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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.

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