Japan's Visionary Architect: 9 Must-See Buildings by Kengo Kuma

Those who appreciate good design undoubtedly have Kengo Kuma on their radar. The sole architect in Times’ “Most Influential People of 2021,” Kengo Kuma has given the streets of Japan new life through his unique perspectives and creative aesthetics. From his wealth of works dotting the country, we’ve selected 9 particularly remarkable buildings sure to spice up your trip!

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Japan National Stadium

While already loved by those in the know, Kengo Kuma’s design of the 68,000-seat Japan National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics really put his name onto the world stage. Integrating greenery with man-made materials, the thoughtful design wowed audiences as it was unveiled during the dazzling Opening Ceremony.

The most stand-out feature of the Japan National Stadium are the wooden eaves made from timber procured from prefectures across Japan, offering a refreshing, soothing contrast from the endless concrete of Tokyo. The edges of each level contain around 47,000 plants, providing natural circulation and a slice of wilderness for a quick escape from the world’s biggest metropolis.

Takanawa Gateway Station

When exploring Tokyo, you will more than likely use the super-convenient Yamanote Line. While it’s tempting to make a bee-line straight for your destination after getting off, Yamanote's newest stop, Takanawa Gateway Station, is well worth a moment of your time.

Designed by Kengo Kuma and opened in 2020, Takanawa Gateway Station has an energizing, welcoming aesthetic mixing traditional Japanese sensibilities with modern flair. Boasting cedarwood from the Tohoku region, its spacious, breathable interior is a welcome respite from the intense Tokyo rush hour.

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Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center

After checking out the renowned Senso-ji Temple, head down the street to the Kengo Kuma-designed Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center to discover more about how to make the most of this iconic Tokyo neighborhood.

The center is composed of seven differently shaped floors stacked on top of each other, forming a jumbled, asymmetrical structure that somehow feels perfectly balanced at the same time. Complementing the nearby temple, the blending of these two contradictory spaces is a testament to the boldness of Kuma's creativity.

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Sunny Hills

Hailing from Taiwan, Sunny Hills is a popular pineapple cake shop located in the fashionable district of Minami-Aoyama. Alongside scrumptious cakes, its jaw-dropping design is a visual feast for the eyes. Adhering to Kengo Kuma’s penchant for wood, Sunny Hills is completely covered by timber sticks interwoven to form his signature lattice structures.

Some think the building looks like woven cloth, while others interpret it as a nest. Regardless of what it represents, all who enter find it utterly serene and hospitable.


Nezu Museum

After patronizing Sunny Hills Japan, walk 5 mins to the nearby Nezu Museum, which is also in Minami-Aoyama. Bolstered by Kengo Kuma’s elegant design, the Nezu Museum is a haven for art aficionados, housing a diverse collection of Japanese and Asian pre-modern art.

Kuma leads you on a relaxing journey down a long outdoor path to the entrance. With bamboo-clad walls, it feels almost like the famous bamboo forest of Arashiyama in Kyoto. Once inside, be prepared to stare transfixed at the double-height interiors and glass walls enhanced by the latest display and lighting technology. All the better to put you in the mood for art!

Starbucks Coffee Dazaifu Tenmangu Omotesando Store

Enshrining the deity of learning, Dazaifu Tenmangu attracts hordes of students and parents every year praying for good luck in exams. Nestled amongst the bustling shrine path is Starbucks Coffee Dazaifu Tenmangu Omotesando, a one-of-a-kind Starbucks designed by Kengo Kuma.

Similarly to Sunny Hills, this Starbucks comprises a facade of wooden sticks beautifully woven in diagonal formations. Perfectly harmonized with the surrounding architecture, these 2,000 cedar sticks form an intriguing man-made forest catching the eye of all who pass by.

Toyama Kirari

Kengo Kuma is at his best when constructing community spaces, with his sensitive design never failing to consider the needs of local residents. The pinnacle of this is Toyama Kirari in Toyama City, a bustling mini-ecosystem showcasing the best of the city while supporting the lives of locals.

This one-stop destination has a museum, cafe, exhibition space, library, bank, and more. With a diagonal void in the center, each feels connected yet independent, with wide windows bathing them all in natural light. The exterior is made of glass, aluminum, and granite produced in Toyama, which reflect differently at each angle to ensure this landmark always catches the eye.

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For the diehard Kengo Kuma fan, the sleepy town of Yusuhara is paradise. Deep in the mountains of Kochi on the island of Shikoku, here lie a whopping five different Kengo Kuma buildings adorning the quaint, idyllic streets.

Kuma settled on Yusuhara as a place to unleash his creativity after being inspired by the town’s traditional theater. He started with the Kumo no Ueno Hotel in 1994 before continuing with several structures supporting the life of locals, such as the Town Office, Integrated Welfare Facility, and Town Library. Each flaunts several signature Kuma classics, such as the warm wooden tones, ample natural light, and seamless integration with the surrounding environment. All buildings can be toured on foot within an hour, making it well worth the trip despite the town’s isolation and lack of public transportation.

Toilets At Oath Hill Park

Oath Hill Park offers one of the most majestic views of Mt. Fuji in Japan. Placed alongside the famous “Kintaro Fujimi Line” scenic road in Shizuoka, this little park has exploded in popularity after the introduction of toilets and arbors designed by Kengo Kuma and Associates.

These twin umbrella canopies, inspired by Mount Fuji, serve to give the formerly bland park some unique charm of its own, while allowing tired travelers, cyclists, and hikers a comfortable place to answer nature’s call and soak in the views afterwards.

Explore Japan Through Architecture

Touring the buildings of Kengo Kuma is a great way to jazz up your trip to Japan. Diligently serving the public with places to rest, learn, stay, have fun, and socialize, they will give you a newfound appreciation for both the urban and natural landscapes of Japan. Along with our selection, there are loads of other Kengo Kuma masterpieces to discover all throughout the country, such as the swanky Tokyo hotel ONE@Tokyo and Nagaoka City Hall Aore in Niigata. If you’ve seen more than enough shrines, temples, and neon-lit alleyways, tracking down the creations of Kengo Kuma and Associates is a fantastic way to rediscover Japan!

Top image: Nattakit Jeerapatmaitree / Shutterstock.com

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Kai Le
Kai Le took part in the Japan Exchange Teaching programme as an Assistant Language Teacher and had the best two years of his life. Even though he has since returned to Singapore, he remains passionate about all things Japanese, not least because he married a capable Japanese lady and has two wonderful bicultural children. Besides writing and Japan, he is passionate about reading, Netflix, and cryptocurrency.
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