Tokyo is a megacity that has won the hearts of many for its deft ability to hold contrasts in tandem: progressive technology and craft traditions, colorful kawaii characters and Japanese minimalism, crowded crossings and still neighborhoods.
Its architecture is no different. The streetscape stitches together a patchwork of soaring skyscrapers, verdant parks, bizarre buildings, and shinto shrines that are quintessential of Kanto. Taking reference from different post-war architectural styles, we’ve huddled up a list of standout buildings within this fascinating metropolis.
Metabolism | Nagakin Capsule Tower
This unconventional building that resembles a Jenga-like stack of washing machines is located in Shimbashi, Tokyo. Completed in 1972, it’s a mixed-use residential and office tower designed by Kisho Kurokawa, a vanguard in Japanese architecture.
The eccentric tower is famed for being a rare example of the post-war Japanese Metabolist movement, which envisaged buildings as living organisms—flexible and fluid structures that morph organically with time. In the case of Nagakin, each module is joined to a central core, and they could be replaced when needed.
Beyond its cultural significance, it has also shown us what it means to live small, with each capsule only measuring 8.2×13 feet (2.5×4 meters). The building is a window into micro-apartments in this age where space often comes at a premium.
Through the years, Nagakin Capsule Tower has unfortunately lapsed into a state of disrepair, so its modules are set to be unplugged and donated to museums around the world. If you’ve got the chance to visit it one last time, here’s a pro-tip: the best spot for photos would be on the linkway bridge across the road from the building.
Address: 8 Chome-16-10 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061
Metabolism | Shizuoka Broadcasting Tower
Designed by Kenzō Tange, one of Japan’s eminent post-war architects, the Shizuoka Broadcasting Tower symbolizes Tange’s Metabolist ideals.
Situated in the glitzy Ginza neighbourhood, the unconventionally shaped building has a main infrastructural core that could accommodate a growing number of prefabricated capsules as time passes. As one of the emblems of Japanese Metabolism, this chocolate-hued tower stands for a time where the country was finding its feet after the war, in which architects dreamed of new possibilities and experimented with different structural forms.
Address: 8 Chome-3-7 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061
Modernism | The National Museum of Western Art
Set within the picturesque Ueno Park amid shrines and pagodas, the National Museum of Western Art is a public art gallery that features the work of great artists like Manet, Picasso, and Pollock.
Its architecture is equally noteworthy. As Le Corbusier’s only building in the Far East, it was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List in 2016, and lauded for exemplifying the illustrious French architect’s Modernist tenets. Completed in 1959, the museum also symbolizes the renewal of diplomatic ties between Japan and France following World War II.
Address: 7-7 Uenokoen, Taito City, Tokyo 110-0007
Brutalism | Komazawa Olympic Park
This sports complex was constructed for the 1964 Summer Olympics; the first time this global event was ever held in Asia. It is one of the few Olympic venues in Japan that has stood the test of time, for it not only housed football practices during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics but remains a popular destination for locals today.
A remarkable structure on the site is none other than the Olympic Tower, which was designed by Yoshinobu Ashihara. The arhcitect took inspiration from interlocking wooden structures commonly found in traditional Japanese architecture but constructed it using Modernist practices. Pro-tip: Be sure to visit Komazawa Olympic Park during Autumn, as the Gingko tree-lined paths will be washed in golden hues.
Address: 1-1-1 Komazawakoen, Setagaya City, Tokyo 154-0013
Post-modernism | Reiyūkai Shakaden Temple
Tucked in the back streets of Kamiyacho, this temple cuts an imposing figure. The pyramidal structure is clad in black granite, and when juxtaposed with the earthen-hued steps, it is reminiscent of a dystopian film set. Built in 1975, the sacred site belongs to the Reiyūkai Buddhism community.
The religious movement had found its roots in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, hence the place of worship stores approximately 400 tons of potable water, in case of an impending disaster. Despite its foreboding exterior, visitors are free to visit the temple, while prayer halls require permission.
Address: 1 Chome-7-8 Azabudai, Minato City, Tokyo 106-8644
Post-modernism | Tokyo Big Sight
Tokyo Big Sight is nestled in Odaiba, a man-made island that was originally developed during the Edo Period as a set of fort islands that protected the city from incursions. Even though the precinct is renowned for its otherworldly buildings today—like the Fuji TV Building and Telecom Center—Tokyo Big Sight’s four inverted pyramids will still capture your eye from a distance away.
Opened in 1996, this building is the largest exhibition centre in Japan. It plays host to numerous events throughout the year, such as the Tokyo Anime Fair, Tokyo Book Fair, and Tokyo Motor Show. Mosey around the sprawling grounds and you’ll discover a medley of public artworks, including a larger-than-life saw sculpture created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.
Address: 3 Chome-11 Ariake, Koto City, Tokyo 135-0063
From modern skyscrapers to ancient temples, Japan has something to keep architectural enthusiasts enthralled. Read our Japan Travel Guide to find out more about the art and architecture in the Land of the Rising Sun.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.
All images for this story were contributed by Yu Heng, a Singaporean architectural photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. With an educational background in architecture, the built environment heavily influences his perception towards space and imagery.