TOKYO >> How would you like to spend an afternoon dangling nearly 1,500 feet above the ground in a metal basket?
For Takuma Tachibana, 32, it’s just another day at the office.
“I’ve always liked high places,” said Tachibana as he prepared for another shift cleaning the windows of one of the world’s tallest towers, the Tokyo Skytree. “I’ve never thought of it as being anything scary.”
Skytree, located in Sumida Ward and completed in 2012, stands at a height of 2,080 feet, making it the second-tallest structure in the world after the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The tower has two observation areas for visitors — the Tembo Deck at 1,148 feet and Tembo Galleria at 1,476 feet. For visitors to be able to properly enjoy the view from either deck, however, the windows must be kept clean.
That’s where Tachibana and his fearless colleagues come in.
The workers, whom Skytree contracts from building services company Niwatech, clean the tower and the surrounding buildings six or seven times a month. They start their mornings by cleaning the windows of the office buildings and shops that make up the wider Tokyo Skytree Town. In the afternoon, they move on to the Tembo Galleria.
The gondola that they use to reach the windows is stored in a hangar above the upper observation deck. The gondola is about 3-1/2 feet wide and 5-1/2 feet tall, and moves on a rail around the roof’s rim, from which it is lowered.
Workers are secured by ropes and clips, and to insure their safety, nothing is allowed to be carried in their pockets. All cleaning tools must be attached to a lanyard so that nothing can fall to the ground. Operations are canceled if rain, thunder or winds exceeding 7 mph are forecast.
Complications in the window-cleaning business are rare, but not unheard of. Before working on Skytree, Tachibana cleaned skyscrapers in the capital’s Shinjuku district. On one occasion, the gondola he was on jammed, and he was stranded some 330 feet above the ground until someone could arrive to fix it.
“I was stuck for about three hours, right in the dead of winter,” he said. “I remember really needing to go to the bathroom, and it was cold. I had something to drink, but I knew that if I drank it, I would need to go to the bathroom even more. I didn’t really know what to do.”
Tachibana has encountered no such difficulties working on Skytree, and he’s not fazed by the birds-eye view as he goes about his work. In fact, as he surveys the vista of the city, taking in the new National Stadium, the Imperial Palace and Odaiba’s Rainbow Bridge, among other landmarks, he counts himself lucky.
“You don’t often get the chance to look at scenery from this kind of height,” he said. “Being able to take in this view and feel the breeze without any windows in front of you is one of the privileges of the job. When there’s no glass, you see the full panorama and get a sense of realism.”
Not everyone shares Tachibana’s enthusiasm for the task.
Skytree visitors in the Tembo Galleria expressed astonishment as they watched the window washers.
“It’s not a job that humans should be doing,” one man joked.
There was also widespread excitement among children, who raced to the window to wave at the cleaners, and Tachibana was quick to respond in kind.
“It’s nice,” he said. “When you’re cleaning other buildings, they’re usually offices, and the people working in them aren’t really interested. Here, you get a lot of tourists.
“You can communicate with the visitors,” he continued. “Even with people from overseas, I don’t know what they’re saying but you can make eye contact with them and share a laugh. It’s fun.”
Government figures show that Japan’s current tourism boom has drawn a record 16.63 million overseas visitors in the first six months of 2019 — up 4.6% from a year earlier. Starting this year, the government has set a goal of attracting 40 million visitors annually.
With 4.27 million visitors last year, Skytree has become a major tourist draw. And with Tokyo set to welcome the world for the Olympics and Paralympics next year, Tachibana is happy he can play a part.
“I’m proud to work here,” he said. “Skytree has been open for seven years now, and it’s become an established tourist destination. Next year is the Tokyo Olympics, and from now on, Skytree will have more chances to show itself off to the world. I feel like I can help with that.”