Field Report: Tōkyō (15 April 2013)

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Where Diego goes up in a lift, looks down upon a city, and gazes out over a sea of twinkling lights spread as far as the eye could see.

At the end of my last post, I promised a view of Tōkyō from the highest vantage point in the city.

Well, short of looking out from an aeroplane, one can’t get much higher than our next destination.

I had a great few hours in Sendai, and I’d certainly like to spend more time there in a future visit, but there’s a good reason for my rushing back to Tōkyō quite early in the afternoon. We’ll get to that shortly. First, let’s head on over to our next and final stop of the day.

After my long return trip on the Tōhoku Shinkansen, I arrived at Tōkyō Station and (by way of a couple of further train transfers) eventually stepped into the bowels of Tōkyō Solamachi: a spanking new shopping centre just a short train ride east of Asakusa. The wealth of new shops and restaurants alone might deserve a detour from central Tōkyō, but for the moment, most visitors will probably make a beeline for the 4th floor.

At the top of these steps . . .

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. . . stands the latest major addition to Tōkyō’s already soaring skyline. A tower that rears up into the heavens far higher than any other structure in the city has ever done.

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Fellow travellers, we stand at the foot of the Tōkyō Skytree – at 634 metres (more than 2,000 feet) in height the tallest man-made structure in Japan, and the second-tallest structure currently standing anywhere on Earth.

It’s quite a sight when one is standing right underneath this thing, but photographs taken up close can’t properly convey the sheer scale of the Skytree. The height is better appreciated from a distance (such as in the first image on the page linked here), where the comparatively low-rise neighbourhood around the tower is visible. As a further comparison, let’s have another quick look at what is currently still the tallest building (as opposed to tower) in the country, the Landmark Tower in Yokohama, which I saw one day previously.

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It’s quite impressive indeed – far taller than anything we’ve currently got in my corner of the world – but this building is a mere 296 metres tall.

In other words, two of these stacked on top of each other would still be shorter than the Skytree. That’s quite a feat.

As one might imagine, the Tōkyō Skytree is currently one of the city’s most popular attractions. The novelty value may wear off in time, but for the moment, lines are notoriously long (also the case even on the non-holiday weekday that I visited). So long that for peak hours, they’ve put a system in place whereby visitors first need to get a time-stamped slip of paper from staff posted near the entrance. The slip of paper isn’t the actual admission ticket: what it does is allow the holder to enter the tower lobby at the stated time slot (which could be an hour or so away) in order to purchase the real ticket for going up to the first observation deck.

I arrived close to 5:00 PM, by which time they were handing out admission slips to purchase tickets at 5:30 PM. That gave me about half an hour to kill – time that I steadily whittled away by taking a look around the shopping mall, by browsing in the Studio Ghibli store right at the foot of the access staircase . . .

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. . . and by idling about in the little rooftop park next to the tower’s base.

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At the appointed time, I returned to the base of the tower and was allowed inside . . .

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. . . only to face another half-hour wait in a snaking line before I even managed to reach the lifts, with a bullhorn-equipped crier and an army of ushers on hand to marshal the crowds. Close to a year had already passed since the Skytree opened and conditions were still like this; I shudder to imagine what it must have been like for visitors who came shortly after the inauguration.

In any event, after forking over 2,000 yen for an entrance ticket and enduring the long (but well organised) lobby wait, I finally boarded one of four high-speed lifts to the first observation deck. From what I’ve read, each lift is decorated according to a seasonal theme; the walls of the one I rode were very appropriately enlivened by a springtime motif of pink sakura blossoms.

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Moments later, I emerged into the Skytree’s Tembo Deck – a lofty perch located 350 metres above the ground.

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From here, the fading light of day illuminated my commanding view over Tōkyō, though a hazy mist hanging over the landscape limited visibility somewhat. In ideal, well-lit, perfectly clear conditions, the view might stretch as far as Mount Fuji, but I had no regrets – the view of the city was impressive enough.

The Ryōgoku area, with the Edo-Tōkyō Museum and the Ryōgoku Kokugikan visible just left of centre.

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Next we have the nearby district of Asakusa. Sensō-ji can be seen towards the middle-right side of the image.

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Tōkyō Tower, the Skytree’s venerable rival, comes into view – though from this distance and with the foggy skies, it’s barely more than a needle in a haystack of buildings.

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The massive towers of Shinjuku are mere shadows on the horizon. A tiny blob of white marks the iconic roof of the Tōkyō Dome stadium.

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Nice views, but we’re not done yet. Another 1,000 yen (duly paid at the counter on this level) bought the right to board another set of lifts, which whisked me 100 metres higher to the Tembo Galleria: a long, curving corridor that rises up towards the uppermost level accessible to most visitors.

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In the city far below us, lights started to flicker on in buildings and along streets as the day slowly gave way to night.

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This was the reason why I was in such a hurry to get back to Tōkyō. A daytime view and an evening view each has its own unique character, its own particular beauty. By reaching the tower when the sun was still up – at least barely – I managed to get the best of both worlds. (Of course, my “daytime” view was sub-optimal with the light already fading, but short of paying twice over or staying at the tower all day it was the best that could be arranged.)

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Brightly lit for the night, Tōkyō Tower’s orange spire stands out more clearly now. It may no longer be the tallest structure around, but at 333 metres it still stands proudly over its neighbours.

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In due course, I reached the so-called Sorakara Point: at 451.2 metres the very highest part of the tower that ordinary visitors can reach.

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A digital projector nearby stamped a changing display over the landscape, offering patrons a great souvenir photo-op.

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Really hard to miss Tōkyō’s grande dame now, all bright and orange.

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I wonder if the positioning of the Skytree’s highest observation point, in such a way as to make the old tower plainly visible, was a deliberate snub of some kind from the shiny new upstart. I certainly hope not – I’d prefer to think of it as a nod of respect towards its sensei.

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Back down in the Tembo Deck area, a glass floor allowed me to see straight down to the ground below.

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Now for the last long lift ride of the day, this time in a winter-themed cabin. Interestingly, I’m starting to sketch out plans (not yet final though) to visit Hokkaidō in February. A sign?

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Back to the hotel for a good night’s rest – and to prepare for this journey’s final day in Japan.

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4 responses to “Field Report: Tōkyō (15 April 2013)

  1. Wonderful blog post, you’ve gotten me very excited for my upcoming trip to the Sky Tree. I purchased tickets already from my travel agent, but I’m assuming there’s still a long line to go up to the observation decks. I’m super excited to go to the Ghibli store, I heard it has more stuff than the one at the museum.

    Hokkaido in February…….you’ll get to go to Sapporo’s Snow Festival! I want to go to that so badly but I really, really can’t stand cold weather. It literally makes my bones ache. And it makes no difference how much I bundle up, I can still feel the cold. If you go, at least I will have your first-hand account to read. By the way (and I’m not just saying this), I’ve read numerous blogs on Japanese travel in researching my trips and yours is, hands down, the absolute best.

  2. I hope you’ll have a great time there – and remember to snap a picture of the lift! I’ve used the spring and winter lifts, and I’ve seen pictures of the summer lift (very colourful), but I haven’t seen the inside of the autumn lift. Perhaps you’ll get to use that one on your visit.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the line; in fact, I suppose it’s possible that you’ll be able to use a separate, faster queue since you’ve got pre-booked tickets. I recall seeing a separate area of the lobby cordoned off for certain types of visitor – not sure if it was for groups or people with reservations.

    Re: the cold – yeah, that does worry me a bit, especially since I’ve lived most of my life in the tropics. I went on a trip to Seoul this past winter (I was warned beforehand that the temperatures can be fiercely bone-chilling), but managed to survive the journey. Will likely need better kit for northern Japan though. Apart from the snow festival in Sapporo, I’m looking forward to seeing the snow light path event in nearby Otaru (which happens at about the same time); the pictures I’ve seen are pretty impressive.

    Cheerio.

  3. Pingback: Field Report: Tōkyō (03 February 2014) | Within striking distance·

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