Shinjuku Drift: Skyscraper District

Nishi Shinjuku
Nishi Shinjuku

 Japan may no longer be the country with the world’s second-biggest economy – that honour now falls to China – but it’s still a plenty rich place. Want proof? Exit Shinjuku Station by the West or Southern exits, or better yet duck under the railroad bridge outside Seibu Shinjuku Station and voila: welcome to Nishi-Shinjuku (西新宿), Shinjuku’s Skyscraper District. Here, starting in the 1970s and growing along with the infamous Bubble Economy of the 1980s, a former working class neighbourhood and student ghetto were razed to make way for a new generation of skyscrapers and international hotels…

Not everyone likes what’s happened to the old neighbourhood. Keizo Hino describes the area in his story, “Jacob’s Tokyo Ladder:”

Some particularly grand skyscrapers… were built in the latter half of the sixties and into the seventies, during the flood tide of rapid growth, and are nothing less than massive parallelpipeds, constructed with absolutely straight lines and planes, utterly without embellishment or a light touch. The steel shells of these buildings are massive and the walls thick as fortress walls, and even the relatively small rectangular windows, fitted with tempered glass from top to bottom, are set in perfect alignment vertically and horizontally.

One building, in particular, the head office of a bank, has massive walls, all a dark taupe, making it look as if the whole edifice had been carved out of a mountain of volcanic rock. This night particularly, its dampish walls were almost black. They were far darker than the night sky — purple-tinged with a blush of pink — over the heart of the city.

In each building roughly half of the windows were lighted. I wondered if people could be working this late . All the light in the windows came from cold, bluish fluorescent lamps; my senses could not comprehend the scene of people working late. The display lighting for the flowerbeds and trees planted near the main entrance was bright enough, but the fluorescent-style light mercilessly exposed the artificiality of what it illuminated. And this was true of the street as well. Every single leaf was so vividly new and fresh I could see the veins in them; they looked as though they were crafted of fine vinyl.

Nonetheless, to call them artificial does not mean they were like a tacky stage set you might find in some two-by-four theater. There was an omnipresence there that cannot be easily described: the tranquility that engulfs the street after hours a taxi has sped toward the Ginza, leaving only the streetlights shining on the chill, brightly lighted sidewalk, the majestic silence of skyscrapers that seem to be cleaved out of cliffs.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings

 The buildings, fluorescent lights, and the trees and flowerbeds, taxis, are still there, as are the people working late. The Bubble has burst long since, but today architect Kenzo Tange’s computer-chip-inspired Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building still towers over the area.

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A later addition, perhaps, a sign of the times, are the homeless-proof gratings over sidewalk-level exhaust vents, and the clusters of smokers shoaled at public ashtrays like the castaways from a shipwreck: who will we eat first?

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From a distance, from, say, one of Shinjuku Station’s innumerable exits, the Skyscraper District looks like a tight jumble of buildings. Move in closer, however, and broad sidewalks and boulevards open up, and a latticework of pedestrian overpasses that tremble to passing traffic for all the world like the dreaded, inevitable Nankai Trough earthquake.

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