Tokyo’s Peninsula Hotel boasts a chauffeur-driven 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom, a celebrity podiatrist studio and an aviation lounge to whisk executives to and from its $1,000-a-night suites by helicopter. Since it opened in 2007, the rooftop helipad has never been used.
The hotel is one of about 80 buildings in the capital with a helipad, more than any other city in the world, but most are rarely, if ever, used. Partly this is because of the neighbors. Japan’s noise restrictions and local and national government rules mean that the few choppers in the Tokyo skies tend to be ferrying government officials or television crews.
But the helipads are there, and as the world’s biggest city adds more tall buildings, their number is rising. They are waiting for an earthquake or disaster.
Like Los Angeles, which has the most helipads of any city in North America, Tokyo sits uneasily on major tectonic faults that rattle its buildings regularly. Japan started advising developers to build helipads on buildings over 45 meters high around 1990, though there’s no law requiring them to do so, said Keisuke Usuba, a spokesman for the Tokyo Fire Department.
“When a building gets too high, then fire ladders can’t reach the top,” said Usuba. “We ask people to put a helipad if possible. Still, if there’s a fire, we may have to hover above the building to evacuate people because of the hot currents.”
All the top four cities for helipads are in Japan or South Korea, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Seoul is second with 77, then the South Korean port of Busan with 50. Osaka is fourth with 43, just ahead of the 41 in Los Angeles. The figures rely on submissions and don’t include unreported sites, said Jason Gabel, a spokesman for the Chicago-based council.
“Cities with the most helipads are those that require their installation on buildings over a certain height,” Gabel said. “Whether or not this is an effective evacuation strategy is up for debate.”
Mitsubishi Estate Co., Japan’s biggest developer by market value, has included helipads on all the high-rise buildings it built in Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district since 2002, according to spokesman Ryo Yamamoto. “They’re for use in emergencies to help evacuate people from the building,” said Yamamoto. “They’re not for flights to Narita or Haneda” airports.
Tokyo towers that have helicopter landing sites include the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Roppongi Hills and eight buildings in the Marunouchi area, including the iconic Marunouchi Building, according to the Council on Tall Buildings.
Yet many experts have argued for years that using helipads to deploy firefighters or evacuate people in a disaster is ineffective because of the dangers of trying to land in such conditions and the limited number of people that could be taken on each flight.
Cities such as Los Angeles, which had a helipad requirement since 1958, have abandoned the policy in favor of better firefighting systems, such as rapid sprinklers and fire-proof elevators and evacuation routes.
The decision by Los Angeles two years ago to eliminate its helipad requirement, a change endorsed by the city’s fire chief, will alter the skyline, finally allowing the narrow tops, pitched-roofs and spires that define the image of cities like New York.
“Los Angeles is the creative capital of the world, but our skyline is full of buildings that are uniformly flat,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the time. “We want better fire protection and better design from our buildings.”
Still, the Peninsula in Tokyo isn’t waiting for a disaster to use its landing site. The luxury hotel group, which offers helicopter flights at its Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila properties, is trying to persuade its neighbors in Ginza to agree to flights, said Director Junjiro Yamashita. The flight would more than halve the travel time by car from Tokyo’s Narita airport, to 30 minutes.
The hotel submitted a plan to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government two years ago to start a service in time for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and got the green light to go ahead with an environmental assessment. Then Ginza shop owners rebelled, gathering a petition with almost 10,000 people protesting about noise and safety concerns.
“We really want to make flights a reality,” Yamashita said. “We’ll keep talking to and listening to our neighbors and try to persuade them. We don’t know how long that will take.”
Meantime, there’s always the Rolls.