Kyoto Tower: Unlikely Manga Mecca

 Source:  Keihan Hotels


Been to Kyoto lately? Actually, there's a good chance you have - Japan's former capital has become a tourist favourite in recent years, inciting hashtag wanderlust with its Pinterest-ready bamboo forests and stunning temples. The city garners around 10 million visitors annually, and just last month, readers of Travel + Leisure magazine voted Kyoto the 4th best city in the world (it actually scored the number one spot in 2014 and 2015). Kyoto has long reigned as one of the most beautiful destinations in Japan; conjuring images of elegant, zen-like scenes: a matcha-infused breeze gently dancing through a cherry blossomed garden; the combined shush of a thousand bamboo leaves, tiny geishas tapping along the stone streets between the traditional machiya buildings - it's enough to make you cry little jealous rage tears about your own horrible stressful existence.


If you have in fact been to Kyoto, say, in the last 50 years, it's quite likely you will have come across a structure that stands apart from the incredible surrounds. Well, up, and apart.

The Kyoto Tower. The tallest building in Kyoto by a country mile, and not only the tallest, most visible, entirely unmissable - but quite possibly the most unsightly.

Constructed in the early 1960s, the 131 metre high tower literally towers above the city of Kyoto, far above any other structure in the area. Why? Well, municipal construction regulations state that no new building can exceed 31 metres, in hopes of providing some kind of protection for the precious traditional panorama in the face of modernisation. So what gives with the tower?

In 1953, the idea for a new centre for culture and industry came about - a tourism hub if you will, and architect Mamoru Yamada was drafted to complete a design within the 31 metre limit. Legend has it that one of the leaders of the project encouraged Yamada to shoot for the stars at that point, and subsequently, the Kyoto Tower was born. They got around the height restriction by labelling the tower as a separate 'rooftop structure'. Loophole for the win! Short of flaming pitchforks, suffice to say the construction was widely opposed.

While the design behind the tower is actually pretty clever, with the ability to withstand typhoons and major earthquakes; the final aesthetic has since left locals lost for words. The cylindrical shape was created by Engineer Makoto Tanahashi to resemble a Buddhist candle, but it is more commonly referred to as a 'futuristic rocketship' or 'a stake through the heart of the city' and the best part of the tower, according to is that 'when you're inside can't see the tower itself.'

Despite the outcry, the opening of the tower was perfectly timed with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the launch of the Shinkansen high speed train between Tokyo and Kyoto. Visitor numbers to the tower reached one million within 12 months.

Today though, the tower is no draw card for Kyoto. Unavoidable on arriving at the main station, it doesn't bring in tourists on its own, but does, however, capture decent ticket sales boasting panoramic views of the city's historic sites not available from any other vantage point. It has become a landmark begrudgingly accepted for this purpose, but generally ridiculed as tacky and vulgar.

Some say the tower was just the beginning of the modernisation of Kyoto, and fits in to the increasingly concrete cityscape of today, but what's interesting about the tower and the way it's marketed is how it almost leans in to that less than favourable reputation.

While crass gaming machines present in the original fit-out have been replaced by elegant interiors and calming music, the tower itself remains unchanged. White and red like a lighthouse, a beautiful example of architecture it is not. A hundred years in the future probably the best it can hope for is 'kitschy'. 

So why not roll with it? They want tacky, we'll give them tacky!

In late 2016, a new 'service' was launched at the tower that would let visitors illuminate the landmark in the colour or colours of their choice. Supposedly for romantic reasons (I can't think of any other reasons), one could purchase the chance to choose from a limited selection of colours and illuminate the tower in their preferred hue for an hour. I can only imagine the following exchange: 'Oh, darling, you remembered my favourite colour was pink and also how much I love the Kyoto Tower! This is the memory of a lifetime!' Or something like that? Unfortunately, the service does not offer black as a colour choice, which would effectively render the structure invisible for one glorious, tower-free hour. 

But in December, Tower management cottoned-on to a clever little cross-promotional opportunity thanks to manga favourite Blue Exorcist. As the Kyoto Tower is featured in the comic, it was only natural that the tower would celebrate the birthday of the main characters by being illuminated in blue, serving themed cocktails and meals in the restaurant and hosting an exhibition of cardboard cutouts and a themed gift shop. The promotion was so popular it was extended for a six-month run. Who knew?

"Blue Exorcist: Kyoto Impure King Arc had many sad parts, so it seems like the bitterness of the cocoa sprinkled on the dumpling symbolized that. They captured every last detail of the atmosphere in Blue Exorcist. I reminisced over the plot as I ate and almost cried." - Manga.Tokyo

So, in a city flush with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and breath-taking scenes of Japanese culture, one landmark stands above the rest - loud, divisive and proud. A perfect representation of Japan's struggle between the traditional and the modern; the gambling halls and the tea ceremonies, the mega malls and the machiya. A brand new Starbucks inside a 100 year-old townhouse, as it were. 

Japan is a study in contrasts, and the Kyoto Tower is proof of the age-old saying - you can't please everyone. And also; a passionate manga fan is worth three average customers.

Marketing moral of the story: When starting out with a new business, you can research all you like to shape your offering and cater to your target market - but once you launch, you may find your fans reside in an entirely different niche. Just like the designers of the Kyoto Tower probably never imagined their structure would become a manga shrine! But they're fans all the same, and with a little encouragement and some dedicated marketing efforts, they could end up being a lucrative customer base. Customer research doesn't stop once you've started - never stop investigating who loves you and why!
Hannah Keys