One City, Two Faces: Roppongi Hills


The geography of Tokyo can be read into as a metaphor for its social stratification. There are the lowly pockets of Shitamachi, or the Low City, that lie on the literally low flood plains closer to the shore and the rivers. West of here are the few rarified districts of the Yamanote, a name that means “hand of the mountain” and aptly denotes the area’s hillier terrain. Away from here, the city stretches out in all directions in an unending sprawl of glass and concrete blandness, inhabited by the quiet, industrious, dignified, conformist, white-shirt -and-dark-suit-wearing Japanese middle class of lore—this is a city middle-class to its core.

One can find subtle signs (if he looks hard enough) as the train roars past Tsukiji, westwards and uphill. A platoon of well-dressed middle-aged men with indistinguishable faces get on at Hibiya station, epicentre of the central government bureaucracy; the ladies start to look more expensive, respectable, demure. Unmistakably, many of them are bound for Roppongi Hills.


Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills

The emergence of Roppongi as a destination, or in any case a respectable destination, can be precisely dated to 2003, when the Roppongi Hills complex opened. Consisting of the centrepiece Mori Tower, four (very expensive) apartment buildings, a Grand Hyatt, art venues, a cinema, a TV studio, parks, dining, and high-browed shopping sprinkled in, the project may smack of a resurrected le Corbusian nightmare at best, or a mechantilistic show of oriental extravagence at worst. Yet as one rides the escalator into the complex and its glass-and-steel glory, one can’t help feeling a little awed–this is post-modern design at its best.

With more giddy elation one is transported 52 storeys up to the spotless and starkly modern observation floor. The atmosphere is tranquil and aloof, helped in no small part by the hefty admission fee of 20 dollars.


The man behind all this and many other smaller luxury projects, Mihuro Mori, is a colorful and often bashful figure who, it is not entirely unfair to say, suffers from a mild case of Napoleonic Complex. His stated mission is to transform the urban landscape in a country where weak eminent domain laws have resulted in years of piecemeal development and an incredibly fine-grained urban fabric. Yet public uproar is not always directed against these massive buildings per se—his large projects are often surprisingly humane, managable, and always tastefully done–but is instead concentrated on his uneasy class politics. The luxury shops, expensive cafes, apartments with hefty price tags, and the snotty Mori Gallery all send a clear message to the multitude of visiting middle-class Tokyoites: you are visitors here, and no more.


Needless to say, this ticks off many who are trying to deal with the past recession and recent boom that has brought little change to the economy’s lower strata. Ever more similar towers are going up around Tokyo, each successive one growing taller and more indifferent towards the surrounding city and its concerns.


The Tokyo Midtown Project is the cluster of towers in the foreground; bearing a similar price tag and less than 1000m from Roppongi Hills, it is not built by Mori but is definitely Mori-esque in spirit.

The visitors up here on this fine Monday morning though are decidedly not in a sour mood, however. An older group of friends are typically polite but the quiet chatter barely conceals their excitement. A younger family is more matter-of-factly cheerful and exploratory, the kid running through the hollowness of the hall trying to locate his house below–being so high up and possessing such a view, even if only momentarily, is such a transcendent experience, especially in a city that has up until recently had few skyscrapers.


I wonder if he sees Tsukiji Market, or whether he knows where it is. Could he guess that I was just there, or that it’s merely five stops away on the subway? He’s probably never been, just as when I, on my northbound summer jogs in Toronto, reach Dupont Street and turn back, away from that imaginary demarcation line between “here here” and the suburban back of beyond. The City can be such an estranging place sometimes.

This entry was written by Siqi Zhu , posted on Tuesday January 09 2007at 12:01 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “One City, Two Faces: Roppongi Hills”

  • Donal Hanley says:

    It is great fun to see a place for the first time on here and then to visit the place in person. I have just been to Roppongi Hills for the first time and I think that Siqi captures it very well.