanese design after the country ended its centuries of self-isolation. In this case, the station was designed by Tatsuno Kingo, one of a first wave of Japanese architects who had studied under Europeans such as Josiah Conder.
For an old Japanese aesthetic, the city’s temples and shrines, even when they are rebuilds, architecturally don’t veer from tradition. Nor do the city’s Japanese gardens or teahouses. And though it’s not architecture per se, you can find a lovely retro ramshackle vibe in areas like the Yanaka district or Golden Gai, a post-war warren of alleys in Shinjuku-ku that are home to dozens of tiny bars.
But where Tokyo really comes into its own architecturally is the present (or near-present) day, especially when one looks at the mark internationally acclaimed Japanese architects have left on the city. Take the self-taught Tadao Ando, the 1995 Pritzker Prize-winner who, among many other things, gave the city the Omotesando Hills mall in 2006. Stretching 250m along the chic Omotesando avenue, its signature element is a six-floor atrium that drops three floors underground and rises three above; all connected by a 700m spiral ramp.
Then there’s the 1987 Pritzker Prize-winner Kenzo Tange, who left us gems like the twin-towered Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku and the Fuji TV Building in Odaiba, which has a giant silver ball (an observatory) wedged in the upper walkway that connects the complex’s two towers.
Another heavyweight, Kengo Kuma is known for his use of natural materials, which becomes apparent when you look at his New National Stadium (Olympic Stadium) or work such his reconstruction of the Nezu Museum. We can’t forget Shigeru Ban either – he’s another Pritzker winner – and while his projects are often on a large scale, a fun recent piece of work features toilets.
As part of an ongoing project called The Tokyo Toilet, he designed two glass public restrooms for parks in Shibuya-ku that, when not in use, are see-through, so you can check for cleanliness and be sure nobody is lurking inside, but when locked become opaque. At night, they glow like lanterns. It’s not just Ban who is involved. By the time the project is over, there will be 17 architecturally unique restrooms dotted around Shibuya, mostly designed by a who’s who of Japanese architects – Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito included.
Non-Japanese designers have left a mark, too. Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall, which is just over the Sumida River from Asakusa, is one that has become a landmark. Built in 1989, part of the structure mimics a foaming glass of lager.
Sharing the skyline with the 634m Tokyo Skytree tower – currently the world’s second-tallest structure – it’s quite a sight. Far sleeker and more recent is Tokyo-based Klein Dytham architecture’s Daikanyama T-Site in Shibuya-ku, a super-trendy bookstore designed to feel like a ‘library in the woods’ with several interconnected buildings that, as well as speciality books on art, design and travel also house cafes and ample spaces to plop down for a read.
T-Site epitomises the now in Tokyo. As for the past, if you wanted more than a glimpse of old Tokyo, head to Koganei Park in the Tama region to check out the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. It brings together 30 old structures in an effort to document how Tokyo would have looked over the years. That includes thatched farmhouses to highlight the city’s old rural side and the house of a Meiji-era (1868-1912) politician that shines a light on how Western and Japanese designs first began to merge.
Giving a look at the day-to-day, there’s also a brick Meiji-era police box, an 1850s bar from Taito-ku, a public bathhouse complete with wall art that dates back to the 1920s, a kitchenware store from the 1930s with a copper-plated exterior and a soy sauce shop originally built in Minato-ku in the 1930s. A very different vibe to the Tokyo you find today.