Japanese architecture is a lofty subject, considering Japan is home to renowned temples that have stood for centuries as well as up-and-coming design talent keen on envelope-pushing futuristic design. The juxtaposition of newer buildings against historic and religiously significant temples is wholly unsurprising in Japan, a country known just as much for innovation and forward momentum as it is for preservation of its roots. While all the guidebooks and walking tours will take you to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagano’s most important temples, they might not highlight the more recent Japanese architectural feats.
Here, a design lovers’ guide to the best of modern Japanese architecture.
Benesse House Museum, Naoshima
For art lovers who gravitate toward spaces like The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, not just for the art but for the building it’s housed within, Japan’s Benesse House Museum is for you. The Naoshima museum, designed by Tadao Ando, sets contemporary architecture right along the Seto Inland Sea. Using primarily concrete, Ando uses distinctive lines with interspersed natural elements to ultimately create the four parts of Benesse House: the Museum, the Oval, the Park, and the Beach.
Birch Moss Chapel, Nagano
This 2015 Nagano chapel proves one important truth: size isn’t everything when it comes to achieving architectural acclaim. Birch Moss Chapel, by Kengo Kuma & Associates—also known for their design of the forthcoming 1 Hotel Paris and Scotland’s V&A Dundee, among others—is 710-square-feet. Within the Karuizawa New Art Museum, this awe-inspiring chapel is enclosed in glass, including a glass ceiling, and supported by interspersed birch trees and steel beams. With moss flooring both inside and outside the chapel, it really does feel as though you’re walking through a transcendent space.
When the Tokyo Skytree was completed in 2012, it became Japan’s tallest building at 634 meters (2,080 feet) high. In Sumida City, the Skytree is a broadcasting tower as well as a popular Tokyo attraction. The monumental building has two observation decks—Tembo Deck at 1,150 feet up and Tembo Galleria at 1,475 feet—where on a clear day, you can catch a coveted glimpse of Mount Fuji. Completed by Ōbayashi Corp., thousands of woven beams comprise the slender, futuristic-looking structure.
Ribbon Chapel, Hiroshima
Hiroshima’s Ribbon Chapel is a sought-after wedding venue because the 2013 structure depicts two ribbons becoming one. The award-winning chapel, designed by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP Architects, is perched overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. Built to be part of the Bella Vista Spa & Marina Onomichi hotel, the chapel’s ground floor, beneath two colliding ribbons, offers panoramic views of the surrounding woods. The ribbons are actually self-supporting staircases—typically the bride ascends one, the groom ascends the other, and they meet at the top where the ribbons connect with a view of the forest-lined hills and the sea below.
Louis Vuitton Tokyo Matsuya Ginza
The facades found in Ginza, an upscale shopping district of Tokyo, are artistically remarkable. And it’s often the high-end brands that take it upon themselves to enrich Ginza’s design with impressive artistry. Louis Vuitton’s Ginza flagship facade renewal, completed by prized design studio Jun Aoki & Associates in 2013, covers the store in an off-white aluminum shell with deliberate perforations and repeating patterns. It was largely inspired by the Art Deco facades of Ginza’s past.
Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Tokyo
If you caught a glimpse of Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, you might think you’d seen London’s famous 30 St Mary Axe skyscraper—aka The Gherkin. That’s because Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower also has distinctive lattice-woven beams and unique curvatures. But standing in front of the Shinjuku tower, completed in 2008 by Tange Associates, the inspiration for the high-concept design is clear: it’s a cocoon. The cocoon draws on the theme of incubating, because the tower houses three schools, Tokyo Mode Gakuen, HAL Tokyo, and Shuto Iko, training students of fashion, technology, and medicine, respectively.
Kyoto Botanical Garden Conservatory
While the Kyoto Botanical Gardens date back to 1924, the conservatory was a new addition in 1992 and the design was inspired by the undulating mountains of Kyoto and the city’s Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji. The modernized pavilion features steel beam-supported glass dome ceilings, which allow sun to pour in and satiate the 4,500 plant species that reside here. With 10 different rooms, zones, and micro-climates, the conservatory design is enhanced by the lush greenery within.
The National Art Center Tokyo
The National Art Center in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood was designed by renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa as one of the country’s largest exhibition centers. With 12 galleries, and an eye-catching waved exterior, the National Art Center anchors the Roppongi and Roppongi Hills’ art scene, and is not far from the Mori Art Museum. The space, which is flanked by public green space and invites light to pour in through skylights, is exceptionally modern, using primarily glass and concrete to make a statement. Because The National Art Center has no permanent collections, only rotating exhibitions, the galleries are designed with maximum adaptability, forgoing pillars for movable walls to easily partition exhibition space.
Namba Parks, Osaka
Half mall, half urban jungle, Namba Parks is a tiered complex that weaves public green space into its design. Dubbed “Parks,” the Osaka lifestyle center’s outdoor areas come alive with enormous potted plants and beautiful flowering vegetation. Designed to resemble a canyon, the tiers and waved facades enhance the slot canyon feel. Situated in the heart of Osaka’s business district, the eight-acre, open-air complex was completed in 2003 by Los Angeles-based architecture firm JERDE, and sought to effectively use the outdoor terraces and rooftops to root natural beauty amidst concrete.