I love visiting Obaiba island. It is cutting edge with very modern open air feel. It’s quite different from the hustle and bustle of nearby central Tokyo. There are various ways to access it, but my favourite is by riding on a driverless train with the Yurikamome, Tokyo’s first fully automated transit system, controlled by computers with no drivers! How cool is that!
The island’s history is fascinating – in fact, Obaiba island once never existed. It is man made, created to defend Tokyo – then known as Edo – from a threatened attack by the USA back in the mid 1800’s! Its Bname, Obaiba, comes from an old Japanese word meaning “fort” or “battery”.
Just six kilometres from central Tokyo, and you will be transported to Obaiba’s world in Tokyo Bay. A showcase for futuristic living, complete with a giant moving robot, fascinating museums, a Tokyo view from the inside of a massive titanium ball, exhibition centres, huge shopping centres, parklands and delightful waterfront areas.
As soon as you arrive on the Island, you are bound to see an interesting replica of America’s famous Statue of Liberty on its shores. It’s much smaller than the original – about 1/7th of the size of the New York statue – but it appears large because it is close to a to a walkway, and has Tokyo’s famous Rainbow suspension bridge in the background. A trick of the eye. The statue is 12.25 meters in height from the pedestal to the top. The Statue celebrates Japan’s ties with France, which gifted the original to the USA.
In the mid 1800’s, the Americans sailed to what is now known as Tokyo Bay and threatened to destroy Tokyo – then known as Edo – burning it to the ground ,by firing on it from their ships, unless the Tokugawa Shogunate agreed to trade with the USA.
The Shogunate had maintained a tight rein on trade with a small group of countries for 200 years. America wasn’t one of the chosen trading partners. It wanted in, and it made it clear it would use force if necessary. Nor did it want to follow the rules set down for foreigners by Japan in their land.
To demonstrate its fire power, the USA sent four ships to Japan under the Command of Commodore Matthew Perry. They dropped anchor at Uraga, near the entrance of Tokyo Bay, and Perry demanded he be allowed to land to deliver a letter from the American President to the Emperor.
Foreigners in Japan were restricted to certain areas of the country and could only visit Edo with a special invitation. Perry would have none of that, and his arrival near Edo presented a threatening sight.
The Shogunate had never seen such fearsome ships, belching black smoke, moving under their own power with any sail. They quickly were dubbed ‘the black ships’ by the Japanese. Armed with 61 guns, the ships had around one thousand men aboard.
Although Perry never did get to meet the Emperor on that first visit, Japan took the American threat very seriously and eventually allowed him to land to accept the letter. Edo was then the biggest city in the world, and had more sophisticated systems for services such as the delivery of water and drainage than Paris or London. But it had an archilles heel.
Outside the massive stone walls of Edo Castle – today the Imperial Palace – the City was mainly comprised of wooden buildings and highly susceptible to fire.
The threatened American attack and the possibility of a fire ravaged city was put on hold by appeasing Perry, allowing him to come ashore briefly. However, he announced he would return within a year, and when he did, he was supported by a much bigger fleet of eight ships to force a trade agreement.
Between the two visits, the Shogunate put shoulders to the shovel and created Obaida island in the Bay as a fortification to help protect Edo if the Americans followed through with its threats to attack.
In the end, Japan submitted to the American demands and the city was saved. Obaida Island was not needed as a fortification, and its future would be quite different than first anticipated.
In a twist of fate, the USA would raze the city to the ground using fire power almost 100 years later in WW2. Most of Tokyo was burnt down in a series of napalm fire bombing raids by America, resulting in a greater loss of life than experienced in the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – 100,000 people in one fire bomb raid alone.
Development of Odaiba island was a stop/go affair as various plans hit financial difficulties. But by the 1990’s, the island finally found its way as new plans went ahead to developed Odaiba into a futuristic Tokyo teleport town and showcase. By 2020, there was a new focus as the iconic Olympic Rings were installed at Odaiba’s Marine Park ahead of the ill fated Covid plagued Games.
The rings remained a year later, with the still labelled ‘2020’ Games finally underway in 2021.
Odaida Island morphed into an Olympic island to host beach volleyball at Shiokaze Park, triathlon, rowing, marathon swimming events and gymnastics at a new gymnastics venue. This new sporting history adding another layer of interest in this island.
I find Odaiba Island a relaxing and refreshing place to roam, where on a weekday you are not hemmed in by crowds. I haven’t visited on a weekend. I suspect it would a lot more busy! Definitely a weekday visit is my tip.
There is so much to see on the island. You need much more than a day there – depending on your interests. There are museums – even one that appears to be in a ship. There are major exhibition areas, buildings that set new standards in architecture, a famous giant anima robot that moves, state of the art shopping malls, hotels, and beaches.
The ship like museum is Japan’s Museum of Maritime Science, housed in a building modelled after the famous British liner Queen Elizabeth 2. Its exhibits include a submarine and a PC-18 submersible, a wooden fishing boat and a couple of lighthouses. You can even see an original icebreaker, moored alongside the museum. Admission is free.
One of the loveliest views you can get of Tokyo is accessed from a giant titanium silver ball at the remarkable Fuji Television building on the island. I much prefer this to other view points such as the more well known and much more crowded Tokyo Tower.
The ball measures 32 metres in diameter and weighs 1,350 tons. Inside is an observation platform open to the public, where you can enjoy an amazing panoramic view of Tokyo and – on a good day – Mount Fuji in the distance.
The Fuji building itself is an architectural triumph by the late Kenzo Tange and reflects the amazing skills in modern Japanese architecture – 25 storeys high connected with enclosed pedestrian bridges called sky corridors that strengthen the structure, making it highly earthquake resistant. The corridors are supported by steel columns. There’s lots of other interesting features about the building, such as the use of glass wool insulation to improve acoustic performance in its studios floors, walls and ceilings.
Apparently getting the titanium ball into the building was a major engineering feat which took more than nine hours.
Other attractions include the Panasonic Centre where you can see Panasonic’s latest products. It includes AkeruE, a science and art museum dedicated to enrich children’s creative experiences. I’ve only been to the Island twice so far on Tokyo visits, so I’m unable to review the host of other places of interest such as:
Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
Legoland Discovery Center
The Water Science Museum for children
There’s even a Museum dedicated to sewerage! It’s housed in a building that looks a bit to me like a spaceship. It’s certainly one of Tokyo’s most unusual museums, and is an attraction for the whole family, with a special focus for children.
And then there’s Unicorn Gundam – if you are into pop culture and amimae, you’ll know what I’m talking about. A 19.7 metre tall life size replication of the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam from the novel and OVA Mobile Suit Gundam.
The Gundam is usually in Unicorn mode, marked by a white frame with a single antenna protruding from its head. But at certain times, At specified times, it goes into the Destroy mode, where its frame expands and glows pink. Even if you don’t know what I’m talking about, put this one into your discovery list. It’s amazing.
You will find him on the south side of the DiverCity Tokyo Plaza, one of the big shopping centres on the Island. DiverCity has a theatrical theme, many Japanese souvenir shops and Japanese restaurants. It includes plenty of information in English, and is very tourist friendly.
Odaiba Island is very easy to get to from central Tokyo. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, my choice of transport there is a scenic half an hour train ride on the Yurikamome futuristic driverless train. It’s a good way to ease yourself into the idea of one day owning a driverless car!
As for me – well, when Covid permits I’ll be back holidaying in Japan – and Odaiba Island will be on my itinerary to explore more!