Tokyo Has a Problem Preserving Its History: The Demolition of Harajuku Station and the Loss of Other Crown Jewels

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  • Back in 2019, it had been announced that the iconic Harajuku Station would be demolished after the 2020 Olympics. Though with the postponment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the dismantling of the station continued as planned, and now the original façade is not there anymore.

    This has been a sad turn of events for those who love the station’s façade, and those who want to preserve the last remnants of “Old Tokyo”. The interesting thing, however, is that Tokyo is finding itself in a constant problem as it tries to revamp itself while continuing to be the Tokyo of old.

    by Martin Danker

    The new Harajuku Station officially opened in March 2020, and the building leaves so much to be desired.
    The revamped station looks like a smaller version of any other office building in Tokyo. There is nothing charming or special about it, unlike the photogenic one it’s replacing. How could Tokyo get it so wrong?

    The funniest thing is that, before it’s actually demolished, the old Harajuku Station is standing next ot its newer brother. The contrast between the boringly generic building Tokyo constructed and the historical, farytale-like structure the city will destroy is astonishing, and it serves as a good example of how blind Tokyo can be.

    A great example of the clash between the old and new in the Japanese capital are the many promotional posters inside train stations targeting tourists. These posters usually have two images, one on top and one on the bottom. These images share similar themes, and are juxtaposed to show what is considered the “Old Tokyo” and what is considered the “New Tokyo”.

    Therefore if a poster is showing entertainment, it might feature kabuki as part of the Old Tokyo, and robots as part of the New Tokyo. If the poster is showing places of interest, you might see an old shrine next to a modern exhibit from popular teamLab. The campaign aims to show how in Tokyo old things meet new things and vice versa, intersecting naturally and seamlessly.

    The consensus is that Tokyo is a city where you can find both the new and the old. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the remnants of the old Tokyo. The decision to demolish Harajuku Station shows the horrendous job the city is doing to preserve its past.

    When it comes to Harajuku Station, East Japan Railway cited very good reasons to demolish the picturesque building and build a new one. One of these reasons was that the station’s wooden structure was hazardous in case of disasters like a fire. In terms of safety reasons, Harajuku Station was indeed dangerous, but there could have been better solutions to preserve the building. Some of them included moving it to a different location, or preserving it as a part of the station that’s only there for aesthetically and historical reasons while remaining closed to passengers.

    The fate of Harajuku Station is one that many other jewels of “Old Tokyo” have gone through. For many years, the iconic Imperial Hotel in Hibiya marked the epitome of class and architecture. The building, designed by Frank Lloyd, was a marvel to behold, an architectural masterpiece that delighted visitors and that saw many dignitaries through its doors. Then, the hotel decided it needed a completely new design. Instead of trying to preserve as much of the old structure as possible, the hotel opted to have a completely new building. If you were to look at it today knowing what stood before it, you’d be inundated in sadness. The newer tower looks just like another office building among many other office buildings. The Imperial Hotel tried to retain some bits of the old hotel Frank Lloyd had created in the lobby and other areas, subtle details that only those aware of the hotel’s history would be paying attention to to fully appreciate them.

    Another hotel that threw away its historical heritage was the famous Okura Tokyo. Thanks to its location, the hotel has hosted many diplomats and U.S. presidents. However, the famous building was demolished, and two shimmering towers were constructed instead. The Okura reopened in 2019, having some of Tokyo’s most expensive rooms. The hotel occupies both buildings, and the iconic lobby was recreated to perfection.

    However, looking at the glass towers brings nothing but a sense of disappointment. There’s nothing architecturally significant about them. They are just that, two modern glass skyscrapers like the rest that are being built in the city. And that’s the major problem: as Tokyo goes through this major real estate and construction boom set for by the Olympics, many of the proposed, under construction, and finished buildings have few things that set them apart from one another. The skyline is looking sterile, with no new structures like Mode Gakuen Building (also known as Cocoon Tower) to bring some unique character to Tokyo’s ever-changing skyline.

    Palace Hotel Tokyo did things differently. When the hotel decided to demolish the aging building and be born anew, it did so by creating a distinguishable and luxurious building that looks so different from the skyscrapers in the financial districts of Otemachi and Marunouchi that surround it while maintaining its historical heritage by maintaining the grounds and moat outside. Yet sadly, what Palace Hotel Tokyo did was an exception, not the norm.

    There is probably no better example of how Tokyo has failed to preserve its history than Tsukiji Fish Market. For decades, Tsukiji Fish Market played a crucial role in defining what Tokyo was and what life in the city was like. However, since the land the market occupied was prime real estate (so close to Ginza and Shimbashi), the market closed down in October 2018, moving to the new Toyosu Fish Market. The area around Tsukiji continues to have restaurants and shops to appease tourists, but the neighborhood lost its heart and Tokyo one of its most famed crown jewels.

    The new Toyosu Fish Market has been plagued with problems from the start, when the area was found to have chemical levels in groundwater samples that exceeded standards, delaying the opening of the market. The news didn’t surprise anyone at the time since the place where the fish market now stands used to be a landfill. During its first year, the state of the art Toyosu Fish Market saw multiple accidents that made people yearn for the efficiently ran Tsukiji Fish Market. That, mixed with how expensive operation costs at the new market are and the decline in seafood sales that Japan has been experiencing, has made wholesalers wonder how exactly the new and difficult to access facility is supposed to be improving things.

    The fates of relics like Harajuku Station and Tsukiji Fish Market can be seen as the inevitable consequence of progress and modernization, but as Tokyo continues to change, it must come to terms with its history and heritage if it doesn’t want to lose important parts of its past. For a city that is proud to showcase and promote the contrasts between the old and new, it makes no sense for Tokyo to do so little to preserve what constitutes that “Old Tokyo”.

    *Featured Image by mi_mi0215 (Hiromi Oka) on Instagram