More than 500,000 people on average use Tokyo Station every day. Handling express trains to Narita International Airport, bullet trains to destinations around Honshu and myriad regional commuter lines, it is one of the busiest stations in the country based on the number of trains that arrive and depart each day.

Given its location at the heart of the nation’s capital, perhaps this isn’t altogether surprising. Situated a short walk from Nihonbashi, the station faces the Imperial Palace to the west, and is connected to the Emperor’s residence by a short road that leads directly to the center of the terminal.

Tokyo Station has certainly witnessed a turbulent history, surviving the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and two world wars as well as celebrating a successful Olympic Games and the launch of the country’s first shinkansen. On Dec. 20, the “gateway to the capital” commemorates another milestone — its 100th anniversary.

“Tokyo Station is not just a station, it is a symbol of Japan,” says Takeshi Miyata of The Railway Museum. “It has always been a part of progress in rail technology but it’s much more important than that. It is a landmark that represents Japan.”

Japan’s rail history dates back to 1872, when the country’s first railway line was constructed between Shinbashi and Yokohama in a bid to give Tokyo access to the port facilities located farther south.

The government gradually expanded the network and opened Ueno Station in 1883 to service areas in Saitama Prefecture such as Kumagaya, which subsequently enabled a connection to be developed to the Tohoku region. West of the Imperial Palace, meanwhile, the government opened Shibuya and Shinjuku stations on the same day — March 1, 1885.

Despite the growing number of railway tracks that were starting to weave their way through the capital, one major hub remained undeveloped: the area between Shinbashi and Ueno. Developers started discussing the notion of a central terminal upon which the city’s entire network could be based. The government referred to the station on this new elevated line as “central terminal.”

Franz Baltzer, a German engineer who had been involved in the construction of an elevated line in Berlin, was invited to oversee development plans for the new line between Shinbashi and Ueno. Baltzer also drew up a blueprint for Tokyo Station, but this was later rejected for being “too Japanese,” as the country was in the middle of a period of Westernization following the Meiji Restoration. Instead, the job went to Kingo Tatsuno, an architect who designed the nearby Bank of Japan building and who later became known as the “father of modern Japanese architecture.”

“Balzter had studied Japanese architecture and wanted a central terminal to be Japanese in appearance — something that couldn’t be accepted at that time,” says Keiko Kawano, curator of The Railway Museum. “It’s interesting that a Japanese man proposed a Western-style building, while a German man suggested a Japanese-style building.”

Tatsuno spent eight years designing the station and, although he kept Baltzer’s original main structure, he drastically changed the design.

The government’s meager contribution to the development project forced him to limit the height of the building to a single story.

After the country defeated Russian forces in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the government increased its funding to the project, allowing Tatsuno to construct a three-story facility with rooftop domes and a central exit specifically for the Imperial family.

Fortuitously, Tokyo Station survived the 7.9-magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake with surprisingly little damage. Its good fortune didn’t last, however, and much of the terminal was damaged in a fire-bombing raid by U.S. forces on May 25, 1945. The bombing destroyed the original rooftop domes and the entire third floor.

In spite of the damage, trains were able to use parts of the station within two days of the raid. By 1947, the station’s rooftop domes had been replaced by octagon-shaped roofs.

“The government was desperate to get Tokyo Station working again so it scraped up enough money and construction materials to fix it,” Kawano says. “It was only meant to last four or five years.”

Instead, the design lasted another 60 years.

For decades, opinion was divided over the “temporary” state of Tokyo Station between those who wanted to build a brand new skyscraper over the terminal and those who wanted to return the historic landmark to its original structure. Ultimately, the voices of those who wanted to protect the original building prevailed and Tokyo Station was designated as an Important Cultural Asset in 2003.

But recreating something that was designed 100 years ago is not easy, says architect Shiro Ouchida, an associate professor at Kogakuin University’s School of Architecture in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

Until earlier this year, Ouchida was an employee with East Japan Railway Co., which oversaw the station’s renovation. Playing a central role in the revival project, Ouchida was involved in the redevelopment of the station for more than 11 years.

“I think we are entering a period of trying to preserve old buildings instead of simply demolishing them and building something in their place,” Ouchida says. “The preservation of Tokyo Station suggests we may have entered a new era, and I hope this will inspire people to protect more old buildings.”

Although developers had 100 original construction blueprints to work with, a number of key parts were still missing, especially around the central entrance. To fill in these blanks, Ouchida visited other Meiji Era buildings that had been created by Tatsuno. The architect made several trips to the former Kyoto branch of the Bank of Japan and the former Nippon Life Insurance Co. building in Fukuoka Prefecture, where he studied and measured the designs right down to the smallest detail, including the joineries on the windows.

The renovation of Tokyo Station began in 2007 and was completed in 2012. However, the high volume of passengers passing through the terminal each day meant that certain areas could only be worked on once the station had closed for the evening, Ouchida says. Working from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., construction crews were only able to do an hour or two each night once prep and cleanup times had been accounted for. Most of Tokyo Station’s main building was kept as it was, but the project restored the north- and south-end rotundas and also revived the missing third floor. The rotundas retain their original look, comprising octagonal corners with plaster reliefs shaped after an eagle, a flower, a phoenix, a sword and animals of the Chinese zodiac. The Marunouchi side’s century-old red-brick and stone facade has also been restored.

While much of the redevelopment has focused on restoring the station back to its former glory, a few modern features were added to the designs. For one, a new seismic base-isolation system has been included in the foundations of the station — installed two stories underground to absorb earthquakes and prevent the building from collapsing.

“Of course it is hard to say with natural disasters but, basically, the building has been renovated to last forever,” Ouchida says.

And now, just days away from its 100th anniversary, Tokyo Station on the Marunouchi side appears as magnificent as it did a century ago.

The renovations have turned the station from a terminal that people would merely use as a transit point into a major tourism spot, attracting people from all over Tokyo, Japan and abroad. These days, people come to the station for sightseeing, shopping or leisure. This notable change in users’ behavior is just the beginning, says Masaaki Kawamata, manager of the Tokyo Station City Management section at JR East.

“We aren’t solely focused on Tokyo Station — and that’s why we call it the Tokyo Station City project,” Kawamata says. “We hope to collaborate with other surrounding areas … and hope that this project will become a model that we can use to develop other stations and their surrounding areas.”

The project has created “the only station in the world that has integrated history, tradition, culture, academia, business and advanced technology.” It has not only renovated the historical red-brick building, but also the Yaesu side on the opposite side of the terminal.

The Yaesu area is very urban in appearance. The north and south GranTokyo towers house offices of a number of leading companies and universities, and are connected to the terminal by the Gran Roof, a new commercial facility with a canopy that resembles a “sail of light.”

The station has already begun working with Nihonbashi district authorities, creating a tourist map of various shops and historical sites nearby. Kawamata says the project team is looking to expand collaborative efforts to other neighboring districts such as Ginza and Yurakucho.

Tokyo Station is hosting a number of promotional events to celebrate its 100th birthday, including special limited editions of sweets, bento lunch boxes and memorabilia, and exhibitions.

An illumination show titled “Tokyo Colors” began this month in collaboration with Rhizomatiks, a team specializing in interactive digital installations. Fitted along the Gran Roof walkway, the lights are designed to “react” to the wind. More than 3,000 LED sticks have been installed along the walkway, allowing passers-by to “see” the wind as it flickers across the path.

Tokyo Station opened 100 years ago with just four platforms in operation that serviced about 4,600 passengers a day. Today, more than 4,000 trains arrive and depart from the station on a daily basis, making it one of the busiest stations nationwide.

“Tokyo Station is the epitome of the capital, which incorporates both the old and the new,” Kawamata says. “The Marunouchi side reflects history and tradition, while the Yaesu side showcases advanced technology. This project is just the beginning and we look forward to seeing how it blossoms over the next 100 years.”

Off the beaten track: 10 fascinating facts

1. The station was only named Tokyo Station two weeks before its official opening. Until then, it was simply called the “central terminal.”

2. Two assassination attempts on prime ministers have been carried out at Tokyo Station. Takashi Hara was stabbed to death in front of the south exit in 1921, while Osachi Hamaguchi was gunned down on the platform of the express train to Tsubame in 1930, dying from his wounds the following year.

3. The original architectural plan was created by Franz Baltzer of Germany but his idea was rejected for being “too Japanese.”

4. About 740,000 people helped build Tokyo Station in 1914. The recent renovation involved about 780,000 people.

5. The whole floor space of Tokyo Station is 182,000 sq. meters, or 3.6 times the size of Tokyo Dome.

6. Only two stations are currently operating that are designated as Important Cultural Assets: Tokyo Station and Mojiko Station in Fukuoka Prefecture.

7. Before its renovation, Tokyo Station was protected from damage during earthquakes by 11,050 larch poles of 21 cm in diameter that were between 3.6 to 7.2 meters in length.

8. Only eight of the 12 zodiac animals are displayed in Tokyo Station’s domes. The rest of the animals can be found on the second floor of a gate in Saga Prefecture at Takeo Onsen hot spring, which was also created by Kingo Tatsuno.

9. In 2013, Tokyo Station overtook Shibuya Station to handle the third-highest number of passengers after Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, according to JR East.

10. About 8 million bricks were used to build Tokyo Station.

Looking back on Tokyo Station’s rich history

To celebrate Tokyo’s Station’s 100th anniversary, Tokyo Station Gallery is holding a special exhibition titled “Tokyo Station: A Hundred Years of its Legacy” that looks back at key historical events that have taken place at the terminal. Highlights include coverage of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the assassination of former Prime Minister Takashi Hara in 1921 and the damage caused by an American air raid in May 1945, as well as footage of famous meetings that have taken place at the station over the years. Items on display include not only documents about the terminal, but also paintings, photographs, novels and films. There’s also a section on the life of architect Kingo Tatsuno (1854-1919), who designed the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station, as well as development plans outlined by the Tokyo municipal government through to 2017. “Tokyo Station: A Hundred Years of its Legacy”: Dec. 13-March 1; Tokyo Station Gallery, Tokyo Station, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.); ¥900; closed Mon.; 03-3212-2485; www.ejrcf.or.jp/gallery

Meanwhile, the Railway History Exhibition Hall in Shinbashi is hosting an exhibition that focuses on the evolution of travel as a leisure activity. Titled “The Development of Tokyo Station,” the exhibition displays examples printed in newspapers and posters of how common folk used to enjoy their excursions in days gone by. “The Development of Tokyo Station”: Dec. 9-March 22; Railway History Exhibition Hall, 1-5-3 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m; admission is free; closed Mon.; 03-3572-1872; www.ejrcf.or.jp/shinbashi

The Railway Museum in Saitama Prefecture is also hosting an exhibition that looks even further back in time, examining the steps taken to produce a rail network in Japan right back to 1872. Photographs of Shinbashi, Ueno and Manseibashi stations in their early years will be on display. The main attractions of this display, however, are blueprints, architectural renderings and photo records by Tatsuno, who was working closely with German rail technician Franz Baltzer (1857-1927) to get Tokyo Station completed a century ago. Tokyo-eki Kaigyo 100 Shunen Kinen Ten: 100-nen no Prologue” Nov. 22-Feb 16; The Railway Museum, 3-47 Onari-cho, Omiya, Saitama-shi, Saitama; 10 a.m.-6 p.m; ¥1,000; closed Tues.; 048-651-0088; www.railway-museum.jp

(Daisuke Kikuchi)

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