It seemed like a great idea at the time, but Tokyo capsule tower didn’t catch on
By LEON COOK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2017
Tucked amid the expensive apartments and high-end shopping centers of Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district is an oddity of architecture and a vision for a future that never was.
Nakagin Capsule Tower looks more like a stack of washing machines than an apartment building.
The people who built it in under a month in 1972 thought it heralded an age in which cities, like living things, would grow and respond to their environments. However, Nakagin is one of only a few structures produced in accordance with their utopian vision.
It actually consists of two towers — 11 and 13 stories high — with 140 capsules attached. Drivers can easily see the building from the Shuto expressway but might not realize what it is.
Each cube-shaped capsule in the complex measures 107 square feet and has a single porthole-like window and a bathroom comparable to an airplane’s lavatory. They are furnished with a bed, stove, television, mini-fridge and a reel-to-reel tape deck — hot commodities in the early ’70s.
The building has been popular with television producers and filmmakers, from both Japan and overseas. A scene from “The Wolverine,” a 2013 Marvel superhero blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman, was filmed at Nakagin.
The capsules were made 250 miles away by a company that specialized in shipping containers, then trucked to the building and attached with high-tension bolts. The idea was that there would be many such buildings constructed and that people could have their capsules transported if they wanted to move to a different neighborhood.
The capsules were supposed to be replaced every 25 years, but that never happened. It turned out replacing them would’ve been more expensive than putting up a new building from scratch.
They ended up being marketed to overworked salarymen as a place to lay their heads instead of taking the long trip home after a busy day at the office.
In 2007, capsule owners voted to demolish the building, which is on prime real estate, but the financial crisis of 2008 put a halt to the plan. As of 2015, reports said about 15 units were used as residential space.
Despite an uncertain future, you can still sign up for a waiting list to rent a capsule of your own.
However, 10 years after the demolition vote, the towers are rusting, the cubes show signs of water damage and the hot water was shut off in 2010. Vending machines cover a window that used to show a sample room, and a sign on the door warns of consequences for non-tenants entering the premises. The towers are covered with an ugly net put up after a window fell out of its frame a few years ago.
There’s a Facebook group dedicated to saving the building, but land values in Ginza have skyrocketed, which could mean Nakagin’s days are numbered.
Nakagin Capsule Tower
8 Chome 16-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061. It’s about 700 meters from Shimbashi Station.
View the building at any time; however, you’ll have to have an invitation to go inside.
Free to visit
The neighborhood and nearby Shimbashi Station are full of options.