New Tokyo Area Stations Fuse Past and Present

The Japan News
Passengers at Makuharitoyosuna Station walk beneath a light weight membrane roof that is less than 1 millimeter thick.

The JR Keiyo Line has been running along the northern shore of Tokyo Bay for over 30 years. But it was less than one year ago, on March 18, 2023, that it began making stops at Maku-haritoyosuna Station in Chiba Prefecture.

This is one of three relatively new stations in the Tokyo area that are worth a visit for shopping or sightseeing, or to appreciate the architectural features of the stations themselves.

The Hibiya subway line also has a new station, and there is another on the JR Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines. Here’s a sample of what you may find.

Membrane roof

Makuharitoyosuna Station is within walking distance of the Makuhari Messe convention center and the Zozo Marine Stadium, home ground of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team.

But those spots were already served by the even closer Kaihinmakuhari Station. A major reason for Makuharitoyosuna Station’s existence is to improve access to Aeon Mall Maku-hari New City, a complex of four interconnected shopping malls. In fact, the malls’ developer paid half of the 11.5 billion yen cost of building the new station.

When I stepped off the train, the station impressed me as airy and bright. It uses many light-colored materials, including benches made of wood recycled from Chiba Prefecture timber previously used at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The tracks heading toward and away from Tokyo are on two different levels, giving the structure a high ceiling.

That ceiling has a tentlike appearance because it is a “membrane” roof designed, made and installed by Kyoritsu Industries Co.

The company’s Eul-Seok Jeong told me in an email that the membrane roof material over the station’s platforms is just 0.8 millimeters thick and weighs 1.3 kilograms per square meter, while the membrane over the main building is a gossamer 0.6 millimeters, weighing just 1.0 kilogram per square meter.

Jeong compared this to traditional roofing materials like metal at 6 to 12 kilograms per square meter, or slate or asphalt shingles at about 12 to 20 kilograms, and said the membranes’ remarkable lightness enables a building to include “column-free spaces and unique shapes,” as well as making it less susceptible to collapse in an earthquake.

In the adjacent mall complex, the first thing you may notice is a large window displaying what seems to be a full-size mockup of the front end of a JAL jumbo jet. This is part of Kandu, a facility where children pretend to work in various grownup jobs, including JAL pilots or flight attendants.

The Japan News
The view from the upper platform of Makuharitoyosuna Station on the JR Keiyo Line in Chiba City includes an aviation-themed display in a shopping mall window.

Kandu is part of the Ekimae shopping mall, which I had to think of as “the kids mall” because it also contains a Toys ‘R’ Us and a bustling food court overlooked by an amusement facility called Tondemi, where kids were bouncing on trampolines and clambering through an aerial obstacle course of nets, ropes, hanging tires and something that looked like a skateboard on cables.

There is also a pig cafe, which is like a cat cafe, but with pigs. If you prefer a real cat cafe, there is a large and brightly lit one in the nearby (and enormous) Grand Mall, which can be reached via the small Pet Mall. The fourth mall in the complex is the Active Mall, where the Japan flagship store of the Sports Authority is the main occupant on all three floors. The Active Mall also includes a drone-flying school and sports facilities such as a rooftop futsal court.

Before leaving the area, architecture aficionados might want to pop in at the nearby Sakura Hiroba, a garden designed by architect Tadao Ando. Much of the ground appears to be paved, with rows of round holes giving it the impression of a giant colander. Cherry trees, said to number over 500, are planted in each hole.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Toranomon Hills Station on the Hibiya subway line opens onto this atrium of the Toranomon Hills Station Tower.

Dining in an underground forest

One of the more surprising places to enjoy greenery in Tokyo is underground, near Toranomon Hills Station on the Hibiya subway line in Minato Ward. Opened in June 2020, this station serves Mori Building Co.’s Toranomon Hills development.

The subway tracks run down the center of this station, with a platform on either side. That may sound typical, but both platforms have windows looking into the underground atriums of neighboring buildings. The platform on the western side looks into the aptly named Tora-nomon Hills Station Tower, which opened in October 2023.

The newest tower in the complex, it is also a notable addition to the Tokyo skyline, standing 266 meters tall with 49 floors. The 45th floor and up is home to the Tokyo Node cultural facility, which includes a performance hall and art galleries.

Back underground, the atrium serves as the entryway to T-Market, a food hall where many of the eateries have visually inviting open kitchens. On my first visit, I sampled hummus, falafel and chicken schnitzel at a new location of Ta-im, an Israeli cuisine restaurant whose name is Hebrew for “delicious.” (And it is.) On a later visit, I quickly demolished a simple but tasty thin-crust pizza prepared before my eyes at Crazy Pizza.

The Japan News
Dishes served at the Ta-im Israel restaurant in the Toranomon hills Station Tower include falafel hummus and chicken schnitzel.

The atmosphere is as delightful as the food. The unusual abundance of large potted plants makes it feel like you’re dining in a subterranean forest. And the side corridors, too narrow for plants, are decorated with earth-tone murals recalling Lascaux cave paintings, which reinforce the cozy underground vibe.

At street level a couple of blocks away, you can visit the Minato Science Museum for free. It’s a small but interactive facility with exhibits related to things you might see while walking around the ward. For instance, you can send a window-washing scaffold up the side of a model skyscraper by shining a light onto a photovoltaic panel. But first, you have to spend a minute spinning a crank to generate electricity to power the light.

In the same building, and also free, is the Japan Meteorological Agency’s museum, featuring a diorama in a water tank that simulates tsunami.

According to a historical marker on a nearby street, part of this neighborhood is thought to have been home to many roofers in the Edo period (1603-1867). Some of those window-washers might come from families who have been working in high places for generations.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The membrane roof of Takanawa Gateway Station requires little support, allowing for a large amount of open space inside.

Echoes of a tragic time gone by

The new station with the deepest history may be Takanawa Gateway Station, which opened in March 2020 on the JR Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines.

When Japan’s first railway opened between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1872, it passed the Takanawa area on a stone embankment in Tokyo Bay, presenting a then-astonishing spectacle of steam trains driving along above the water. But as more of the bay became reclaimed land over the years, the embankment disappeared underground. Portions of it were rediscovered during construction of the new station and nearby facilities. Part of it will be preserved as a historical monument.

History is more clearly visible at nearby Sengakuji temple, which is forever linked with the 47 samurai who carried out a famous vendetta in the mid-Edo period.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The main gate of Sengakuji temple, which includes the graves of samurai who carried out a legendary vendetta over 300 years ago.

The incident, which inspired the kabuki play “Chushingura,” began when a daimyo named Asano was insulted by an official named Kira and provoked into an incident that resulted in Asano’s death. Asano’s retainers later broke into Kira’s home, cut off his head, and presented it at Asano’s grave on the temple grounds. Most of the 47 were sentenced to death by seppuku, and they too have their graves at the temple.

Extensive bilingual signage marks such spots as a well where the samurai washed Kira’s severed head to make it presentable.

To gain access to the graves, you’ll be asked to purchase 300 yen worth of incense. Despite the bright sunshine making wisps of fragrant smoke glow as they curled around the monuments, I found it a gloomy spot. Most of the dead samurai were in their 20s or 30s, but a few were only in their teens. Just looking at the kanji of their names is sad. What hopes did those characters convey when they were chosen?

On the quiet afternoon of my visit, the only sound among the hilltop graves was the hum of machinery and the clang of hammering from the half-built towers of Takanawa Gateway City, yet another of Tokyo’s new skyscraper complexes.

Its towers are rising higher and higher next to Takanawa Gateway Station, dominating what might once have been the temple’s view of Tokyo Bay. The office and retail complex is reportedly due to open in March 2025, but the station already offers a taste of living in the future.

Like Makuharitoyosuna Station, Takanawa Gateway Station has a membrane roof — but this one was made by a different company.

The station building was designed by Kengo Kuma and Associates, the architecture firm that also gave Tokyo the National Stadium and the Shibuya Scramble Square building.

With four sets of tracks, Takanawa Gateway Station dramatically demonstrates just how much open space can be created by a column-free roof. Trains come and go on one level, the ticket gates are on a higher level, and a balconied Starbucks coffee shop looks down from higher still, all beneath the shelter of one vast roof.

If you decide to stop for coffee, the Starbucks balcony is a nice spot to sit while planning where your next train trip will take you.