Eye in the sky: Climbing the new Tokyo Skytree

Eye in the sky: Climbing the new Tokyo Skytree

We join the first Western media group to scale the world’s tallest tower
Tokyo Skytree
Three years after beginning construction in 2008, Tokyo Skytree is now officially the world's highest tower.

I don’t often feel short in Tokyo -- I’m practically a giant here at 190 centimeters. But standing under the new Tokyo Skytree makes me feel positively miniscule.

At 634 meters, the Skytree is now the tallest tower in the world. It’s as imposing as Godzilla but multiple monsters in height. So, when owner Tobu Railway invited press to this steel colossus in Sumida Ward near Asakusa, I jumped at the chance.

I’d seen it from afar many times, but was still hit by an ant-versus-mountain awe I got at the bottom. Donning a hard hat, I walked through a forest of giant steel tubes -- the Skytree’s exterior steel mesh -- into the unfinished lobby.

An express elevator whisked me up to the first observation deck at 350 meters in less than a minute.

Cheaper than a helicopter

The view is a visual tsunami -- Tokyo spreads out to the horizon like a vast circuit board, with Mount Fuji lording over all on clear days.

It’s a 360-degree helicopter panorama on the cheap: When it officially opens in May 2012 as a broadcast tower for digital TV and radio, admission will be ¥2,000 to the first observation deck, and an extra ¥1,000 for the second, at 450 meters up. It was off-limits when I visited, but will feature an “air corridor” glass outer walkway.

As one of the world’s highest observation decks, it’s sure to be a ticket to vertigo.

More on CNNGO: Watching Tokyo Skytree grow

Eyeing Tokyo Bay from my lofty perch, I couldn’t help but think about earthquakes. Tokyo rides a tectonic bronco and is overdue for a big jolt. Building a stovepipe over half a kilometer tall seems insane, not to mention the fact that the ground below it is about as strong as tofu.

Standing up to quakes

Tokyo SkytreeThe tower dwarfs everything in this quaint old part of Tokyo, even the newlyweds in kimono.

“The anti-quake measures in this structure can reduce quake vibrations by 50 percent,” says Hirotake Takanishi, PR manager for Tobu Tower Skytree.

“We’ve run simulations showing the Sky Tree will withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, and can withstand even stronger ones, but we can’t say definitely what its upper limit is.”

Takanishi pointed to an ancient construction technology borrowed from Japanese temples that’s at the center of the tower.

The shimbashira is a central column of reinforced concrete that is structurally separate from the exterior steel truss. It acts as a counterweight when the tower sways. Engineers are confident because five-storied pagodas with shimbashira columns have never been toppled by quakes in Japan.

The Skytree suffered virtually no damage in the March 11 quake and aftershocks that hit Tohoku as well as the Kanto area. Obayashi Corporation, which began construction in July 2008, continued after a brief delay and the Sky Tree will be complete in February 2012.

It’s already transforming the sleepy Shitamachi neighborhood of Narihirabashi into a major tourist draw, and will add a 31-story office tower, restaurants and the inevitable slew of souvenir shops. Think Tokyo Tower on steroids.

“If visitors come and see the local area and not just the Skytree complex, that will be positive,” says Shinkichi Tani, a retiree who lives in nearby Azumabashi.

“People have started flocking here since it topped Tokyo Tower in height, and there’s no sign of it stopping.”

Tani is making the best of his new neighbor by loaning visitors a free convex mirror that reflects the tower for souvenir snapshots. It’s the only spot around that actually makes the Sky Tree look small.

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Getting there: Opening May 22, 2012, the Tokyo Skytree can be accessed from Narihirabashi Station on the Tobu Isesaki Line (the station name will change to Tokyo Skytree Station) or Oshiage Station on the Hanzomon and Asakusa subway lines.

The best times to visit will be winter days in January and February, when Tokyo’s usual haze is minimal, or at night when the skyline, as well as the tower itself, lights up. Admission to the topmost observation deck costs ¥3,000 for adults; children pay ¥900-¥2,300 depending on age.      

Author and journalist Tim Hornyak has been covering Japanese culture and technology for over a decade, and has traveled throughout the archipelago.

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