It’s not often that a LEGO set transports me back home. But regular readers of The Brothers Brick know that I was born in Tokyo and lived in Japan until I was a teenager, so I was incredibly excited when LEGO announced 21050 Tokyo. I’ve enjoyed each of the previous LEGO Architecture skyline sets I’ve built, but how does this one stack up for someone who calls Tokyo their hometown?
Tokyo was revealed as part of the LEGO Architecture skyline series for 2020, alongside 21052 Dubai. Tokyo is built from 547 pieces and will retail for $59.99 USD | $79.99 CAD | £59.99 GBP. Both sets will be available starting January 1st.
The packaging & instructions
Looking beyond LEGO’s core market of kids and even the kind of adult builders we feature here on The Brothers Brick, LEGO Architecture sets are often sold in tourist hot spots, museum gift shops, and other places where the average LEGO builder might not shop. Likely as a result, LEGO Architecture sets are sold in sturdy double-folded boxes with interior printing and other details indicating they’re designed to be used to store your set rather than parting it out into your “build-fodder” collection. The back of the box provides helpful callouts that tell you what landmarks are featured in the LEGO set.
It’s notable here that Tokyo Skytree is mislabeled “Tokyo Skyline” on the back of the box — an unusual copyediting miss, and something likely to be corrected quickly in subsequent printings of the box. (Our packaging is the European packaging sent to us from LEGO HQ in Billund, Denmark.)
The instruction booklet features introductory pages with quotes about Tokyo and information about each of the locations.
LEGO Architecture sets have always had black-themed packaging and instructions, which does present some challenges during the building process. While some darker colors include white highlighting around them, other colors like dark blue may not, making it hard to distinguish parts and colors in normal living room lighting conditions (as opposed to under studio or office lights where these booklets are designed). The same is true for transparent pieces — I’m still not confident that the tall stack of 1×1 round plates in a rainbow of transparent colors that I ended up building was correct.
The build & individual buildings
After creating the base, the build process follows a left-to-right order for each of the structures on the base.
When complete, 21051 Tokyo skyline features the following named buildings and locations, from left to right:
- Tokyo Tower
- Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower
- Chidorigafuchi Park
- Shibuya Crossing
- Tokyo Skytree
- Tokyo Big Sight
In addition to the locations named on the box, the skyline features a five-level pagoda, a mountain that is obviously intended to be Mount Fuji, and a temple/shrine gate behind the blooming cherry trees of Chidorigafuchi (something I’ll come back to later). Follow me home as we take a closer look at each of these locations in turn…
Tokyo Tower was built in 1958 and stands 333 meters tall, painted for visibility in alternating red and white. Tokyo is the largest city in the world, and there are places in the city I never visited, either while living in Japan for 15 years or when I visited most recently this past June for Japan Brickfest 2019. Nevertheless, Tokyo Tower is indelibly and iconically linked to the city in my mind — always there, much like the Space Needle here in Seattle (which many locals have similarly never visited).
The LEGO version incorporates red Speed Racer windscreens as the arches in the tower’s base, with inverted 1x2x3 slopes turned upside down leading up to the first observation deck. The whole structure is connected through its core via simple bars rather than more-complex connections or Technic axles.
Standing next to Tokyo Tower in the LEGO set (but about 10 km apart in the real city) is the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, which houses several educational institutions. Designed by the architectural firm Tange Associates and completed in 2008, the tower has won architectural awards and is located in the Shinjuku central business district.
The tower’s distinctive latticework exterior is recreated in LEGO through printing on curved slopes, attached with Technic 3-branch cross-axles. I’m not entirely convinced, though, that the stack of 1×1 round bricks works to bring together the three sides in a smooth curve.
Next, Chidorigafuchi Park is a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms in the spring. The park is on the moat of the Imperial Palace, which is captured as a pair of 1×2 trans-blue tiles. Behind the cherry blossoms and the moat is a gatehouse.
The problem is that this tiny, two-story gatehouse is in an architectural style used for Buddhist temples like Sensō-ji in Asakusa and Shinto shrines like Meiji Jingu in Shibuya. Castle gates follow a very different architectural style, and the Imperial Palace is built like a castle, in standard black and white rather than natural wood or painted red, like the famous “Thunder Gate” (Kaminari-mon) I took a selfie at a few months ago. Juxtaposition is expected in LEGO Architecture skyline sets, but placing this gatehouse in the set’s Chidorigafuchi Park without naming it as representing something like a Meiji Shrine gate seems like a huge missed opportunity. Personally, I think the pop of red for a Buddhist temple gate, with a printed minifigure head for the huge paper lantern, would have been an amazing detail much more representative of the city than a generic brown gate in the background of a location that has no such gate.
Shibuya Crossing just outside Shibuya train station is sometimes called the “crazy crossing” and features prominently in movies like Lost in Translation. It’s an intersection in which thousands of pedestrians cross at once when the traffic lights stop in every direction. Like Times Square in New York City, the buildings around the crossing are covered in illuminated signage right up to the top, and it’s been a favorite spot for “iconic” Tokyo tourist photos for 40 or 50 years.
Shibuya looks amazing at night, and one of my favorite photos from my trip in June is this photo of Shibuya Crossing at dusk.
Even though the scale is too tiny to show scurrying pedestrians, and LEGO hasn’t sought several dozens of new licensing deals to show Yakult, Salonpas, or UC Coffee signage, I love how the designers used a variety of printed and transparent pieces to recreate the crazy look of this famous location, complete with printed 1×1 crosswalk tiles (which are new).
Behind Chidorigafuchi Park and Shibuya Crossing looms Mount Fuji (or Fuji-san in Japanese — never “Fuji-yama”), an active strato-volcano (which last erupted in 1707) about a hundred kilometers away from downtown Tokyo, but visible on the horizon on any clear day. During my trip in rainy June, while also traveling between Osaka and Tokyo at night, I’m disappointed that I never saw Mt. Fuji once. Nevertheless, it’s such an integral part of the Kanto region landscape (and Japanese iconography more generally) that anyone who’s spent more than a few months in Japan should be able to depict Mt. Fuji from memory.
There are two key elements to an accurate symbolic representation of Japan’s highest peak: The cone tapers more steeply near the peak, and the snowcap sits atop the peak with a clean, straight line between the peak itself and the rest of the mountain. Not so with this Mt. Fuji, which has a weird slope in the wrong direction on the left and an uneven snowcap. Mt. Fuji is such a basic element of Japanese iconography and the landscape beyond Tokyo that there is no excuse for getting this wrong. Oddly for me as a Tokyo-born Seattleite, this bad Mt. Fuji looks to me like a fairly good Mt. Rainier — about the same distance from the city, and with a much more rounded peak than Fuji.
I had the privilege of seeing an original print of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” at the Tokyo National Museum during my summer trip, and this is an accurate artistic rendition of Tokyo. There’s a simplicity to Mt. Fuji’s shape that inspires beauty in great works of art. By adding unnecessary complexity through the asymmetrical summit and snowcap, the LEGO Architecture designers have delivered a Fuji that has been reduced in stature. More is not necessarily better.
The tallest free-standing structure in the world is Tokyo Skytree at 634 meters. Completed as a broadcasting tower to replace Tokyo Tower (with the shift to digital broadcasting) in 2012, it’s also the second-tallest building in the world, topped only by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. As a result, Tokyo Skytree dominates Tokyo’s skyline from just about any direction.
The tower looks great in the set’s promotional photos and on the box, but the struts of the LEGO version are built from rubber Technic axles, which are not straight and do not curve correctly when actually used in the set, as is immediately obvious in the photo above. There is no straightforward way to correct this problem, since the tops of the rubber axles are not actually connected to anything — they’re simply bundled under the inverted cone piece with an open center.
The final location in the LEGO Architecture Tokyo skyline is Tokyo Big Sight, an exhibition and convention center located on the Tokyo Bay waterfront. The conference tower with its inverted pyramids was designed by the architectural firm AXS Satow and completed in 1996. The LEGO version uses 16 1×1 pyramids in an attempt to reproduce the shape of the structure, with the top inverted and connected in the center via a pin. Unfortunately, the pyramid-to-pyramid inverted connection doesn’t create an actual pyramid shape, and the exposed anti-studs on the top of the roof are distractingly unfinished. Overall, the build doesn’t really work, and given that this is not a famous or highly visible landmark like Tokyo Tower or Shibuya Crossing, its inclusion is a bit baffling.
The printed parts in this set are nothing if not generous. In addition to the necessary “Tokyo” tile and all the curved slopes for the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, there are lots of great 1×1 tiles, including sidewalks and rainbows.
The inclusion of printed 1×1 tiles means that you get a ton of bonus tiles!
Conclusions & recommendation
My response to LEGO’s attempt to reflect my hometown in bricks is inherently and deeply personal, and therefore very subjective. Tokyo means something very different to me than the city does to someone visiting from abroad, someone creating a LEGO set from a distance, or even someone who’s never left. Despite the simultaneous closeness and distance I feel toward the city of my birth, my recent trip only confirmed Tokyo as my favorite city in the world. As a result, I’m incredibly passionate about seeing Tokyo depicted in LEGO as it “should” be.
This perspective originated when I built my own microscale Tokyo back in 2011, many years before LEGO got into the microscale city skyline business. My tiny Tokyo (built to the modular Micropolis standard) featured Shibuya with not just the iconic corner buildings with their advertising but also a train station with vintage orange and lime rolling stock, as well as a bullet train speeding away from the city. I’ve included the National Diet building (essentially, the country’s capital building), as well as a Shinto shrine with torii gate and blooming azaleas. But my Tokyo isn’t all landmarks and pretty landscaping. My Tokyo also has the horrible mid-century apartment blocks that bulk up any urban skyline, cranes at the seaport, and boring old warehouses.
I’m not suggesting that a LEGO Architecture version of Tokyo should include apartment blocks and warehouses, but the selection does feel like the design team didn’t spend enough time researching Tokyo — even by Googling “best places to visit in Tokyo” or “most important architecture in Tokyo.” This is reinforced by the completely generic pagoda and temple gatehouse included haphazardly in the set. There is only one well-known pagoda in Tokyo, at Sensō-ji in Asakusa, and yet the five-story pagoda at the base of Tokyo Tower is not named at all in the set.
Tokyo Tower, cherry blossoms in Chidorigafuchi Park, Shibuya Crossing — all of these are core to what makes Tokyo one of the greatest cities in the world. But it is also a city infused with sadness. Tokyo was nearly burnt to the ground twice in the first half of the 20th century — first during firestorms caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then again by American firebombing toward the end of World War II (killing at least 100,000 civilians). Very little survives of historical Tokyo. This makes every connection to the past precious, even when the pagoda at Sensō-ji was rebuilt in the 1960’s and Meiji Shrine was reconstructed in the 1950’s. At the same time, the structures in LEGO Architecture skyline sets have always been named landmarks. So to leave a pagoda and temple/shrine gate totally unnamed feels like they’ve been added to the cityscape in the service of an Orientalist aesthetic rather than a genuine commitment to real Japanese places (and the real people who inhabit them).
To call this set disappointing for a native Tokyoite would be an understatement. I can forgive strange choices like the Tokyo Big Sight conference tower, and I truly love this LEGO rendition of Tokyo Tower and Shibuya Crossing. But a Mt. Fuji that looks like Mt. Rainier, Tokyo Skytree with squishy legs, and historic architecture that remains unnamed (against the conventions of other LEGO Architecture sets) are all unforgivable. What’s most disappointing is how close this set is to great, if only the designers had bothered to do a modicum of research about the history and culture that resulted in the architecture depicted in the set.
Don’t miss our reviews of previous LEGO Architecture skyline sets:
The LEGO Group provided The Brothers Brick with an early copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.