“Tokyo, City of Wonders …”
Spread throughout the megacity are also some of the most fascinating buildings in the world, with a good many widely regarded as architectural masterpieces. If you have extra time in Tokyo, do consider wandering off the usual tourist routes and exploring some of these visually striking edifices.
Even if you’re not an architecture fan, the sheer creativity of these unusual buildings will surely leave you with many splendid memories.
Let’s start with the beacon of post-2010 Tokyo. Still the world’s tallest tower as of 2021, Tokyo Skytree is an architectural marvel of many things, beginning with how it is designed to sway to withstand earthquakes.
That’s right, you didn’t read wrongly. Like the traditional pagodas of Japan, this stately neo-futuristic tower “moves” to absorb seismic shocks. Each night, it is also atmospherically illuminated and for many travelers, a night photo with this gorgeous tower glowing in the distance will the high point of a Tokyo holiday.
With its astonishing full height of 634m, the Skytree naturally promises another spectacle when you’re within it. To say the sea of evening lights seen from its observation deck is mesmerizing is an understatement.
Nakagin Capsule Tower
A fan favorite on any list of unique buildings in Japan, Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Shimbashi is in truth, rather drab and weathered nowadays. Its age is especially glaring under daylight.
That said, this is still one of the most fascinating buildings in Tokyo, be it visually or in design concept. A rare surviving example of the Japanese Metabolism architectural movement, this is a mixed-use apartment that was literally built to grow or shrink. As in, the cubic “capsules” could be removed, repositioned, or even replaced.
For science-fiction fans, a stay in any of the futuristic capsules, say via AirBnB booking, will undoubtedly thrill too. Cramped as they are, the capsules will make you believe you’re in a space opera series.
Lastly, with the tower being private property, travelers can only settle for an external view when visiting. More importantly, the apartment has also been besieged by discussions of demolition since 2006, with discussions still ongoing. In other words, make haste to see this strange edifice before it goes away forever.
The entry-point into Japan’s capital for most visitors, Tokyo Station will seldom come across as “beautiful” or “fascinating” because of its crowds, its endless renovations/restorations, and the fact that most people just want to hop onto local trains to get to their hotels.
Which is a pity because this sprawling red-brick landmark is akin to a European palace. Lovely interior views and fittings are everywhere, especially when you look upwards. The extensive basements, connected to several surrounding complexes, is also a labyrinth that you could spend half a day exploring.
With the completion of major restoration works in 2012, the station was restored to its original magnificence too, such works inclusive of the reconstruction of the domes that were destroyed in WWII. Awash with golden light at night, this major transportation hub is a classical gem amid the soaring skyscrapers of the Marunouchi District. A few quiet minutes with its glowing façade is assuredly also a most relaxing way to end a hectic day in Japan’s capital with.
Tokyo International Exhibition Center Conference Tower
Here’s another Tokyo landmark that’d make you think you’ve stepped into a space opera movie. With an alien temple-like appearance that a Jedi would love to host a meeting in, the bizarre Tokyo International Exhibition Center Conference Tower, with its four golden inverted “pyramids,” is a sight you wouldn’t soon forget.
The tower is especially otherworldly when illuminated at night, or when photographed with the many surrounding futuristic structures. Opened in 1996 as the gem of Tokyo Big Sight i.e. Japan’s largest exhibition center, the tower is additionally the most distinctive structure of Tokyo Waterfront City. Well worth a visit to even if there are no exhibitions ongoing.
Travel tip: The tower is surrounded by intriguing public art too. If you’re a fan of modern art, don’t forget to check these out when visiting.
If you’re not in the know, walking past Ginza’s V88 Building will have you rubbing your eyes and wondering, has the crowds gotten to me?
Previously known as the De Beers Ginza Building, the V88 is world-famous for its undulating façade. Viewed from the right angles, it’s truly as if the entire building is sashaying the likes of an elegant dancer.
This illusion is further accentuated by the wavy stainless steel façade frame; when reflecting sunlight, it is not an exaggeration to say the entire edifice is positively dreamlike. Lastly, a photography tip. To fully capture the curvature, this unique edifice is best photographed from across the road and from a diagonal angle. The sweet spot would be across the junction nearest to the building.
SunnyHills Minami Aoyama Store
What would be an appropriate word or phrase to describe the SunnyHills Minami Aoyama Store? Intricate? Bizarre? Chaotic sophistication exuding a pronounced symmetrical beauty?
I leave it to you to decide when visiting this pineapple cake store. (The brand is from Taiwan, incidentally). Conceptualized by top Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the wooden lattice grid that encompasses the entire shop was famously assembled using classic Japanese methods. In other words, without the use of glue or nails.
When illuminated at night, the store also resembles a rattan lantern, or more accurately, a rattan basket. Finally, it is quite another experience to view the woodwork from within the shop. While the exterior is bold and strongly angular, what’s inside is rustic and calm. You will want to linger within, while accompanied by tea and sweet cake.
Reiyukai Shakaden Temple
Like Tokyo Big Sight’s Conference Tower, the Reiyukai Shakaden Temple will feel right at home in a space movie. Actually, it would look perfect in an Issekai Anime as well.
The headquarters of the Reiyūkai, a new-age Japanese Buddhism movement inspired by Nichiren Buddhism, this unusual temple is a cross between a pyramid and a spaceship. Though private property, the temple welcomes all visitors too. Reiyūkai even conducts free Japanese language lessons.
Do take note, though, if you’re keen on photographing this striking structure. While the tiered underside of the roof is easily seen from ground level, the topside is quite another business. Even if you head up the staircase directly opposite the temple, it’s tough to see the entire roof.
The only way to capture the building in full is thus to photograph it from nearby Tokyo Tower. Naturally, to accomplish this from the tower, you would need to use telescopic lenses.
Fuji TV Building
Though often described in travel guides and architectural magazines as one of the weirdest structures in Tokyo, I’ve always considered Odaiba’s Fuji TV Building as one of the most beautiful and fascinating buildings in Tokyo.
Markedly modular in appearance and feel, and with a prominent titanium sphere that looks like some sort of spaceport, the headquarters of Fuji TV long felt like a futuristic fortress to me; an impression that’s doubly so after sunset. Have I mentioned that the sphere itself could be visited? With the panoramic views of Tokyo bay from it absolutely breathtaking?
Needless to say, as the headquarters of one of Japan’s most prominent broadcasters, the complex itself is full of entertaining exhibits.
On top of which is the nearby Gundam statue at DiverCity Tokyo. While impossible to photograph together with Fuji TV Building, the mecha guardian will be a great finale for any visit.
When I first visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum in 2004, my first impression was, wow, this looks like the AT-AT from The Empire Strikes Back. As in, the whole building feels ready to walk and attack any pesky Kaiju that might be threatening Tokyo.
With a bold, triangular main complex cantilevered over four “legs” i.e. pillars, I’m sure you’d have similar impressions too when seeing this fascinating Tokyo building. Interestingly, the distinctive shape was actually inspired not by science fiction but by the roofs of traditional Japanese temples. To fans of traditional architecture, I suppose the museum would thus resemble a modern-day sanctuary.
Coming to the exhibitions of the museum, this is one attraction that’s worth half a day even if you’re not there for the architecture. The many life-size replicas and dioramas sets on display are a sheer delight to explore.
Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku
Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku is, of course, world-famous for its kaleidoscopic, mirror-encased escalator entrance. But other than this selfie hotspot, the shopping complex has other noteworthy features.
For a start, it’s akin to two distinctively different buildings harmoniously stacked atop one another. The lower segment is prominent on glass that allows retail displays to show through. On the other hand, the upper segment will immediately remind you of a woven basket. One that’s packed full of lush greenery.
The verdant greenery itself forms an attractive rooftop park, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of Harajuku. With seats provided, the park is naturally a great spot to chill at after exploring Harajuku too. It is particularly romantic during the bluish hour before nightfall.
Other Fascinating Tokyo Buildings Worth a Visit
If visiting the above buildings has whetted your appetite for fascinating Tokyo architecture, consider visiting the following too!
Tokyo Tower: Though based on Paris’ Eiffel Tower, the unique colors of Tokyo Tower still makes it an eye-catching landmark. When illuminated at night, it resembles a gorgeous lit candle at the heart of the Roppongi District.
Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower: Futuristic, bold, and stylish, Shinjuku’s Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower does justice to the schools of fashion and design it houses.
The Daiwa Ubiquitous Computing Research Building: A massive computer databank running on wooden microchips? You decide what this strange structure feels like, or resembles when visiting.
Yasuyo Hall: Easy to visit because it’s near bustling Shinjuku Station, Yasuyo Hall resembles a traditional lantern amidst the neon signs of Shinjuku. Especially when illuminated at night.
And just outside of Tokyo:
Umihotaru: This artificial island marks the point where the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line transits from tunnel to bridge, with the island and its structures resembling a massive aircraft carrier. A carrier with “runways” that extend all the way to shore, near three miles away.
A devoted solo traveler from Singapore who has loved Japan since young. His first visits to the country were all because of video game and Manga homages. Today, he still visits for the same reasons, in addition to enjoying Japan’s culture, history, and hot springs.