I’m not an architect, and I don’t play one on TV, but I’m really into cool architecture. I’m always amazed when someone’s vision comes to life on such a grand scale. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a minimalist, eco-friendly home someone built in the woods or the Sydney Opera House, I’m all over interesting architecture.
So a big bonus of my recent trip to Japan was that my hotel in Kyoto was located in the Kyoto Station, a truly impressive if slightly overlooked example of modernistic architecture, and a place that I’ve long wanted to visit.
And it didn’t disappoint. Truly vast and towering in scope and size, at first sight the station is almost overwhelming. It exhibits many characteristics of futurism, with a slightly irregular cubic facade of plate glass over a steel frame. It’s clever use of light, space and reflections on glass make an already massive expanse seem even bigger. It’s bright and airy and it’s constantly on the move, no surprise since the station is the hub for all trains and buses coming in and out of Kyoto, including the Shinkansen bullet train.
In fact, it is the second largest station in Japan, after Nagoya Station, and at 70 meters high, 470 meters from east to west and a total floor area of 238,000 square meters, it’s one of Japan’s largest buildings. It houses a shopping mall, hotel, movie theater, department store, many restaurants (including one that serves the best spicy ramen EVER) and several local government facilities under one 15-story roof. Its close proximity to the Kyoto Tower (it’s right across the street) ensures that that Kyoto icon constantly gets center stage.
This sprawling, gleaming example of modern architecture is actually the fourth version of the Kyoto Station, and the station has gone through many transformations since it was first decreed opened for service by Emperor Meiji on February 5, 1877. In 1914, the first station was replaced by a newer, Renaissance-inspired facility that burned to the ground in 1950 and was subsequently replaced by a more pragmatic concrete facility in 1952. This current version, designed by famed Japanese architect Hiroshi Hara, opened in 1997, commemorating the city’s 1,200th anniversary.
As you can see, it’s truly impressive, and like most things Japanese, it runs like a well-oiled machine, even when a typhoon brought all rail and bus service to a halt on my third day in Kyoto.
Ironically, Kyoto has a love-hate relationship with its station. Some say its modernist design conflicts squarely with this most traditional of Japanese cities. It’s completion in the mid-90′s gave rise to a wave of new high-rise developments, leading critics to accuse the station of helping to contribute to a greater departure from the tradition that is so important to Kyoto’s culture.
I don’t think the people of Kyoto have much to worry about, though, because Kyoto is an intensely beautiful place that has done an excellent job of retaining all of the charm and beauty of tradition, and the station does nothing to take away from all of that. I, for one, appreciated seeing this ultra-modern design in the heart of an ancient city. It only added to the allure (and photography) of visiting Kyoto, and gave me another reason to go back.