Cities of desire and anxiety: urban impressions from Japan

Part 1. Exoticism and the city

Travel can be a strange and inexplicable thing. Every time I return to Japan, I’m constantly intrigued by how fascinatingly different it is as a place on most spheres of life; i.e. culturally, socially, economically and architecturally. As an unashamed tourist armed with my brochures, maps and pamphlets, I’m inevitably drawn to Japan through an exotic eye and it is this exoticism and the idea of what that means for the architecture of cities that I’m most interested in illustrating throughout the following parts.

Part 2. Gardens

As a city, Kyoto is well contained within its semi-enclosed basin topography. The street grid and buildings are located mostly (if not all) on the flat and for this reason one can immediately gain an appreciation for how the tree-covered hills frame the city and add legibility to the north, east and west. I was told that the belt of greenery is more or less a reflection of the municipal government’s intention to preserve the surrounding hills for cultural and historic reasons – in some cases dedicated temple grounds. Most of the temples and its gardens inhabit areas of sanctuary to the north, east and west – between the wooded hills and city proper: a no-man’s land for spiritual connection, but close enough to the city to sense its physicality. In each axial direction, subway lines work in tandem with the seamlessly efficient bus system infrastructure to provide connections to the various tourist experiences. At first instance, Kyoto seems like a virtual city of gardens: a ‘Tourist world-city’ where experience is seemingly specifically engineered for the enjoyment of its visitors. To my surprise, not far away from my mother’s apartment was the ‘Garden of Fine Arts’ designed by architect Tadao Ando and completed in 1994 (see fig. 1). It’s a curious enclave just off the main road in Kamigamo, consisting of a series concrete ramps that lead visitors through a journey of viewing large recreations of well known art works (apparently the recreation of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is approximately the same size as the original in the Sistine Chapel), carefully reproduced on large porcelain panels: it claims to be the ‘world’s first outdoor art garden’ (see fig. 2).

Ando uses water here to its full effect in order to create an contemplative, almost monastic experience through the scale of spaces; however it represents a disjunction to the realities of the outside world – in some ways it codifies a mini-version of an ideal Kyoto: an embryonic microcosm that attempts to anaesthetize the realities of it’s mother urban Kyoto through creating its own reality constructed from concrete, water, porcelain and the ‘great masters’. The ramps as streets, each art piece proclaims a place for reflection – a virtual Kiyomizu temple in its own right.

Fig. 1 Fine Arts Garden by Tadao Ando - plan and section
Fig. 2 View towards Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement'

Part 3. Towers

Through the dense urban jungle of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto, one cannot readily distinguish where cities begin and end. Towers have an interesting function in this way as they have the ability to allow visitors to locate themselves within the larger city fabric (even though in some cases I still had some difficulty in determining this). Tsutenkaku tower near Dobutsuen-mae (a southern part of Osaka) is an interesting example of observation platform as urban marker. The tower’s name literally translates to ‘tower reaching heaven’ and it was originally built in 1912, originally patterned from the Eiffel tower. It was also connected to the nearby amusement park, Luna Park via an aerial tramway (see fig. 3). Its height of 64 metres made it the tallest structure in Asia at the time of its construction. A fire in 1943 severely damaged the tower, so instead of repairing the structure, it was dismantled for iron supply during the Second World War. The height of the current tower is 103 metres in total and was constructed by the local citizens in 1956. The tower is also a timekeeper – it has Japan’s largest clock on its east side, which is LED and octagonal in shape. Through its neon turret, it can inform its citizens of upcoming weather forecasts via a combination of three different colours as it is connected to the meteorological observatory – tower as weather barometer. Architecture as scientific instrument. As well as having a scientific dimension, the tower also has a spiritual one: it houses the local street god ‘Billiken’ – the god of good luck (it also houses a robotic personification of the tower). In some ways, the second incarnation of the tower represents a wider subversive architecture of urban hybridization – whether through its role as observation platform or weather sock, it remains as a ghostly neon shadow of its former self (see fig. 4). Through its different permutations and likenesses the tower has become a beacon of entertainment and subtle pragmatism, a motif that remains common within Osaka’s pleasure and amusement culture. If Tsutenkaku can be seen as a hybrid of its various representations and functions, then the next tower may be seen as a hybrid of urban archetypes and program. The ‘Floating Garden Observatory’ is a circular observation platform 173 metres high above Osaka at the top of what is known as the Umeda Sky Building (see fig. 5 & 6). The platform not only provides a panoramic view of the city skyline, it also provides a ‘tender romantic experience’ in the form of the ‘Lumi Deck’. Young couples in love can purchase a ‘Heart Lock’ from the shop below on the retail level and attach it to the ‘Fence of Vows’. The couple can measure their degree of love by sitting on a bench and holding hands across a dome that lights up the floor below in the shape of a heart, the light pattern changes to reflect the couple’s ‘degree of love’. A camera stand is also available to capture this intimate experience. The hybrid mix of being both ‘tower and garden’ lends the ‘Floating Garden Observatory’ to traverse extreme scales of human experience: from the intimacy of human courtship to the ‘feeling of bigness’ from placing oneself within the expanse of the urban largeness.

Scales of human emotion are channelled through the confluence of the ‘garden tower’ – to almost parody the role that 19th century English and French gardens had (most noticeably in literature) as environments for romance and subtle nuance. The perversion here though is that visitors have the opportunity to not only enjoy the view, but also witness (in a voyeuristic way) the falling out between a couple once they’d realised there relationship had been a complete sham from the glowing wonder of the Lumi Deck.

Fig. 3 The original Tsutenkaku tower and aerial tramway circa. 1912-1920
Fig. 4 The current Tsutenkaku tower in all its neon glory
Fig. 5 Umeda Sky Building diagram
Fig. 6 Umeda Sky Building and The Floating Garden Observatory

Part 4. Arcades

My Father once told me a common Japanese saying, where ‘people from Kyoto put their money on their backs, whereas people from Osaka put their money in their stomachs’. I think this saying has some truth to it; Kyoto does have the feeling that their inhabitants spend more time and money on fashion as opposed to the people of Osaka, spending their earnings on food and entertainment. If Kyoto can be seen as the reserved, quite traditional and well-dressed father figure in the family of Japanese cities then Osaka would be the slightly grungy teenager that eats too much and spends too much time at entertainment arcades. Shinsai-bashi and Doton-bori are the hedonistic heart and soul of Osaka. They are made up of a network of pedestrian only arcades, usually two to three storeys high and covered with a barrel-vaulted ceiling (this varies depending on the arcade’s distinct identity). These arcades provide the blood that pumps the consumer heart, through an immersion of lights, sound, general pandemonium and wave after wave of people it creates a euphoric overload of sensual experience and anachronistic pleasure – the arcade becomes the perfect architectural device to facilitate the experience (see fig. 7). Firstly, arcades allow the visitor to feel like they have entered another ‘womb-like’ world – a kind of mini-city where calendar time has been replaced by periods between eating kushi-katsu and getting the latest fix from a gaming parlour. The narrow format of the arcade (being two-sided) means that the visitor can really only go either side – going forward or the way they came can be a long journey, so there is really no escaping once they are in there. Secondly the arcade’s pedestrian only nature makes one feel like they are a part of something larger – i.e. to feel like a part of the scene, as characters in a virtual theatre of wanton apocalyptic consumerism and abandon.

The arcades of Dobutsuen-mae are a slightly different story – while the arcades of Shinsai-bashi and Doton-bori house the most contemporary of Japanese cosmopolitan culture, Dobutsuen-mae’s arcades are quieter in comparison, virtual ghost towns inhabited by the homeless and frequented the most by a noticeably older generation of Osaka citizens (see fig. 8). It made me think of the possibility that the Shinsai-bashi arcades may become like Dobutsuen-mae as an inevitable sign for its future as a hub for Osaka’s consumer and entertainment culture.

Fig. 7 Shinsai-bashi arcade by night from bridge
Fig. 8 An arcade in Dobutsuen-mae

Part 5. The tourist and the city

In some ways the architecture that a tourist encounters is very much in flux: it is the compression of time and space – thus condensed experience: buildings become momentary material, which frame that very experience as slippages of time and shards of space governed by subway timetables and airport itineraries. For the tourist, architecture (and the city for that matter) becomes a constantly shifting sea of images, sounds and smell – a kinaesthetic melting pot of expectation constrained by the limitations of one’s budget. I’d like to think of it as that old adage of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the architecture of cities generate the tourist culture or the other way around? If I were to infer from the impressions of my recent visit, I would have to say that the former may be more evident, but in reality I would assume that it would perhaps be a complex amalgam of both.

One thing that I can be sure of is that cities in general are vastly complex organisms; they are not only built up of accretive layers of infrastructure, public/private economic interests, street patterns, planning rules and regulations (et cetera) – but also the inexplicably intangible layers of human desire and anxiety conditioned by hundreds of years of society and culture. These aspects to me are not easily quantifiable or even statistically manageable in any readily available way, but they are documented – not conventionally in any library or bookshelf – but rather within the cities themselves.

Dale Fincham

Image sources:

Fig. 1 Fine Arts Garden by Tadao Ando – plan and section (image from tourism brochure)

Fig. 2 Fine Arts Garden – view towards Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ (photo by author)

Fig. 3 The original Tsutenkaku tower and aerial tramway circa. 1912 – 1920 – source:

Fig. 4 The current Tsutenkaku tower in all its neon glory (photo by author)

Fig. 5 Diagram of Umeda Sky Building (image from tourism brochure)

Fig. 6 Sky Building from below (photo by author)

Fig. 7 An arcade in Shinsai-bashi by night from bridge (photo by author)

Fig. 8 An arcade in Dobutsuen-mae (photo by author)

2 Replies to “Cities of desire and anxiety: urban impressions from Japan”

  1. Great writing Dale.

    In regards to your understanding of these Japanese cities and tourism, do you think the cities are higly developed prototypes for the future of all big cities, or are the manifestations of specific dynamics of japanese culture that make the blueprint unrepeatable?

  2. Barnaby, that’s a good question… I think that there are aspects of both that have to be taken into account.
    Personally I believe that all big cities have rather generic attributes that can be seen as commonplace and the reasons for this commonality can be both complicated and far-reaching (i.e. a globalized world economy, shared cultural values et cetera).
    I think both Kyoto and Osaka are no different in this way – but along with this ‘generic-ness’ are quite specific aspects of its society and culture that play out in its urban forms.
    My understanding is that Japan has had a long history of ‘service’ culture, which is quite evident when you enter any retail level of any department store or dine at a restaurant (where you’d be greeted without hesitation and your every need is catered for – if they aren’t then there is something seriously wrong) – it is essentially a world of ‘unequivocal anticipation’.
    Tourism is just another extension of this culture – and just like a lot of other cultures – it has implicit political objectives, which the urban forms of cities are ultimately responsible for through not necessarily facilitating – but rather creating the circumstances.
    What I find quite interesting though is that the urban forms of cities can inevitably be seen as reflections of quite fundamental human values and qualities (whether intended or not) – such as (but not limited to) desire and anxiety. In a way I think cities perpetuate as unintentional (whether we are conscious of it or not) laboratories of cultural and social incubation – so these cities in particular are in a sense prototypical.
    However I would also say there are definitive aspects of Japanese culture (as mentioned before) that make the cities quite unique to their set of circumstances, as I believe that the history/collective memory and traditions of any place can never really be erased.
    So to answer your question, both I think.

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