Tokyo, From the Top

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Blanketed by haze and poised at the juncture of restless tectonic plates, Tokyo is unlikely territory for sky-high observation decks and city-viewing towers. But defiant Tokyoites insist on building them, and then, once they are in place, eagerly get in line to ride up and have a look.

The latest addition to the city's soaring buildings, dizzying Ferris wheels and skyscraper-top restaurants is Tokyo Skytree, which at 2,080 feet, holds the title as the world's tallest free-standing tower. The Skytree, which opened last May, became an instant hot ticket.

Its top viewing level, at 1,480 feet, is only the fourth-highest in the world, behind a couple of Chinese skyscrapers and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. That is tall enough, though, for a head-clearing perspective on sprawling Tokyo, whose multiple city centers, odd block-based address system and reliance on underground transit foster confusion at ground level. One surprise in the Skytree vantage point is a sudden realization of how far the distorted subway maps depart from geographic reality.

On a weekday morning last fall, an animated crowd waited 40 minutes to buy tickets, gasped at a rapidly ascending view through windows in the elevator shaft, and once on the observation deck, pointed out landmarks keyed on satellite maps and took turns on a patch of glass floor. Mount Fuji, the holy grail of Tokyo gazing, was out there somewhere, hidden by clouds and smog. (Chances of seeing it are best in winter, when winds blow the haze away.) When a window washer glided into view outside, everyone's cellphone came out to snap a picture. Nobody seemed at all concerned about the shaky ground below -- even though some of the people had probably watched Tokyo's skyscrapers swaying like trees in the wind a couple of years ago, when the same earthquake that brought a devastating tsunami farther north hit Tokyo with a reduced but still impressive jolt.

For 50 years before the Skytree reared its upstart mast, the iconic queen of the skyline was the Tokyo Tower, an Eiffel Tower knockoff and a frequent target of Godzilla and his monstrous ilk. Only about half the Skytree's height, marred at its base by tacky souvenir shops, the Tokyo Tower feels cramped and a little pathetic by comparison, although it's worth remembering that it still bests the Eiffel Tower by 28 feet. It is also cheaper to visit than the Skytree, less crowded, and the place to go for a certain perspective that is especially good at night.

That is when the tower feels just right -- above the city but still within it. Traffic streams by on nearby expressways in a blur of red and white light, the Ferris wheel at the Odaiba waterfront entertainment complex whirls with its own bright display, and Tokyo Bay glimmers beneath the illuminated Rainbow Bridge. The ambience seems to appeal to young lovers. Couples who appeared to be out on a date dominated the thin crowd on one warm autumn evening.

Clusters of lighted skyscrapers mark the cities within the city: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, the old city center near the Imperial Palace. On clear nights, the view extends to Yokohama, identifiable by a glimpse of the Landmark Tower, Japan's tallest building (the much taller Skytree can't hold that title, since much of its height is a structure without floors to walk on) and the location of yet another observation deck.

The Tokyo Tower was a symbol of the city's determination to remake itself after World War II on the model of Western capitals. The Skytree announces the intention to remain competitive as other Asian cities reach for dominance. All of Tokyo's places to look down at itself take seismic chances that those other cities' towers do not. But they also reflect something familiar: a great city's desire not to let a few quirks of nature hold it back.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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