TOKYO’s ODAIBA ISLAND

One of the best views of Tokyo – from a giant silver titanium ball at the Fuji building on Odaiba Island in Tokyo Bay

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!

Reach Obaiba Island on a driverless train with the Yurikamome – the front seats are best!
Heading around the island on a driverless train

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 name, Obaiba, comes from an old Japanese word meaning “fort” or “battery”.

A six kilometre journey from central Tokyo will transport you 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.

Obaiba’s Statue of Liberty with the famous Rainbow Bridge in the background
A trick of the eye makes this miniature Statue of Liberty appear larger

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 remain a year later, with the still labelled ‘2020’ Games underway as I write. Odaida Island has morphed into an Olympic island to host beach volleyball at Shiokaze Park, triathlon, rowing, marathon swimming events and gymnastics at a new gymnastics venue. A lot of new sporting history will add another layer of interest in this island
, although as I write this, the Olympics seem to be a day to day challenge with Covid cases rising in Tokyo and the Olympic village itself. So what goes ahead remains to be seen. I’m heartened to hear today that some of the Aussie teams in rowing alongside Obaiba Island are through the heats and into the finals! Oi, Oi, Oi!

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.

Walking to Kenzo Tange’s ultra futuristic Fuji Television building on Odaiba Island

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.

Check what exhibitions are being held when you visit Odaiba Island

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.

Tokyo’s Museum of Maritime Science in a ship like building on Odaiba Island

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 Tokyo Tower.

Aussies checking out the view from the Fuji building giant ball
Looking out from the Titanium Ball to the area with Venus Fort, the Toyota Megaweb and the giant Ferris Wheel

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.

Look closely – there’s Mount Fuji seen from the Titanium Ball observation deck
The giant titanium silver ball with its observation platform

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.

Walking towards the remarkable Fuji Television building

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

Takoyaki Museum,

Madame Tussauds

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 Gundam – a massive 19.7 metre high robot that towers over Tokyo bay. He is a ‘life sized’ replica of the RX-O Unicorn Gundam from the Japanese animation Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn series. I’m a little bit in the dark about him at my age, but anima fans know exactly how he is! Gundam can switch into different modes – Unicorn and Destroyer – with the spectacular transformation happening four times a day. The robot’s armour plates move during the transformation, and at night time there’s an impressive light display from the robot.  He is definitely one of those ‘I’ve got to see that’ attractions!

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.

Venus Fort shopping centre
Venus Fort
Toyota’s Megaweb history museum is within the Venus Fort Centre

Another shopping centre is VenusFort, which was apparently designed to resemble a medieval European Village. Frankly, I don’t get that. It doesn’t look like that to me. Maybe a bit of that little village called Rome? It is worth a visit though, with a lot of high end international brand shops and some great reasonably priced restaurants featuring cuisine from around the world. I even enjoyed some Australian beef here at a steak restaurant! The chips weren’t quite what I expected, and the bib they gave me was oversized! You can find Venus Fort opposite the Toyota Megaweb that I’ve reviewed in another blog story earlier.

Aussie Steak, Chips Japanese style and a bib!

The Tokyo Megaweb is a huge display of Tokyo’s latest vehicles, along with a History Museum. The Megaweb was what first took me to the island, so please check my earlier story on it you haven’t already read it. It includes more detailed information about how to reach the island.

As I wrote in that story, 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!

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