Terunobu Fujimori’s Tokyo
Terunobu Fujimori’s Tokyo

Terunobu Fujimori is one of Japan’s most influential architects and has charmed the world with his playful tree houses and tea huts. A longtime resident of Tokyo, he cherishes the mega-city’s traditional neighbourhoods, which remind him of village life in the countryside where he grew up. With new projects on the way in Japan, Europe and Taiwan, the former Tokyo University professor recently finished “Storkhouse” – a micro-hotel in Raiding, Austria, the birthplace of composer Franz Liszt.


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Dandelyon's House
Roland Hagenberg

In Tokyo’s concrete-fueled construction world Fujimori has no enemies, no competitors, no envious colleagues. And why should he? His creations are made of wood, earth, plants and stones, and often sit on top of trees.

Sometimes he builds houses with his own hands, or “together with friends,” as he emphasises. His sense of humor and his humble approach to his profession are legendary and have drawn to him environmentalists, writers, artists, Buddhist priests, philosophers and luminaries like Morihiro Hosokawa. Hosokawa, the former Prime Minister of Japan who now devotes his life to pottery making and recently ran for the office of governor of Tokyo, asked Fujimori to build his studio and an adjacent teahouse in a tree.

“My work is all about keeping the fun of childhood alive,” says Fujimori.”I guess that’s why people can relate to my work instantaneously.”

And not only people. In the village of Raiding in Austria storks began nesting on top of his new building, as soon as construction was finished. Accordingly, Fujimori called the structure “Storkhouse”.


Downstairs accommodates four “human guests” and on top a family of migratory birds that arrive each summer from Africa. The Japanese architect often warns that just planting trees on top of city buildings is – ecologically speaking – not necessarily an ideal solution for a metropolis like Tokyo.
 “We should never forget that plants are uncontrollable and stubborn. Even Corbusier came to the conclusion that plants and architecture can’t be reconciled. All architects know that, but they are afraid to say it.” Fujimori’s solution is to keep the traditional neighbourhoods between skyscrapers in Tokyo alive – and boost the growth of plants in parks and gardens there. Esensual Living catches up with the unconventional architect to find out about his favourite spots in Tokyo.

Esensual Living: What distinguishes Tokyo from any other city in the world?
Terunobu Fujimori: First of all its density – 35 million people on scarce land. Second, it is a modern metropolis built around an emperor’s palace. And third, living under the constant threat of a major earthquake. All together this requires exceptional talent for transport, interaction and communication.

EL: What is it that gives Tokyo its unique magic?
TF: I think, its untouched green centre where the imperial family lives. It is the heart of all centres in Tokyo. No other city has this arrangement where dozens of different city centres packed with skyscrapers circle a traditional palace. There is also magic in the fact that if you walk ten minutes away from a skyscraper you end up in the middle of a neighborhood with small family houses and tiny gardens.

EL: How would you describe life in Tokyo?
TF: Despite its density and speed you can always find a small retreat somewhere, where people respect your privacy and nobody will bother you.

EL: Tokyo in three words?
TF: Traditional. Modern. Organised.

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Storckhouse interior
Philipp Freidl
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Storckhouse exterior
Philipp Freidl

EL: What is your favourite view?
TF: The Rainbow Bridge spanning Tokyo Bay with its fantastic cityscape lit up by night.

EL: What is your favourite neighborhood and why?
TF: “Kunitachi”, the local neighborhood in the western part of Tokyo where I have my house and studio. I love to take walks, and this area feels like being in a countryside village. There are thousands of places like this, which foreigners cannot imagine, if they have never been in Tokyo.

EL: Describe Tokyo’s food culture – which local dishes are a must-try?
TF: Of course there is sushi – raw fish dishes fresh from the world’s biggest fish market in Tsukiji. Personally, I prefer fruit and vegetables, so I recommend shojin ryori – the ancient vegetarian recipes that Buddhist priests brought to Japan from China. Shojin ryori is prepared with vegetables cooked only in water, not oil. You can have a dinner of leaves and grasses, and can experience more tastes and flavors than with a full western dish.

EL: Describe your perfect night out in Tokyo.
TF: Actually, I don’t go out at night, unless there are exhibition openings. But my children like to go to districts like Daikanyama, Shibuya and Aoyama.


EL: Who are your favourite local artists and why?
TF: Keiji Ito, whom I admire very much. His ceramics remind me of an ancient time in Japan, like the Jomon period. The work of Setsuko Nagasawa is also very interesting. She created black pottery mixed with ashes for my Storkhouse in Raiding, the small village in Austria where composer Franz Liszt was born.

EL: What aspect of Tokyo’s cultural scene stands out most?
TF: Modern art. I admire how artists struggle to invent new worlds in the confined spaces of Tokyo.

EL: How would you describe the evolution of Tokyo’s architecture and urbanisation?
TF: Although it is based on uncontrolled evolution, the city as a whole functions perfectly like clockwork nevertheless. Comparedto western cities, it leaves more room for experimentation in modern architecture. If you have a skyscraper, temple, family house, highway bridge and a museum only separated by 40 centimeters, the distance required between each building in Tokyo, you might question its aesthetics, but the fact is this surreal situation, can create its own beauty.

EL: What is your favourite building in Tokyo?
TF: The Tokyo Station Building by Tatsuno Kingo built in 1914. It was recently restored and 400,000 people pass through it every day. People say Kingo was inspired by Amsterdam’s main station, but I don’t think so. I studied his work. He had his own distinctive style, which paved the way for modern Japanese architecture. That’s why I love this structure.

EL: Is ecological awareness an important factor in Tokyo’s development and lifestyle?
TF: As I explained earlier, Tokyo’s development is uncontrolled. If it were not for the thousands of small village-like neighborhoods dispersed throughout the metropolis, the ecological aspect would be invisible. Of course, today ecology is part of any architecture and urban development project – it must be. Not to be part of it would be politically incorrect.

EL: What is your favourite food market?
TF: We don’t have open food markets comparable to those in Europe, but we have excellent food sections in the basement of all of our department stores. There you can find anything that you want to eat from every country in the world. No food market in the world can match those of our department stores. My favorites are at the Mitsukoshi and Isetan department stores.

EL: What do you do to relax and unwind in Tokyo?
TF: I go for a walk in my neighborhood in Kokubunji Park where there are still traces of an old temple.

EL: Your favourite city escape?
TF: To escape, I take the Shinkansen super express and visit the village in Nagano where I grew up, located near the town of Chino. My parents are over 90 years old and they still live there.

EL: When in Tokyo, what can you not live without?
TF: The small parks.

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Tea House (with Cherry trees)
Akihisa Masuda
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The Imperial Viking Sal
Imperial Hotel Tokyo


The Imperial Viking Sal

I always take breakfast in my house, which I designed myself. If I take out friends for breakfast, I prefer the classic atmosphere of the Imperial Viking Sal at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo (Teikoku Hotel).





Kokubunji Shop

The place where famous Japanese writer Osamu Dasai always used to have his lunch. It is one of the best eel restaurants in Tokyo.


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Kokubunji Shop
Nicolas Ouchenir
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Ukai Toriyama


Ukai Toriyama

Ukai Toriyama, set in a Japanese garden, with houses built like in ancient Japan, covered with reed. The food is traditional Japanese.




The Colorado

The “Colorado”, it is actually a chain of cafes, casual, good coffee, unassuming.


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The Colorado
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the Peak Lounge
Park Hyatt


The Peak Lounge at Park Hyatt in Shinjuku

I personally don’t drink, but a wonderful bar I can recommend is the Peak Lounge at Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. It is the place where “Lost in Translation” was filmed.




Idemitsu Museum of Arts Since

I am an architectural historian, I love the Idemitsu Museum of Arts with its fantastic collection of classic Japanese gold screen-paintings, calligraphy and pottery. Every time I go there, I feel like living in a mystical bygone era.


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Idemitsu Museum of Arts
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The Maruzen bookshop


The Maruzen bookshop The Maruzen bookshop

It was established originally in 1869 by Yuteki Hayashi in Yokohama, who helped introduce Western culture in Japan. The store has a rich history. For instance, in 1902, it brought the first Encyclopedia Britannica to Japan and, in 1918, the first keyboard calculators from America. Today you can find any conceivable book there.




Gallery Ma

I like the store at Gallery Ma, which is Japan’s foremost exhibition space for modern architecture and supported by the sanitation manufacturer TOTO. It features books, catalogues, gifts and stationary, all carefully selected.


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Gallery Ma
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The Gotohana Store


The Gotohana Store

The Gotohana Store, its branch at the Takashimaya department store. If you see it, you want to become a gardener yourself.




The Nakajima Suisan

The Nakajima Suisan fresh fish market in Tsukiji and the basement foodhalls at the Mitsukoshi and Isetan department stores.


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The Nakajima Suisan
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The Tokyo Station Hotel


The Tokyo Station Hotel

The Tokyo Station Building by Tatsuno Kingo was built 100 years ago and recently restored. 400,000 people pass through it every day. People say, Kingo was inspired by Amsterdam’s main station, but I don’t think so. I studied his work. He had his own distinctive style. I love the majestic brick-structure of Tokyo Station Building, because it paved the way for modern Japanese architecture to come.



Words by Roland Hangenberg

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