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High Drama, No. 4: Government behemoth

The main tower of the Tokyo metropolitan government office building is such a familiar part of the skyline that it is easy to forget that its very existence was once controversial. Nowadays, it is just another part of the forest of tall buildings west of Shinjuku Station, but when its 1988-91 construction was completed, the 243-meter twin-spired tower was the tallest building in Japan.

It was also very expensive, as part of a three-building complex that cost ¥156.9 billion (not adjusted for inflation). Designed by famous architect Kenzo Tange (1913-2005), the complex also includes a 163-meter office building to the south of the main tower, and the much lower Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly building to the east. The tower and the assembly building are linked by raised walkways enclosing a large semicircular plaza lined with statues, one of which is seen in the top photo of this post.

The complex, covering about 42,940 square meters of land, went up during the administration of Tokyo Gov. Shunichi Suzuki (1910-2010), who came under harsh criticism for the project. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported at the time that it was seen by some as "too luxurious for local government offices" and "a waste of taxpayer money."

Suzuki was running for a fourth term when the building opened. The Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the Democratic Socialist Party all withdrew their support for him in favor of a challenger, but the incumbent governor won by a landslide and got to keep his nice new office. And a year later, the tower had "become one of the city's favorite sightseeing attractions."

If you'd like to enjoy a view similar to the one Suzuki had, there is a 45th-floor observation room open to the public in each of the two spires. Nowadays, there are many other places to get bird's-eye view of Tokyo, but the metropolitan government building has one distinct advantage over most of them: It's free.

If you'd like to prolong your visit, the 32nd-floor employee cafeteria, with views east across the center of town, is also open to the public. To get there, you'll have to come down from the observation room via express elevator to ground level, go through security a second time, and take a different elevator back up. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Unfortunately, I made my recent visit at 3 p.m. I did get to wander through the empty cafeteria, but it wasn't quite the same as settling in for a leisurely meal in the sky. On the bright side, that gives me a perfect excuse to go back there again.

— Tom Baker

Japan News Staff Writer