Big in Japan – small in Tokyo

Dec 14, 2016

SALA students abroad in Tokyo discover the mega metropolis’ miniscule side.

Tokyo skyline

Tokyo as a metropolis is restless. Many of its businesses and bookstores run around the clock, there’s a consistent immigration and emigration of commuters to and from the city proper, and even the earth it is built upon cannot seem to sit still.

A history of earthquakes, fires, and wars has forced the city of Tokyo to rebuild upon itself, an act which the city is – and probably will always be – undertaking. The imminent Tokyo 2020 Olympics will bring with it a slew of major infrastructure, press, and visitors to the city, which remains to this day a fairly mysterious metropolis known primarily to the world for its robust skyline.

To talk about Tokyo, we first have to establish some sense of scale: Tokyo as we know it is not actually a city, but rather an agglomeration of 23. Put together, the 23 special wards of Tokyo have a population of close to 9.4 million, and the Greater Tokyo Area has a population of well over 37.8 million. These numbers hardly begin to describe the massive flux of the population that occurs with daily commuters coming in and out of the city. Put simply, Tokyo is huge.

Sixteen Master of Architecture and Master of Landscape Architecture students discovered another face of Tokyo: a city equally concerned with an experience of the intimate, the small, and the cozy. The group has been working out of a studio space in Shinjuku since September under the guidance of Associate Professor George Wagner, Sessional Lecturer Lőrinc Vass, and Tokyo-local Mariko Abe, studying the design – both big and small – that makes the dense city tick (and tick and tick).

Tokyo study abroad group photo

Tokyo’s incredible density has seemingly displaced the functions of the home out into the city, though what remains remarkable is not that everything from bathing to eating to sleeping can be done outside of the home, but that it is often never more than a five or ten-minute walk from one’s front door. Nestled around the base of skyscrapers and tucked in between hulking train stations, Tokyo denizens can find neighborhoods consisting only of small alleyways and two-story buildings known locally as yokocho.

The majority of buildings in these areas function as restaurants, bars, and shops that welcome no more than 10 patrons at a time (and often less), creating the perfect opportunity for locals and visitors to rub shoulders, quite literally. Every aspect of the yokocho feels decidedly informal, from its social and convivial atmosphere to its apparently bric-à-brac approach to zoning and façade design. In addition to providing entertainment and a tasty bite to east, these neighborhoods provide an unparalleled glimpse into incarnations of the city that Tokyo has lost, and allow visitors to peel back the thick layers of history that exist in the city. In all their chaos, the yokocho also have a distinct ordering and logic that student Camille Bianchi has begun to track in a series of maps and drawings.

Yokocho in Tokyo

For their first studio project, the group was challenged to create a small space that serves one specific kind of drink for up to six guests at a time. The small intervention was designed to be placed into the façade of a mall attached to Ikebukuro Station, the second-busiest railway station in the world (the first being Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station). Among the solutions proposed were a Sakura (cherry blossom) teahouse with a constantly blooming cherry tree, a Sake (Nihon-Shu) bar that made visible the growth of rice bacteria, and a juice bar whose façade changed with the passing of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Jessyca Fan’s concept took advantage of the city’s network of vending machines, or jihanki, placing them within small mirrored rooms that amplified the modest spaces, and put them into dialogue with the surrounding city. She describes this concept as “a response to the phenomenon of hikikomori (the modern reclusive) in Tokyo and the solitary dining culture of the working class. My project is composed of five rectangular booths, each supplied with its own vending machine and fully enclosed with two-way mirror. Playing off the material’s ability to temporary change transparency depending on the lighting conditions of exterior and interior, the project adopts an uncomfortable ambiguity of watching and being watched simultaneously.”

Tokyo study abroad student project

Students have also worked with the adaptive reuse of the city’s small spaces and networks, including student Ryder Thalheimer’s repurposing of the city’s dense but antiquated network of telephone booths. Pictured below, he reimagines the minute spaces as capsules suitable for homeless shelters, flood protection, or just a quick meal for those on-the-go. The drawing set was created for the group’s On Density seminar, wherein students met weekly to discuss readings on and experiences of the city’s unique set of conditions and repeated phenomena that come to define it. This is one of many projects in which Ryder has sought to both understand and to take advantage of Tokyo’s economies of scale.

Tokyo study abroad student project

What all of the small spaces and designs pictured above have in common is a relationship to the neighborhood and city-scale: a connection between the micro and the macro. In the city of three-foot stuffed animals and three-inch trees, one could easily argue that scale has no meaning in Tokyo, but that it’s far from meaningless. One can feel tiny at one minute, dwarfed by the looming skyscrapers in Shinjuku, and gargantuan in the next, towering over the micro-city of the pocket-cemetery. Broad avenues and expressways halt before one-room restaurants with no seats, their visitors forced to duck under the small open arch marked with hanging noren fabric for entry. The conjoining curves of the tall Tokyo Tower are miniaturized and placed on every tote bag and bakery sign in the city in the guise of The Eiffel, its Francophone cousin.

Now at the end of this four-month study abroad, the students’ true test of Tokyo and its scale will be to see how far its influence will stretch into the future, and how its lessons will carry on into a lifetime’s worth of design in Vancouver and abroad.