Skip to main content

My love affair with Tokyo Sky Tree

The first time I saw it was in November 2008, when I travelled on the Tobu Line to Nikko. A few minutes after we'd left Asakusa Station, we passed a massive grid-like structure that was semi-hidden behind blue covers. I wasn't sure what it was, but even in its embryonic state it struck me as huge and unusual. As I peered at it with a frown, a fuzzy possibility flitted through my head: "Maybe it's that new tower thingie I read about, television broadcasting, some such thing, it's going to be here somewhere, isn't it?, maybe this is it." Then I forgot about it.

The next time I saw it, I didn't even realize what that bump on the horizon was. It was during my first visit to an east-facing shitamachi apartment with unusually big windows overlooking the low-lying neighbourhood. "I want to live here," I pronounced to all parties concerned (i.e. the real estate agent and The Hero).

I can't remember when I realized that the eastern horizon was changing almost daily: the small bump grew bigger, and then started looking like a magic beanstalk that had ingested too much growth hormone. I started photographing it, not exactly daily, but definitely weekly. My fascination grew, and in July 2010 I finally visited the Tokyo Sky Tree construction site. As soon as I walked out of Oshiage Station, infatuation turned into unbridled lust. That thing is BIG.

Some bloggers like Lina and Dru share my interest. Others don't. The Hero thinks I'm mad, but the one time I managed to bully/hijack/blackmail him into accompanying me to the construction site, he did admit that it was "nogal bietjie groot" or "rather a bit big".

This photo was taken on Saturday, 12 March 2011, at 06:18. I don't care how sentimental this makes me sound, but when I saw Tokyo Sky Tree, still standing proud after the big quake, I knew we'd ultimately be OK.

Why this fascination? To the sceptics, I offer the following:

1) It's one thing seeing photos of it. It's another matter altogether to watch it grow at a mind-boggling speed.

2) You cannot know how enormous – and how graceful – it is until you approach it on foot and realize that you just can't get it into one shot anymore.

3) When you stand next to it, you notice that it has a very funky shape: it starts off as a triangle that morphs into a circle. The footprint of Sky Tree is an equilateral triangle with sides of 68m, but it gradually converts into a full circle. The ratio of length to width is approximately 9:1.

The science behind its design is both ancient and hyper-modern. Japan's traditional towers, the five-story pagodas, have never collapsed in any earthquake to date. This is ascribed to the pagoda's shinbashira (心柱) or center column. When Sky Tree was designed, the same basic approach was followed: it has a cylindrical core of reinforced concrete at the center (i.e. a shinbashira) that is structurally isolated from the peripheral steel framing, and it also has a tuned mass damper of 100 tons at the top of the tower. It controls the swaying motion of the structure during an earthquake by providing a counterbalance that moves, with slightly delayed timing, in the opposite direction.

You can read about shinbashira in temple design here and here, and about its application in Sky Tree here

Sky Tree was designed by Nikken Sekkei, a firm that also designed Sapporo TV Tower (1955), Tokyo Tower (1958), Kobe Port Tower (1963) and Fukuoka Tower (1989).

The tower was built from steel produced by Nippon Steel Corporation, and the construction was done by Obayashi Construction, who was also responsible for, amongst others, the Dubai Metro System, the Tokyo International Forum and Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. 

4) If this combination of architecture, engineering and old traditions leaves you cold, I'm tempted to ask you to close the door on your way out, but let me persist nonetheless. Sky Tree has become my personal planetarium - a modern Stonehenge - for tracking the sun as it moves through equinox and solstice. The photos below were taken on 23 August 2010, from 05:18 till 05:26.

5) It also functions as my personal light meter. If I can clearly see the individual pipes on the far side of the tower, I'll get good photos on that day.

6) It's proof that there's more to this country than badly designed General Electric nuclear power plants combined with government incompetence and appalling TEPCO management.

7) It might make the world rediscover the shitamachi, but that is both good and bad. The whole shitamachi is undergoing far-reaching development, undoubtedly spurred by Sky Tree. I abhor the number of wooden houses that are being torn down to make way for high-rises, but I'm happy that Sky Tree is bringing new prosperity to a hitherto poor area in Sumida-ku.

8) It's beautiful. I've read a thousand opinions that it's ugly, old-fashioned, top-heavy. I say no. It's a perfectly proportioned combination of triangles, circles and lines; it merges power with grace; it integrates functionality and fun.

9) It's awesome. I dare you to stand at its base, to look upward and to remain indifferent.

10) It's here! It's in the shitamachi!

There you go: ten reasons. I'll stop now.

Facts and figures
  • Height: 634 m, tallest tower in the world and second-tallest building in the world
  • Owner: Tobu Railway Company
  • Design and supervision: Nikken Sekkei
  • Construction: Obayashi Corporation
  • Start to finish: Construction started on 14 July 2008 with a Shinto ceremony. The tower will be opened to the public on 22 July 2012.
  • Cost: ¥65 billion
  • It was originally planned to be 610 m, but in October 2009 it was increased to 634 to make it the tallest tower in the world. Why 634? It can be pronounced mu-sa-shi, which was the old name for the area that currently comprises Tokyo.
  • The name was selected by the public, with 33 000 votes out of 110 000. The second-most popular name was Edo Tower.


It was incredibly difficult to choose photos for this post. My final selection is rather arbitrary, but here we go.

This photo was taken with my mobile phone in November 2009. I was standing a few meters from where I'm sitting right now. I didn't even realize that bump towards the left was Sky Tree.

31 January 2010

12 December 2010

1 January 2011, 539 meters

Same spot, 25 December 2011

The first set of photos below were taken during my first visit to the tower (as opposed to ogling it from afar). This is what I saw when I walked out of Oshiage Station. The other photos are fairly random choices.

Sky Tree from Sarue Onshi Park during cherry blossom season

This was taken from Oshiage Tenso Jinja.

Popular posts from this blog

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.


The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone. I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. My main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't do the full course. I started at Hakoneen along the shore of Lake Ashi and then walked through Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku, halfway along the old Tōkaidō, and returned along…