For more than 90 years, the European-style Harajuku Station building has been part of the Tokyo urban landscape — bearing witness to the Great Tokyo Air Raid during World War II, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the district’s rise as a mecca of Japanese youth culture.
Despite calls to retain the historic Shibuya Ward landmark, cherished by visitors and locals alike, East Japan Railway Co. announced last month it will build a new station building in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the extra visitors expected ahead of the event.
JR East said it will build the new station adjacent to the current building with no plans yet on what it will do with the existing station structure.
Following are questions and answers about Harajuku Station:
What’s the history behind the station?
The original Harajuku Station opened in 1906 about 500 meters north of the current location, according to the Railway Museum in Saitama Prefecture.
The current structure, built in 1924, a year after the Great Kanto Earthquake, is believed to be the oldest wooden station building in Tokyo. It was designed by Kaoru Hasegawa, an engineer for Japanese Government Railways, a now-defunct government agency.
Harajuku Station has been ranked among the top 100 stations in the Kanto region for its design.
During WWII, the station survived damage from the Tokyo air raids of May 1945. Even though 77 percent of Shibuya Ward burned down, the firebombs that broke through the roof of Harajuku Station miraculously were duds.
The station complex also has a platform specially built for the Imperial family. Constructed in 1925 and located a few hundred meters north of the regular platform, the nondescript structure gets little notice by people on passing trains.
It was reportedly constructed to draw little attention when it was used by Emperor Taisho, who was ill at the time.
The Imperial family has not used the special platform since 2001, according to JR East.
The station is located next to Meiji Shrine, one of the biggest shrines in Japan, and has long handled heavy visitor traffic to the site.
On the first three days of the New Year, Meiji Shrine sees some 3 million visitors, and it has an extra platform directly connected to the shrine to handle the crowds. The extra platform is only used between Dec. 31 and Jan. 4.
What will the new station look like?
An image provided by JR East shows a modern double-story, glazed-wall structure, with an entrance slightly west of the current building and closer to the shrine.
The new building will be more spacious to handle larger crowds, JR East said.
On an average day, about 70,000 people use the station, about 10 percent of the traffic at nearby JR Shinjuku Station.
The current extra platform will be rebuilt for daily use by Yamanote Line trains bound for Shinjuku and Ikebukuro.
Why was Harajuku Station not rebuilt earlier?
JR East has long considered refurbishing the small, easily crowded station, but doing so posed problems because the structure straddles several live tracks.
But there also seems to be another reason, which is to keep the current station building, according to some past news articles.
A May 2, 1988, article in the Yomiuri Shimbun said a total redevelopment had been considered several times but to no avail, with the Japanese National Railways (the successor to Japanese Government Railways), ultimately ceding to the wishes of local residents who resisted the plans.
How do locals feel about the new design?
An official of Shibuya Ward said it had received calls from people wanting the current station building to be preserved.
The official said the ward will ask JR East to do this.
Most of several local residents interviewed by The Japan Times shared this view.
“I don’t want it to change. I hope it will still be there,” said Akie Hirai, 45, who has lived in Shibuya Ward for more than 20 years.
The historic building is a familiar sight to her, she said.
Hirai also said she hopes the new building will be simple and easy to navigate, as opposed to other stations, such as JR Shibuya Station, which has become a labyrinth amid redevelopment in recent years.
A man in his 60s who grew up in the Harajuku district and wished to remain anonymous, however, didn’t feel that the current station building needed to be preserved just for nostalgic reasons.
Despite having many memories of the station, the man said Harajuku would be better served by a redeveloped station that can handle more visitors.