Top-floor Tokyo

Up on the city's roofs, a wealth of opportunities for both business and pleasure are beginning to be realized

by Setsuko Kamiya

It was 10:30 on a cloudy weekday morning in May, and 40-year-old Masakazu Meguro and his coworkers who make up Calcio Atleta las Manos were happily spending the morning of their precious day off to playing “futsal.”

Sounds like just another one of the hundreds of enthusiastic five-member soccer teams out there? Perhaps, except that they were playing smack in the center of the teeming area near JR Shibuya Station. In fact, they were very close to the statue of the dog just outside the Hachiko Exit — only vertically.

Just 40 meters above ground, there is an atmosphere completely different from the hectic world of street-level Tokyo.

Ever since its debut in July 2001, Adidas Football Park Shibuya, on the roof of the Tokyu Toyoko department store adjoining the station, has been a popular venue for many futsal freaks.

“Since I’m so focused on the game, I don’t feel anything different playing up here from playing on other pitches on the ground, but the turnout here is often better than usual because we can get here with our commuter train pass,” said Meguro, an employee of a retailer in the neighborhood who would usually be one of the thousands down there cramming the streets.

Altogether, an amazing 457 teams have registered to use the futsal court both night and day — so competition to reserve the ground is tough. The company also runs regular children’s futsal classes, and these, too, are booked to capacity by kids who have easy access to Shibuya.

Ward in the air

The idea of locating a futsal field on top of a building was initially a compromise, according to Atsushi Sakaguchi, general manager of Adidas Football Park Shibuya, which is operated by Tokyu Sports System Co. “It’s very difficult to find sufficient space in the center of the city, and even if we did the chances are it would become a parking lot because those make more money than futsal,” Sakaguchi said. “So we had no choice but to look upward.”

With its success, Sakaguchi said the firm is receiving several offers to expand the business in similar spaces. “Now, it seems that more building owners are interested in making use of their ‘unused space,’ ” he said.

Unused indeed. In fact, some estimates put the total area of unused rooftops in Tokyo’s 23 wards at about the size of Minato Ward, which covers 20.33 sq. km. Astonishingly, in a city where time — and space — are both at a premium, that’s about 3.3 percent of the city’s entire area.

What’s mostly up there on these underutilized rooftops are things like water tanks and huge air-conditioning units, antennas and satellite dishes, or advertisements and signs touting the names of companies and products. Some buildings are even topped off with wind-powered generators, solar panels or vegetation as part of the effort to increase urban greenery and combat urban warming.

However, closer inspection reveals that it’s not always functional stuff that occupies these spaces. Some, like the futsal court in Shibuya, are actually being utilized as space for people. Companies and hospitals have helipads, some elementary and junior high schools have pools or school yards atop their premises, rooftop restaurants and cafes offer great views of the city to add more flavor to dining experience.

The front-runners of those utilizing their rooftops, though, are department stores. Most of these have long used their roofs for marketing or entertainment purposes. In fact, serving as an interesting indicator of changing trends, the Shibuya futsal ground was previously a circuit for radio-controlled model-car racing.

When you visit department stores today, parts of the roofs are often used as retail display areas for plants and gardening tools, or as pet shops with dogs, rabbits, birds and fish and the feed and equipment it takes to keep them.

In addition, many such rooftops have game machines and small rides that kids can go on for as little as 200 yen. Some, too, have stages and chairs for shows and performances put on to attract children. And then there are others operating tennis courts and golf ranges, often offering lessons, while some turn their top-floor-plus-one into beer gardens for the summer.

One thing you will find on almost all department store roofs, though, are Inari gods. Some enshrine other gods besides Inari, but whichever they choose the idea is basically the same — to auger well for business, safety, health and their customers’ happiness. Rituals are held annually, with a Shinto priest going up to pray along with store officials.

Why is it that department stores in particular tend to make good use of their roofs? According to Masakazu Oota, research director at Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, it started off as a way to amuse children — and so attract parents’ cash.

“Department stores were one of the largest facilities in the city to which people of all ages could have equal access, and so they needed to have something to entertain all generations. So rooftop amusements came to play this role for families with kids,” said Oota, who authored a report in 2001 on the usage of department store rooftops.

Today’s rooftop activities, though, are generally far less ambitious in both variety and scale than in the past.

Matsuya Asakusa department store in Taito Ward, for example, was the first among its competitors to install a rooftop amusement park. On its debut in November 1931, the firm also launched its Sports Land, which modeled itself on Western amusement parks such as Coney Island in New York. According to a Matsuya Asakusa spokesman, its rooftop amusement facility was opened to attract more families to shop in the area, which back then was mainly known as an entertainment district for adults.

Misako Sawaguchi, a 76-year-old resident of Nerima Ward who spent her childhood in Taito Ward in the mid-1930s and early ’40s, remembers how excited she was to visit Sports Land on the bus.

“I always looked forward to going on to the rooftops to catch goldfish, play games and eat ice cream. I remember it was always pretty crowded,” she said.

Sawaguchi also recalls visiting Matsuzakaya department store in Ueno, where, amid the rides and the games, there was a cage with monkeys in it. There was also a water tank with otters in it, and visitors were able to feed all the animals, she said. Sawaguchi also recalled a titmouse that, if you paid money, would pick a written oracle for you from a small shrine. “Going to the rooftop amusement park, in addition to the restaurants, was really something I looked forward to when going to department stores,” she said.

After World War II, when department stores reopened for business, rooftop amusement parks began operating again and attracting families to them. In 1950, Matsuya Asakusa even installed a Ferris wheel, while the top of Nihonbashi Takashimaya department store housed a baby elephant named Takako. She was there for nearly four years before being presented to Ueno Zoo. A year later, Tokyu Toyoko department store — where the futsal ground is now — ran a ropeway from one end of its building to the other for a little over a year.

Even after she got married, Sawaguchi said she sometimes took her children to the rooftops of department stores in the 1960s to let them enjoy the miniature train and car rides. However, by the middle of the following decade, the crowds on department-store roofs were already passing their peak.

Uncertain returns

Although mothers with children still go up there these days, the colorfulness and buzz in the atmosphere has largely faded away. And it’s far from crowded.

One major reason for this, said the researcher Oota, is that just as rain, wind or even snow are likely to keep customers away, the uncertainty of the returns may have prevented stores from investing in their rooftops. “It’s too bad that they have forgotten about the roof. It’s such a waste of a precious space with so much freedom to use it for all kinds of purposes,” he said. As well, he pointed to the potential for stores to use their rooftops in ways that connect with the marketing taking place on other floors.

For the time being, although department store rooftops have lost some of the momentum they enjoyed in the past, they are still some of the very few places high above the madding crowds where people can go for free or for very little outlay.

Amid the remaining rides, food stands and gardens up there, most also have simple benches where a few cognoscenti can usually be found eating food bought from the delicatessens in the store’s depa-chika underground food hall, reading their papers or books, simply chatting together or — you guessed it — talking on their cell phones and punching out text messages.

Whether as atolls of relative calm like this, or alive with the yells of futsal fans and players, there’s a certain special feeling and a separateness about being up there that begs the question of why — when the city’s roofs cover such an enormous area, and have so much varied potential — are there not more we can go up onto and enjoy?