Tokyo’s Art Scene
Back when my trip to Tokyo was just a future dream, there were two places that I knew would be an absolute must for me to visit, and I made sure I booked them both ahead of time to avoid any disappointment. After a couple of days spent out of the city, it was time to do Tokyo justice and get and about. A few years ago at my local International Film Festival, I watched an animated movie called The Red Turtle, that had me in tears. It was the first Studio Ghibli movie I’d watched from start to finish and I loved it. I hadn’t watched any others since, but I knew of some of the main characters and most popular movies from the Studio, and I was well aware of Totoro, one of the most famous characters. Despite not being well versed in the movies, a visit to the Ghibli Museum was something that I was really keen to do, but required a good bit of forward planning. Gaining access to the museum requires a ticket that goes up for sale 1-2 months prior, and they sell out fast. Thankfully, I had been given a heads up by a friend who had visited the year before, and I set off from my Yotsuya hotel in October 2019, armed with my ticket.
I was by now very comfortable with the train network around Tokyo. Yotsuya was well connected, and with my pocket WiFi and transport app, negotiating the route I needed to the suburb of Mitaka was simple. It was already blistering hot when I got off the train at the other end, and I had about a 15 minute walk from the station, all the while wandering through residential streets in a part of Tokyo so different to where I’d been so far. Every now and again, I passed a sign counting down the distance to the museum, a grinning Totoro popping up above it. Arriving at the museum, I was greeted by a fancy big building and a giant Totoro in the bay window as I entered the grounds. The entrance ticket was allocated in time slots, and I’d secured the first entry of the day. As the queue slowly moved around the building, the building itself became more colourful and was covered in large swathes of ivy. Eventually it was my turn to get inside and was handed my entrance ticket, which included a reel from a Studio Ghibli movie, and after being pointed in the direction of the entrance, I was set free to explore.
You are not allowed to take photos inside the museum, which I respect, but despite only knowing a handful of the Studio Ghibli movies, I was absolutely enthralled with the place. Downstairs had various rooms with props and artwork on display, and towards the back was a small cinema that showed the most delightful short movie. Spiral staircases led upstairs, and I went into room after room of artworks and videos displaying how some of the movies had been made. I spent hours there, making sure I saw every thing there was to see, even queuing in the busier rooms to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. In one corner, a spiral staircase led up onto the roof, where I was immediately sweating in the intense Tokyo heat. Standing tall to greet me was a giant robot statue, representing one of the characters from the movie Castle in the Sky. It was impossible to visit this place and not buy something at the gift shop – there was some serious money changing hands here – and I left at lunchtime, satisfied with my morning.
My second must-do of Tokyo was also pre-booked to a time slot, but I had a few hours to get there so I decided to walk to a further away train station to allow me to visit Inokashira Park. The heat meant that every day of walking left me with painful and swollen legs, but it was hard not to make the most of Tokyo’s expansive parks by exploring every square inch of them. The Ghibli Museum sat at the most southern end of it, and I cut through sports fields where locals played tennis and ran round a track. The dominant feature of this park was a large lake which I reached after passing through wooded areas and statues. The reflections on the water were divine, and a series of bridges criss-crossed the water. I made sure to cover as much of the perimeter path as I could, circling round the long length of the lake before crossing back and forth across a few of the bridges to make a sort of figure-eight. I was surprised to see some cormorants, a species which I also see back home in New Zealand, and there were a few ducks and a heron to add to the bird life. It was possible to hire paddle boats, and even although it was a weekday, the place was full of locals, from mums out with children, to retirees out for a stroll, and workers taking a lunch break. I’m sure there were other tourists there too, but I felt like I was seeing the real Tokyo, away from the usual tourist hubs nearer the city centre.
I had several connections to catch to push me around and across Tokyo to the Aomi region within Tokyo Bay. In hindsight, I would have loved to have explored this area more in depth, but as it was, I arrived with just enough time to walk across the open complex at Tokyo Teleport station, where I was greeted by a giant multi-coloured Ferris wheel. Instructions in hand, I headed into the mall and almost immediately found myself inside a giant Toyota showroom. Looking down on reams of shiny cars, I cut across the galley and found myself directly under the Ferris wheel, watching it spin past me as I headed to the building next door. I was excited to get inside and see what all the fuss was about, with 3hrs prior to closing to make the most of it.
From the first photos I’d come across online, I knew immediately that teamLab Borderless was a place I had to visit, and I was not disappointed. This place blew me away, and I could happily go back again and again. Effectively a giant warehouse divided into rooms and floors, there’s no set path through, and its up to you to find every access doorway to every room – and boy do you want to make sure you see it all! Essentially an interactive art gallery, this place goes well beyond that, and it simply needs to be experienced. No photo or video could ever do this place justice. The first room was immense, and was a series of walls that displayed an ever-changing artwork of flowers. The place was effectively in darkness aside from the light created by the artwork, and it meant that some of the doors to different rooms were almost hidden. It made it a bit of a game to work out where each of the rooms were, and I’m fairly confident that I got round every single one of them. The place was packed, but it did make it easier to spot some of the room openings, however a few of the more popular rooms had long queues to get into them, and due to this, it took me the entire 3hrs to get round the place.
The whole place was an assault on the senses, but one that I very much enjoyed. Music played everywhere I went, and the lights and moving images led you round corners and down corridors. One of the most beautiful rooms was a large space with a high ceiling, in the centre of which was a raised area to get some perspective from. The art work moved across the floor and up the walls, and it was simply mesmerising. Everyone in the room became part of the art as the colours swept across their bodies. It was divine. The door out of here was quite well hidden but it wasn’t long before I found myself in a room of flashing rope lights and a mirrored floor. I went through this room a couple of times, because it was so pretty, but out the far side in an alcove, the vision of a bird dramatically flying across the space took my breath away.
Making sure I saw everything occasionally involved doubling back a bit, but I didn’t mind seeing some of the rooms more than once. I walked through fields of lillies where leaves fell and sat in a room with waves crashing around me before I realised that there was more than one floor. My first queue started at the bottom of the stairs and slowly led me upstairs to one of the most famous rooms at teamLab Borderless – the room of coloured lights. I’d seen the most photos of this room online and it was clearly very popular. The queue to get into the room was longer than the allotted time allowed inside it, but with a galley window to look inside as you waited for your turn, there was plenty of time to get a feel for the place. The room was a deep red when I first entered, eventually turning to a mix of pastels before I had to leave.
Upstairs was even more interactive than downstairs. As I entered the main area upstairs I was greeted by humpback whales swimming across the walls and geckos crawling across the floor. It was possible to draw art here that could be incorporated into the moving images, and at the far end I was greeted by a room full of giant air-filled blobs that changed colour as you walked through them. There were climbing poles to traverse, and moving platforms to try and cross, before I found myself in what could probably have passed as a kids room but was instead mainly visited by adults: a giant room with planes, cars and boats moving around, that could be manipulated by moving the objects across the floor and walls. The large slide just outside the city room made me wonder if upstairs was supposed to be for kids, but there were hardly any kids there, and every adult I saw was taking great delight in interacting with the artwork, myself included.
I watched the humpback whales frolic across the room before heading back downstairs to visit the last few rooms. There was another long queue that left me standing among a corridor of falling flowers, the colours dancing across my face and including me in their movement as I stood there. It took 20 minutes to get into this last room where I had to lie down on a large hammock suspended in the middle of the room. This was the only artwork I was underwhelmed by, and not really worth the wait, but when I came out I was close to the entrance and had just 15 minutes left before the place would shut. I walked round the flower walls I’d seen on arrival and headed back to the dancing rope lights once more before stepping outside into the darkness of the Tokyo night.
The reality is though that Tokyo isn’t really dark at night. The sky may look dark if you look up, but that is because it is hard to see any stars with so much light pollution from the city itself. If Tokyo goes to sleep, I don’t know when it does, because it always seemed so busy, bright and brash in the hours of the night, just as it did during the day. The colourful Ferris wheel was still turning as I walked below it once more, but this time I decided to wander around the Toyota warehouse as I passed through. Aside from the standard Toyota cars on display, there were some space-age models and some artistic body work on display too.
I visited Tokyo during the Rugby World Cup, and with the New Zealand All Blacks playing that night I decided to be social and visit one of the RWC hubs to watch the game in public. The crowds were massive but sadly it wasn’t set up that well so it was really difficult to see the screens through the throng of heads in front of me. A little dejected, I decided to head back to my hotel to watch the game there. Only my second hotel didn’t have the TV channel to watch the RWC. My initial hotel had, and I’d been able to watch the Scotland match a few nights prior. I was gutted to miss out on the experience, but I had acquired some merchandise at the shop before leaving that night. Sadly the All Blacks didn’t bring the cup home that tournament. They were outplayed several times, and that night’s match was one of them. But it was time to take my throbbing, swollen legs to bed ahead of another Tokyo adventure the following day.