Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:23 am

Tokyo’s high life

At 634m, Skytree is the world’s tallest free-standing tower and has viewing decks, cafés and a vast shopping mall
Japan Skytree©Bloomberg

The cherry blossoms were out when I made my way to Tokyo’s newest tourist attraction, but for once it was not the blooms that admiring urbanites were taking snaps of on their mobile phones. Instead, the handsets were aimed higher, at a technological marvel flowering above them.

At 634m high, Tokyo Skytree claims the title of the world’s tallest free-standing tower, a slender shaft of white-painted steel that dominates the Japanese capital’s eastern skyline. The structure’s primary task is to transmit television and radio signals but city officials hope that when it opens to the public on May 22 it will also become a major visitor destination and an engine for the local economy.

On a warm spring day last week I was allowed to ride the high-speed lift for a preview of the Skytree’s main attraction: the multiple viewing decks wrapped around its steel and concrete structure – one at around 350m off the ground and the other at 450m. The Skytree’s exact place in the record books depends on semantics: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is 195m higher but, because it contains apartments and offices, is classified as a building rather than a tower.

To emerge from a lift into any of these decks is to appreciate anew the sheer scale of greater Tokyo. Beyond the outward sloping, non-reflective, plate glass windows, the teeming metropolis spreads out into the distance.

Far off in the haze you can see the clusters of skyscrapers around the commercial centre of Shinjuku and other downtown districts. All around lie the countless smaller office towers, apartment blocks and low rise homes in which the region’s 35m inhabitants pass their days.

It is a view at once impressive and appalling. The sheer scale of the urban sprawl and the paucity of visible nature feels almost oppressive. When I posted on Facebook a picture of the view taken on my mobile phone, the first responses were from two Japanese fellow Tokyo residents. “OMG [Oh my God],” wrote one. “No green at all!,” commented the other.

Operator Tobu Tower Skytree will be hoping other potential visitors are more enthusiastic. Tickets are hardly cheap: entry to the 450m deck costs Y3,000 (£23).

To add to the appeal, the decks have been fitted with lots of other attractions. Among the best are high-tech screens that show video images of the view outside. Visitors can touch parts of the scene to zoom in (a handy substitute for the binoculars I forgot to take), shift the view from day to night or call up historical notes in English or Japanese.

In a nice touch, there is also on display a copy of a 19th-century folding screen painting of Tokyo that uses an aerial perspective intriguingly similar to that offered by Skytree. One deck boasts sections of glass floors that allows those not too troubled by heights to stare straight down at the ground far below.

skyscraper heights chart

And since Tokyo is the world capital of cute, visitors to the upper levels are greeted by the building’s mascot, cheery Sorakara “a young girl with a star-shaped head who descended from the skies”. (For those immune to Sorakara’s charms, Skytree has two supporting “official characters” – the penguin-like Eppenpen and the traditional “old dog” Sukoburuburu.)

Skytree’s height and relative elegance means it threatens to eclipse the Tokyo Tower, a much-loved but somewhat garish Eiffel Tower-look-alike built in the 1950s. And while last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake bent Tokyo Tower’s tip, Skytree’s operators say it sailed through the tremor unscathed. The building has a unique anti-earthquake system that boasts a reinforced concrete core (containing the 2,523-step emergency staircase) and a separate steel lattice structure. Operators claim the combination will reduce shaking by about half compared with conventional structures.

I was certainly impressed by the attention to detail shown elsewhere in the structure. Nearly 2,000 LED lights have been installed to allow the structure to glow in multiple colours. Each lift has a separate decoration scheme, and the upper ones boast glass roofs. In a charming example of Japanese punctiliousness, the leaflet guide I was handed on arrival came with a separate printed erratum. It took me a while to work out what was being corrected – only after multiple readings did I realise that the problem was a single missing full stop.

Tourists eager to shop will also appreciate the retail opportunities, including the mall which spreads out from the tower’s base and will be one of Tokyo’s biggest. They can also splash out at altitude: the decks boast a coffee shop (lattes cost Y450), restaurant (dinner courses from Y12,600 not including lift tickets) and a souvenir shop. This last has some items at sky-high prices – not least the 63cm-tall, light-up crystal Skytree model, on sale for Y665,700.

Still, visitors should not think Skytree is the only way to appreciate Tokyo from above. One solid favourite on my own personal tourist trail is a trip to the observatory floors of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. Though a relatively lowly 202m above the ground, the observatories have fine views that include both far-off sprawl and close-up skyscrapers. There is also a wonderfully tacky tourist shop. Best of all, entry is free.

Mure Dickie is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief

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For more information and tickets, see www.tokyo-skytree.jp/english/. Inside Japan Tours can offer tailormade trips to Tokyo, incorporating city tours and Skytree visits. For information on Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building see www.metro.tokyo.jp/ENGLISH

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