Kansai Towers

Rise Above: Perrin Lindelauf climbs to the top of Kansai's towers

Kansai Towers

Towers have been making news recently, as the Burj Dubai, the massive construction still underway in the United Arab Emirates, burst like an oil geyser above Toronto's CN Tower (553m) this September, shattering its 33 year-old record as the world's tallest freestanding structure. The final height of Dubai's tower is under wraps as the competition for the record is fierce. Across town, the proposed Al Burj may stretch higher than a kilometer, while buildings under construction in Moscow, Chicago and Guangzhou will break the CN Tower's record soon. The intensity of all this architectural one-upmanship and the large number of towers in Japan and abroad can cause one to wonder why we are fascinated with these sky-scraping structures.

The answer is the icon. When we brush aside the stated purposes (transmission, business or housing), we see a city's need for self-definition in both city hall's large expenditures on seemingly mundane communication towers or in the symbolic meaning the locals transfer onto the structure itself. This is evident worldwide. The Eiffel Tower is synonymous with Paris and its cultural character. The Empire State Building and World Trade Center have both been immensely powerful symbols for America, its vitality and industriousness, particularly now that one is in rubble. Japan, too, has its share of spires, and Kansai's three towers - Kobe Port Tower, Osaka's Tsutenkaku and Kyoto Tower - provide both excellent views and perspectives on the natures of the cities themselves.

Kobe Port Tower illuminated at night.
Kobe Port Tower illuminated at night

Kobe Port Tower

Kobe Port Tower, Kobe.
Kobe Port Tower, Kobe.

Kobe Port Tower's unusual shape is technically called a hyperboloid - sort of a tube squeezed in the middle - but it was built to resemble a tsuzumi, a small drum that makes a "pon" noise to accompany a kabuki play. Built in 1963, the tower's earthquake-resistant design survived the Great Hanshin Earthquake when much of the surrounding port did not.

Its height (108m) doesn't compare to Tokyo Tower (333m), but its position in the port allows for fantastic views over the tangle of the Hanshin Expressway, which normally blocks the view between the glittering glass of downtown Kobe and the sea. Behind the bright windows of the city are Mt. Rokko and Mt. Maya, also famous for their views. Opposite, the sea stretches away toward Osaka Bay, Awaji Island and the humongous Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world, illuminated with thousands of color-changing lights by night.

The port itself is covered with cranes and bays but perhaps equally fascinating are the wedding facilities nearby. The rooftop of the Hotel Okura is decked out with a huge astroturf field and facsimile church (to match the foreign English teacher wearing convincing robes to do the ceremony), while another astonishingly large gothic building sits next to the expressway to marry off even more couples.

As for symbolism, Kobe Port Tower plays two large roles as the city's icon. First it is the Kobe Port Tower, emphasizing the importance of Kobe's connection to the outside world. The city has a large international community and a long history of foreign trade, as can be seen in the brick homes that were built by some of Kobe's early western residents.

The bright red paint is very visible from sea and the tower greets ships as they approach. From the tower one can appreciate the scope of the port's economic value to the city and to Japan as a whole. Turn 180 degrees and you find the other symbol - Kobe's rebirth. From the excellent vantage, the city bristles with bright new buildings and it is hard to believe that a scant 13 years ago much of it was in ruins. Only the memorials and museums, such as the nearby Kobe Port Earthquake Memorial Park, stand as testament to those terrible 20 seconds. The tower, like the city, survived, and Kobe once again prospers.


Tsutenkaku, Osaka.
Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka, Japan.

Tsutenkaku, Osaka's "Way to Heaven" tower in the Shinsekai or "New World" district isn't new anymore but it is certainly from a different world. The first version of the tower was built in 1912 at a modest height of 70m as the central feature of an amusement park in a posh neighborhood.

The original tower was a mishmash of imported Western styles aiming to symbolize Japan's budding modernity at the end of the Meiji period: the base of the tower looked something like the Arc de Triomphe and the top like the Eiffel Tower. During the Second World War a fire in a theater beneath it burned the whole structure down, although plans had already been slated to dismantle it since it was too prominent a landmark for wartime.

The current tower was built after a petition to bring back the Osaka icon and revive the fading neighborhood. It was rebuilt in 1956, taller at 103m, and was sponsored by Hitachi, which still advertises along the sides of the tower. On the top, two bright neon lights indicate tomorrow's weather with a combination of white, yellow and blue lights, which mean, respectively, clear, cloudy and rainy. When used in combination (e.g., white/blue) the upper light corresponds to morning conditions and the lower, the evening. White/blue would signify clear weather in the morning turning to rain later on.

Another, stranger revitalization attempt came in 1979 when a recreation of Billiken, "The God of Things as They Ought to Be," was installed on the observation deck. Billiken is a queer little statue of a child-like figure whose image was created by an American artist, Florence Pretz. Pretz had had a dream of a small smiling god and her efforts to sell her dream image started a brief international craze.

Billiken arrived in 1908 as part of the Western mania gripping the country and was so popular that he became the eighth of the seven traditional lucky gods for a short time. When the park was closed the original statue enshrined there was lost, so a new statue was recreated from a photo. This is surprising because the soles of his lucky feet have already nearly been worn away by the faithful.

If you can tear yourself away from the somewhat disturbing amount of Billiken paraphernalia, the view is worth coming up for. The clusters of large buildings around Kita and Minami are easy to pick out, Osaka Castle rises above the concrete skyline to the northeast and below the tower the technofrenzy of DenDen town, Kansai's biggest electronics district, screams advertisements and neon light. Shinsekai, despite these revitalization efforts, has been largely left behind by much of Osaka. Dirt-cheap restaurants, pachiko parlors and shady characters are all that is left of a once happening district but the tower is still an important emblem for proud Osakans.

Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower.

Kyoto Tower stands apart from the former two due to its complicated relationship with the city and its past. It was built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a symbol of the city's modernity, thrusting up through the low skyline of traditional homes in the shape of a Japanese candle. The candle symbolism, unlike that of modernity, is lost on most visitors as it takes more than a small leap of the imagination. The height - 131m - is the same as the elevation as Kitaoji-Dori, the main drag in the northern part of town, demonstrating the extent to which Kyoto gradually slopes.

Furthermore, the construction regulations in Kyoto that restrict building size increase the sense of proportion between the tower and the low machiya and ferroconcrete apartment blocks below. Unlike Tsutenkaku and the Kobe Port Tower, these municipal bylaws will likely maintain the tower's status as the tallest thing in town. The structure was built of steel rings, unlike the steel frames of the former two, and painted white to achieve the candle look.

From the top nearly all of Kyoto can be seen: Higashiyama and Arashiyama curl around the east and west sides while Kitayama boxes the city in from the north. On a clear day the tall buildings in Shin-Osaka are visible to the south. It is easy to see the roofs of temples poking through the trees in Higashiyama and one can also spot Kiyomizu-dera's famous platform. Closest to the tower are the grounds for the immense Higashi Honganji, headquarters for Japanese Buddhism's Jodo-Shin Sect. The founder's hall is one of the world's largest wooden buildings but is unfortunately under wraps for renovation until 2011. Finally, the old photos of Kyoto from the same vantage point reveal much of how Kyoto has changed. Apartment blocks have replaced most of the old machiya and only a few temples can be easily recognized.

These changes in Kyoto over the years since the tower was built are part of why the reaction to Kyoto Tower was, and remains, divided. Many foreigners who come to Kyoto seeking that elusive sense of old Japan are aghast to see both the glass and steel blob of Kyoto Station and the tower opposite, squatting on top of a hotel, tall enough to ruin the skyline but not tall enough to impress, contradictory to all that people associate with Kyoto's past. Alex Kerr, an expert on Japan's fading past, called the tower "a stake through the heart" of the city. While conservative Kyotoites agree, most locals think the station and tower are a welcome addition against the slow mummification of the city, a splash of modernity to ensure that Kyoto does not become foreign to the rest of new Japan.

Kyoto Tower, Kyoto, Japan.
Kyoto Tower, Kyoto

Visiting the Towers

All three towers make for a great outing, especially on clear days or nights. The cities may change around them, but the perspectives they provide on the cities and their peoples will remain.

The Kobe Port Tower is 10 minutes south of the JR Kobe line's Motomachi station. (600 yen adults; 300 yen children; 9am-8.30pm Mar-Jul Sept-Nov,9am-9.30pm Aug, 9am-6.30pm Dec-Feb; tel: 078-351-6310)

Tsutenkaku is 5 minutes walk east of Ebisu-cho station on the Sakai-Suji line in Osaka. (600 yen adults; 500 yen university students; 400 yen junior high and high school students; 300 yen children; 10am-6.30pm, 8.30pm Jul-Aug; Tel: 06-6641-9555)

Kyoto Tower is directly north of Kyoto station. (770 yen general; 620 yen high school students; 520 yen junior high school students; 150 yen elementary school and younger; 9am-8.40pm; tel: 075-361-3215)

Text + images by Perrin Lindelauf

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