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Tokyo Borderless Teamlab flower projections on floor, walls, everywhere!

Immersive art and maid cafes: alternative reality in Tokyo

Wow. Whales swimming below and above us, giant flower buffalo marching slowly across the walls, interactive trampolines where you create new planets with every jump. TeamLab Borderless was the best – what? Art gallery? Museum? Playground? – thing we’ve ever visited. A huge, pitch black series of unmapped rooms to explore and play, where the constantly changing art created by projections, mirrors and interactive electronic wizardry immerses you in a different reality. A brilliant acid trip.

Some of the areas were an obvious wow – the star and planet universe room where the whole floor was a trampoline and new worlds and constellations emerged and grew beneath your feet – if you jumped enough. Or the drawing area, where the fish you drew or coloured in on paper and scanned, would go swimming along the walls around you. The slide, where flowers and light burst from you as you hurtle into darkness. The ‘3D bouldering’ poles, with colour changing lights for handles, challenging you to keep using the same coloured light as you scramble your way up and across. The room of crystalline poles, stretching to infinity above and below you, lighting in reaction to who many people were around and how they were interacting in the apps. The lily pad field where you go from walking under the surface of the water to wading waist deep.

And some areas might sound less engaging, but were equally delightful. The parade of huge flower animals or shadowy anime along the walls, who would sometimes react to touches on the wall. The rooms covered with sunflowers to infinity. The room where you’re surrounded by the waves of the famous sketch of a Mt Fuji tsunami, all constantly heaving and  breaking in a massive storm. The room where the floor was hilly, with Gaudi-esque geckos sliding, frogs hopping and giant whales swimming peacefully all around. Neither words nor photos do any justice to how lovely it all is: you have to go there and physically immerse yourself in it. We both were just grinning ear to ear the whole way through.

In most places, the rest of the city would be a sad come-down after that. Tokyo, of course, had just begun.

Maid cafes, for one. You’ve probably heard of them, but seeing that they really exist is still startling. While they are not explicitly about sex, there’s still a deeply weird undercurrent. The girls are cute, of course, and made up to be cuter still, with weird contact lenses to make their eyes look manga-big, and cute little short maid dresses. They smile constantly, or giggle cutely behind their hands, and speak cutely in high pitched cartoonish voices. Even without speaking Japanese, you can tell that they’re saying the equivalent of “Oh, SuperMario, you’re my hero!”. We went to one low key, non touristey cafe. Most of the other customers were local single guys, all looking deeply computer-ey, and quite happy with the subservient approach. The maids didn’t speak much English, of course, but did their best to communicate, squealing when they heard we live in London – “Ooooh, love Harry Potter!”, to which we politely lied that we did too. One of them also squeaked ‘I love you!’ to me as I was leaving, but I don’t think she really meant it.

The second maid cafe – NewChange – was a wonderfully different affair. In this one, it was men who were dressed as maids – which shifts the whole power dynamic. Unsurprisingly, it felt far less like a blokish fantasy, with a mixed crowd of men and women enjoying a much less unbalanced conversation with the maids. The guy that was serving us was wonderful, with good English: he showed us a photo of his recent trip to Kyoto, where he was fully made up as a geisha – looking far better as a geisha than I would, I suspect.

Sadly, no pix of either maid cafe as they charge for photos. Here’s a random maid advertising her cafe streetside instead.

The games arcades had to be checked out as well. VR is slightly bigger in Tokyo than London, but there’s still only about half a dozen places doing virtual reality games. We tried out the Sega one in Akihabara – it had some of the usual shooting games, but also had a slightly different one: an interactive horror story. It was static – you’re seated with the headset and a button controller – while the storyline proceeds in a choose-your-own-adventure style, about a haunted doll, where we were eventually killed by the demon she had summoned. Possibly because we hadn’t hit the buttons repeatedly fast enough; possibly because they’ve only done graphics for 15 minutes of story. Still, interesting to see another spin on VR games, even if it’s still unlikely to convince anyone to buy the kit.

The rest of the arcade was interesting. One floor was pachinko again, of course – the revenue from that must be amazing: every city we went to in Japan had multiple huge buildings dedicated to nothing else, and constantly busy at every hour. Another floor was ‘girly’ games – which seemed to be another form of pachinko, but with more of a storyline attached: spin the wheel and if you’re lucky, your heroine princess will get to the next level with surprisingly large numbers of guys playing as the princess roles. Another floor had odd forms of strategy games, where you place objects in position around an interactive board, – for football, or for placing war battalions. They had the usual dancing games, of course, with locals doing impressive fast footwork; but they also had a more hand based version, where you have to play a keyboard, or hit spots on a disc, to keep pace with what’s being fired up on the screen. Odd, and very different to European arcades.

Something else that Japan does weirdly well, is interactive brand showcases. Which sounds hideously dull, but Toyota’s ‘Megaweb’ display was brilliant. We got to play on their new segway-type personal transport option, the ‘Winglet’, which will be publicly available in the next year. I haven’t tried Segways so can’t compare, but the Winglet was a whole ton of fun, really responsive and nippy. Very unbalancing feeling at first, till you get the hang of how the gyroscope reacts to your body position. The 5 minutes of guided playing was enough to feel ready to think about buying, but turns out they’ll cost thousands, so guess I’ll stick with my bike for now. And given they do much the same as electric scooters, I’m not sure whether they’re going to gain any more buyers than Segway ever did. Fun to try, though! They also had a bunch of games to demonstrate their safety systems – full size driving simulators, realistic enough that we felt slightly carsick after. Plus, of course, they had models of a bunch of concept cars, fuel cell driven beauties, and fab futuristic micro cars for 1-2 people. Anyway, as brand immersion experiences go, it was great – even if I crashed enough to be unconvinced of the merits of Toyota’s safety system. There was a similar showcase by a company who made earthquake shock absorbers for buildings – again, far better than you’d expect; some physical demos where you could apply earthquakes to buildings with and without the shock absorber; and a chair that you could sit in and experience some of Japan’s greatest earthquakes, with and without the absorber. The chair movement was almost enough to give whiplash for some of the sharper earthquakes; and impressive shock reduction. I’ll buy one if London ever gets earthquakey.

The food, of course, continued amazing. Even the ‘cheap’ conveyor belt sushi places were leagues ahead. Rather than the ‘Yo Sushi’ approach of (dreadful) sushi plates going around forever, you have a tablet at your seat to order from their interactive menu, and the ‘belt’ is used just to send a whizzy cart with your food to you. And pretty damn good sushi it was too – though my ‘cheeseburger sushi’ was more interesting than delicious. But it was a very neat idea for reducing the work of waiters to just clearing the tables after; all the ordering, supply and payment is handled separately. Our final night of the trip was celebrated in a rather fabulous little place where they used a traditional method of using intensely-burning straw as a way to quickly sear the meats – the 800-ish degrees heat allowed the wagyu beef and bonito tuna to be blackened with umami on the outside, and still raw on the inside: delicious! It was also the cheapest place I could find for decent wagyu, which tends to be over £100 for a set menu otherwise. Fruit is similarly amazingly expensive – the nice-but-average supermarket next to us was selling single, perfect melons for a crazy £80 each, and single mangos for £30. However, V managed to find an ‘all you can eat strawberries’ indoor fruit picnic which was just brilliantly Japanese. Why don’t other rainy-climate places do this? The indoor area was beautifully decorated with fake grass, flowers, and little picnic rugs and cushions. We were served a tiered stand with delicious pink delicacies, from macaroons to serrano ham; and managed to eat our bodyweight in strawberries from the fruit stand. Just fabulous!

It was Tokyo Pride while we were there, to our delighted surprise – we wouldn’t have known other than seeing one poster somewhere in Tokyo. And it was lovely. Much bigger, and much more community feeling than London these days. There were hundreds of stalls, and must have been tens of thousands of people marching, and even more lining the roads to cheer everyone on – “Happy Pride!” in English everywhere, rather than a Japanese equivalent. Being Japan, of course, it’s a very orderly procession: people have to line up five abreast, and keep to the same position throughout the march. They are quiet marchers – there was one small group of maybe half a dozen Americans several metres behind us and I swear they made more noise than the hundreds of Japanese in earshot, whooping and hollering all the way. The Japanese tried to join in with the whooping from time to time, but looked a bit sheepish and went quiet again quickly. They have other rules to keep it all nice and tidy: posters around the place which asked people not to wear skimpy clothing were broadly obeyed; rubbish was carefully placed in the recycling bins, and by the time we left, everything was all still very neat and well organised.

They also have lesbian bars and restaurants, which have been missing from London for over a decade, and were lovely to see again. The restaurant we went to was great; a tiny little place where we sat at the counter, chatting occasionally with the few staff who spoke some English. They clapped in delight at the news that we were married – it’s still a long way off in Japan.

Everything, pretty much, was wonderful. Scraping for criticisms: they could do with banning smoking in restaurants and bars. For such a clean, polite place, it’s surprising it still exists. And, Mount Fuji on a cloudy day is pretty underwhelming. And for some reason, they do a lot of queuing for shops

But as criticisms go for a country, that’s pretty light. And – well. That was it; last stop in Japan. We loved it.

The quietness! Signs in trains reminded you not only to not take phonecalls in your seat, but even to be aware of your keyboard noise if typing on a laptop. In a cheap hostel, we saw them oiling the door hinges to ensure it would be as quiet as possible – and the chairs had little socks on their feet so they wouldn’t be noisy. We heard exactly one phone ring in all our time there; and one baby was a bit noisy (though its mother hushed it immediately). In train stations, you hear twittering bird noises – these are to help blind people find escalators and routes. Dogs are silent and well behaved: they will look longingly at your food, but won’t come begging. Even the cars are mysteriously quieter than normal.

The cuteness! Everything looking so damn kawaii, from trains decorated with cats, to huge corporate logos as sweet cartoons, just makes you feel that bit happier and more relaxed than in normal, boring places.

The design-for-users! All the little things are thought through with a couple of small  extra details that make a world of difference. ATMs (in 7-11s) have a place where you can rest your walking stick or brolly, and a coffee cup holder. Seats in crowded cheap sushi places have a little shelf and box underneath to put your bag, and a holder for your umbrella. The toilets – oh, my god, the toilets. Just fabulous. Heated seats. Bidet action – both regular and ‘female’ options; options to change the temperature and width of the spray; and occasionally a drying option built in too. Buttons to press which will make noise (flushing sound or twittering birds) in case you want to hide any noises you are making. In many ladies’ loos, they even have a little seat where you can put your baby/child so they’re in the same cubicle as you, but safely seated. Of course!

The cleanness! Everything, impeccable, always. No graffiti (I quite like graffiti, but didn’t miss it). I remember seeing a cigarette butt on the street in one place, but that’s pretty much it for rubbish. Street sweepers work with obsessive attention to invisible dust. Tube station walls are scrubbed down regularly. Every hotel has washing machines and dryers, mostly free, so you can clean your clothes daily (and fabric spray provided in all rooms). In one hotel, which was particularly rigorous, not only did you have to put your shoes in a shoe locker, and change into hotel slippers, straight after reception; but they also  cleaned the wheels of wheelie suitcases. Of course.

And now. Back to reality. Our BA flight was cancelled, so we were a day later in leaving than planned – but, delightfully, we swapped onto Japan Airlines instead of BA: much better! Giant high quality TVs; tons of room; and little ordering tablet next to us to deliver sushi and champagne to our seats. Good to end on one final high!

It’s been a glorious trip. We will miss it. But for now, it’s back to London, where fecking Brexit is still bollix. At least it’s springtime and we’re both still at leisure. Let the jobhunting begin…

To end on a very Japanese note: this is a statue of a dog who used to wait at Tokyo Station every night for his master. When his master died, he still went to the station to wait. For ten years. So when the dog finally died, they raised a statue to him. Kawaii!

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