Crowning the new Shibuya Scramble Square, a 47-storey tower that looms over the world-famous crossing, is a 3,000sqm observation deck-slash-otherworldly promenade called Shibuya Sky.
Getting there is quite the trek — from the brightly lit bowels of one of the city’s busiest train hubs, you’ll need to navigate the crowds at designer pastry shops and pastel-colored confectionery stores on the first few floors of the tower; queue up for a ticket; then wait your turn to board an express lift that zooms to the top at a speed that makes your ears pop. It’s a small inconvenience considering what awaits you: the latest, and possibly best, 360-degree viewing platform from which to view the dense and vast metropolis that is Tokyo, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction.
Twilight is an especially dramatic time at Shibuya Sky as some of the country’s icons come to life: about 100km west, the distinct silhouette of Mount Fuji, backlit by the setting sun; the glittering Tokyo Skytree, Japan’s tallest structure at 634m; and right beside the green lung known as the Meiji Temple grounds, the new National Stadium, awash in floodlights, where the opening of the 32nd Olympic Games will unfold on 24 July.
This year, Tokyo joins an ultra-exclusive group of cities with the distinctive honor of hosting the Summer Olympics more than once: Only Athens, Paris and Los Angeles have rolled out the welcome mat to the global sporting elite twice, and London has done it three times. The Olympics, staged every four years, make up one of the most complex large-scale events to mount, requiring years of advance preparations, a cast of thousands and budgets equal to, if not larger than, a small nation’s gross domestic product.
Already the 32nd Games are taking shape to be a standard-setting event as Japan pulls out all the stops. Tokyo 2020 is set to be the most high-tech Olympics to date, where aid robots will be deployed to assist organizers and spectators (the Games’ mascots come with robot versions).
To bring the event to as many people around the city as possible, Tokyo has organized locations for open-to-the-public live sites, usually parks and other open spaces, where large screens will broadcast games as they happen, and food vendors and sports setups help create a festival-like atmosphere. It has also committed to showcasing the values of sustainability front and center, deploying symbolic use of recycled material in fashioning medals and awards podiums.
In an even bolder step, the new National Stadium was designed by Kengo Kuma, a celebrated Japanese architect who is known for championing a spare, quiet aesthetic using traditional materials. His works can be seen in high-profile design collaborations such as collector-level footwear for Asics, unveiled in December, and Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo in the trendy Nakameguro neighborhood, the largest Starbucks store in the world.
The new National Stadium, built over the old 1964 structure, is a simple sphere that goes against the grain of typical stadium designs, which tend to be imposing, flashy and attention-grabbing. Kengo’s stadium, completed in December 2019, looks like layers of thin discs, buttressed at each level by slim posts, ringed with plants. From the ground level, the entire structure, with a seating capacity of 68,000, appears as light as a floating garden and as intricately woven as a handcrafted basket. And when sunlight travels across its outdoor balconies, it creates crisscrossing shadows of beams and plants, exuding the spiritual serenity of a temple.
The real star of the upcoming Olympics, however, is Tokyo itself, as a showcase of Japan’s rich culture and traditions. The city has been preparing for the Games since winning the bid in 2013, and the resulting building boom has given rise to new landmarks, such as Shibuya Scramble Square and Ginza Six, an upscale mall with a beautiful rooftop garden where you can decompress, as well as the Muji Hotel, a design-led boutique hotel that is among a slew of new accommodations that are helping bridge the gap between the city’s rather functional business chain hotels and luxurious, pricey brands. “Many cool neighborhoods are building capsule hotels to accommodate the millions of visitors that are expected for the Olympics, and if there’s a city that can do this, that’s definitely Tokyo,” says resident Joan Mira, who is originally from Spain. Ten years ago, he embarked on a motorcycle trip from Madrid to Tokyo, crossing Europe and Central Asia. His dream back then was to someday live in Japan. A year ago, a job in a tech start-up specializing in software for high-end hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants brought him to Tokyo, home to the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. “There are so many things to do, learn and discover here,” he says. “I need a few lifetimes, maybe more, to fully absorb everything.”
Among the newest attractions in town is the Japan Olympic Museum, which opened in September last year right beside the National Stadium. The exhibits trace the history of the modern Olympics ever since Baron de Coubertin, a Frenchman, founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894, which then led to the 1896 Summer Games in Athens, the ancient home of the Games. Other exhibits trace how far Japan has come since it first hosted the Olympics in 1964, just under 20 years after the end of the war. There are even interactive displays that allow guests to measure their skills — such as discus throwing — against established records. But what is most riveting, and most important, about the museum are all the intangibles that it houses. A video of moving sports moments projected onto the wall of the main lobby sets the tone. The Olympics have never lacked for dramatic moments, and here — amid the displays of records set and shattered, true grit and the human spirit, the camaraderie shared in a global village for over two weeks — you can feel an entire range of emotions than runs from the heartbreak of defeat to the ecstasy of victory.
Preparations for the Games have also made the city far easier for tourists to navigate. In 2016, the JR East Railway Company adopted the station numbering system, assigning stations with codes of two letters and two digits for easier navigation. JR East operates the Yamanote Loop Line — which stops at places like Harajuku (JY19; J for JR and Y for Yamanote) — perhaps the most useful train servicefor tourists. This year, JR East added a new station, Takanawa Gateway, to help ferry the large number of tourists around the city. The station was also designed by Kengo Kuma.
“The independence that a sense of safety and security gives you is something I greatly appreciate about Tokyo,” says Angelique Amable Shimo, who has lived in the city since she was nine. “From a young age, my parents allowed me to take public transportation and explore neighborhoods by myself.” Tamaka Takefushi, a producer for a creative agency in Tokyo, shares a similar sentiment. “There’s so much to appreciate in the city — the history, the amazing food options, the color, the old and new co-existing,” she says. All of that, underpinned by the sense of efficiency and safety, makes the Japanese capital easy to enjoy.
“Hopefully the Olympics allow people to get to know this country more.” Tamaka, who finds respite from the crowded city in its numerous green parks, is only peripherally aware of the preparations as they continue apace. It’s nearly impossible to ignore the building frenzy, but in a metropolis where there’s always something going on and a constant flow of tourists down the main avenues, you can be forgiven for taking the buzz as a given.
By contrast, Joan is a keen follower of the Games’ preparation progress. He’s also looking forward to the Nippon Festival, a cultural extravaganza that will run from April to September, parallel to the Olympics and the Paralympic Games. “There’s so much going on,” he says, “but I’m really excited for when they send Gundam model toys for a spacewalk at the end of April.” Faster, higher, stronger? That’s Tokyo taking the Olympic motto to a whole new level.
Five New Sports to Watch
The 32nd Olympiad will see action in 33 sports, including five debuting this year.
- Skateboarding — Street culture arrives at the Olympics in two disciplines: Park, which will be judged mainly on mid-air tricks, and Street, which features a sequence of handrails, benches, stairs and slopes that a skater will need to clear.
- Sport Climbing — The sport will feature three disciplines: Speed, which will pit climbers against each other on a 12m wall; Bouldering, which will require clearing a number of fixed routes on a 4m wall; and Lead, which will require athletes to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 12m in height.
- Surfing — Surfing events will take place at Tsurigasaki Beach, 96km southeast of Tokyo. Judges will rate surfers on shortboards based on a set of criteria, and on two of a surfer’s highest scoring waves, which go toward their heat result.
- Karate — The combat sport will be contested in two disciplines: kata, a solo demonstration of form and technique, and kumite, or sparring with an actual opponent.
- Baseball and Softball — As the host country, Japan enjoys some perks, including adding some sports to the roster. After missing in action for two Games, baseball — the most popular sport in Japan — is back as a men’s event. Women’s bat-and-ball teams will play softball.
Symbols for Sustainability
The Tokyo 2020 Games are standing up for the earth.
• All 5,000 or so Olympic and Paralympic medals are made of metals from discarded electronic devices, including 6.21 million mobile phones.
• The podiums on which winners will stand during awarding ceremonies will be made entirely from discarded plastic shampoo bottles.
• The Olympic torch has been fashioned using aluminum from temporary housing built in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
• The Athletes’ Village, the official hangout spot for athletes, coaches and managers is built using responsibly sourced timber donated by 63 municipalities.
• Each piece of wood is stamped for provenance. After the Games, the village will be dismantled and the wood sent back to their donors for repurposing.
This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Smile magazine.