The future is alive and well in Tokyo, a city that has always pushed the envelope when it comes to innovation. From cutting-edge museums and avant-garde fashion boutiques to robot shop assistants, high-tech videogaming, extreme vending machines and talking toilets, Tokyo offers visitors a vision of the world to come.
Here are some places to go and things to see in Tokyo that will make you feel like a real time traveler.
National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
The much-loved "Miraikan" is a great place to start your journey through high-tech Tokyo and get you thinking about what the future has in store for all of us. It’s not a huge museum but still large enough to offer a range of fun, interactive (and bilingual) exhibits, talks, classes and games to showcase topics ranging from space exploration and facial recognition technology to remote surgery and robotics. Honda's ASIMO robot — which gained international fame when it played soccer with President Barack Obama in 2014 — is a featured attraction.
Canon Plaza S
Automated humanoids are also front and center at the Canon complex, where Kibiro robots staff the reception desk, give product demonstrations and eagerly ask or answer questions. All of Canon's product lines are on display, with plenty of chances to test drive the latest digital cameras, photocopies, scanners, binoculars, printers and other gadgets. The adjacent Canon Photo Gallery displays more than 1,800 permanent pieces and also hosts special photographic events.
Shinkansen (high speed bullet trains)
Japan was the first country to build high-speed train lines and the Tokyo-Osaka line is perhaps the busiest in the world. Called Shinkansen, the network connects all major Japanese cities with sleek trains traveling at speeds of up to 200 mph (320 kph). The trains are very comfortable and extremely safe. In fact they’ve had no fatal accidents in their over 50-year history. If you’ve never ridden a bullet train before, you are in for a real treat.
Not to be outdone, Panasonic showcases its latest technologies and gives a glimpse into the future on two floors featuring different themed areas. The incredible Wonder Life-BOX unveils the company’s vision of a better life for humanity between the years 2020 and 2030. RiSuPia is an experience-oriented, hands-on museum that showcases the fascinating world of math and science. The Nintendo Game Front gives visitors a chance to try the latest gaming software on large-screen televisions. And don’t miss the robotic saddle — where you can simulate riding horseback as a new form of exercise.
Sony ExploraScience Museum
Sony jumps on the bandwagon with its own innovation experience, an array of interactive and fun exhibits that link the basic principles of science to the latest technology in games, music and film. The museum is divided into Sound and Light zones, including a spectacular 3-D-image section. The 3-D zoo and aquarium is especially fascinating. The museum also features live performances, quizzes, workshops and other special events.
Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo
You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that Pokémon Go is the hottest game app at the moment and a perfect example of Japan’s influence in the world of innovative gaming. For all you Pokémon lovers, Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo is the largest of several Pokémon stores around the city and a must-see for fans. Just about every type of Pokémon merchandise from food to plush monsters in business suits can be found here.
If the weather isn’t great, duck into the Tokyo Joypolis, an indoor theme park with dozens of rides and games based on Sega intellectual properties. Among the park's anchor attractions are the new Gekion Live Rollercoaster, Tokyo Halfpipe snowboard simulator, Storm G futuristic bobsleigh ride and three different simulated jungle rides.
"Electric Town" is the nickname of this neon-spangled neighborhood on the edge of downtown Tokyo, although it could easily be called Geek Central because just about every game and gadget in the universe is available. Hundreds of shops line the streets and fill the high-rise buildings around bustling Akihabara Station, many of them hawking consumer tech that's often years ahead and a lot quirkier than anything available in the U.S. This is also the epicenter for anime and manga, from comic books and DVDs to action figures. Outlets range from street stalls and shops not much bigger than a broom closet to multi-story gaming arcades and the Godzilla-sized Yodobashi Akiba electronic megastore (nine stories).
Long before Gwen Stefani sang about them, "Harajuku Girls" were the trendsetters of Tokyo fashion and the eponymous district where they hang on weekends. This is the place to browse, buy and flaunt the latest Japanese fashions. The neighborhood spreads along the main drag between the Harajuku and Omotesando subway stations, but many of the cutting-edge boutiques perch on narrow backstreets like Takeshita Street. Harajuku is also flush with hip cafes, dessert shops and the occasional surprise like the giant Kiddy Land store with the latest in Japanese games and toys. Take a break from browsing by visiting the Ota Museum with its amazing Japanese woodblock prints or trek through the leafy confines of Yoyogi Park with its famous Meiji Shrine.
Japanese vending machines are an attraction unto themselves. While some stock traditional items like sodas and snacks, many others dispense alcoholic beverages, toys, books, umbrellas and more. Fresh produce and food machines offer fruit, eggs, bento boxes, barbecued meats, french fries and even floral arrangements. You can also outfit yourself with gloves, neckties and underwear. The most advanced vending machines can offer options tied to the time of day, weather or customer’s age and gender as estimated through sensors.
Even more than vending machines, Tokyo's high-tech commodes arouse shock, awe and sometimes even confusion in overseas visitors who can’t quite figure out how the darn things work. Control panels mounted on the armrest (yes, there's an armrest) control all sorts of functions above and beyond mere flushing, including multiple nozzles that squirt water at different strengths and variable temperatures to a particular part of the human anatomy. In eerie, Siri-like fashion, some toilets talk to you. Different models offer vibrating and pulsating jets of water, soap dispensers, blow-dryers, “relaxing” music, a privacy device that masks body-produced sound and deodorizing systems. Some toilets heat the seat during winter and provide air conditioning below the rim during summer.
Before you do anything in Tokyo, purchase a Super Urban Intelligent Card (Suica) from a train or subway station vending machine. The rechargeable smart cards are good on subways, buses and trains in Tokyo and surrounding areas, and can be used as electronic money at an ever-increasing number of stores, kiosks and vending machines throughout the city.
For more information on options in Tokyo, see the Official Tokyo Travel Guide: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/.
—Joe Yogerst for Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau