Over the Rainbow

Thornbury is an associate professor of Japanese at Temple University, Philadelphia

As an educator who specializes in Japanese literature and culture, I could give you a long list of what fascinates me about Tokyo. Recently I have added to it the city's newest work and play land: the area municipal image makers have dubbed Rainbow Town.

Rainbow Town has nothing to do with Japan of the past. Rather, it's a postmodern development that blasts away all traditional Japanese images of Kabuki theater and folk festivals. In contrast, it offers a fascinating, must-see view of Tokyo as it soars into the 21st century.

Officially known in Japanese as Rinkai Fukutoshin, which translates as "seaside sub-downtown," Rainbow Town sits on a parcel of man-made real estate jutting into the waters of Tokyo Bay. It is 1,100 acres of open space punctuated by high-tech offices, museums and restaurants and a sliver of sand offering a knockout view of downtown Tokyo.

The best way to get to Rainbow Town is to start at Shinbashi train station in central Tokyo. A few steps from the old station building is the new terminal for the poetically named Yurikamome (the Gull), a light-rail line that loops through the Rainbow Town area. Buy a $6.50 day pass so you can get on and off the Gull without having to pay the pricey individual fares between stations, and you are free to explore the area unencumbered. (The train stop signs are in English, as well as Japanese.)

I have never been on the Gull when it was not jammed. But even if you do not get a seat, the ride from Shinbashi station across the bay, which separates central Tokyo from Rainbow Town, takes only a few minutes. Business people head to the half dozen or so office buildings for work and appointments and to the exhibition building for the trade shows.

But this is not just a sterile place of business. A few people have bought condominiums in Rainbow Town and live there full time. Their kids can even go to elementary and junior high school there.

Day-trippers and tourists like me go to gawk at some of the razzle-dazzle architecture, visit a museum or two, empty our wallets in Tokyo Joypolis (a state-of-the-art virtual-reality game center) and have lunch or dinner with a water view. The elegant Hotel Nikko Tokyo offers accommodations with prices starting at about $250 for a double room, not a bad price by Tokyo standards for that kind of hotel.

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From central Tokyo, the Gull crosses the gleaming Rainbow Bridge, a lovely bi-level structure that has already become one of the city's icons. Teenage and 20ish trendsetters and trend followers such as Yoko, the college-student daughter of one of my Tokyo friends, like to gather up their buddies on weekend nights and head out across Rainbow Bridge in their cars.

Often they head for Decks Tokyo Beach, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with sand. This beach is a building housing restaurants, boutiques and the Joypolis. There they grab a bite to eat, do a little shopping and spend an hour or two playing fancy computer games. Just being able to say they spent the evening in Tokyo's newest "in" spot appears to be part of the allure.

Vast glass and steel edifices seem as much exercises in geometrical fantasy as products of architectural design. Take Fuji Television's new corporate headquarters, which opened last spring. One of Japan's major broadcasting companies, Fuji Television has combined in one linked complex the solidity of office towers with an open grid arrangement in which a giant steel sphere has been set. I suppose the sphere, whose floor space includes an observation area and restaurant open to the public, is a symbol of the Earth. Or perhaps it is the sun. A few hundred yards away is the Telecom Center office building, a giant box with a cut-out center. Standing at a distance, you get the dreamy impression that you are looking at a framed picture of the bay and, if you gaze into the farthest distance, the Pacific Ocean.

In this neighborhood of abstract forms, the Museum of Maritime Science is a standout, if only because it is built in the shape of a giant cruise liner. An exhaustive (and exhausting) series of exhibits covers in minute detail everything from water transportation to marine development to water sports. On a visit last summer, I most enjoyed the self-guided tour of the Soya Antarctic research vessel that is anchored just outside the museum's main building. Until its decommissioning 20 years ago, the Soya had traveled to Antarctica six times to survey glaciers and various geological features.

Crewless and silent as the Soya is now, the self-guided tour that threads its way though the ship's narrow and winding passageways and in and out of its myriad chambers allows visitors to vividly imagine what life aboard this Japanese expedition ship may have been like. It is the little things that catch the eye: the books and musical instruments carefully stowed away on shelves, the meticulously detailed logs laid open for casual inspection. My romantic impression was one of cramped, yet cozy efficiency mixed with adventure on the icy seas.

The maritime museum, the Telecom Center and the Fuji Television headquarters are among the buildings that have observation decks on their upper floors, offering sweeping views of Tokyo's skyline and the Pacific.

There are amusements at sea level too. A park called Odaiba Rinkai Koen offers a sandy beach for sun worshipers and windsurfing enthusiasts. It is also where the occasional beach volleyball tournament is held.

Each time I have gone over to Rainbow Town I have taken the Gull as far as the international exhibition center, which is the second to last station on the line. From there I have made my way back in the direction of Shinbashi station, getting off and on, as fancy dictates, at Gull stops along the way.

Like everything else in Rainbow Town, the international exhibition center has its own special name: Tokyo Big Sight. Outside, a giant red-handled saw (yes, the kind that cuts wood) is the center's public art showpiece. Inside, the halls and meeting rooms are the setting for a frenetic schedule of world-class trade shows that are generally open to anyone interested enough to pay an admission fee of about $10.

The International Food Products Industry Show, the Technopia (computer) Show, the Auto Service Industry Show, the Asia Beauty Industry Expo and the International Housewares Show are a sampling of events last year. Such events are generally geared toward an international clientele and would be fun even for those who don't speak Japanese.

I was staggered by the sheer volume of people flowing along Big Sight walkways, up and down escalators and through hallways, although the structure is certainly large enough to accommodate masses. At some point, the stream of people seemed to flow into Wanza Ariake Mall.

Only a stone's throw from Tokyo Big Sight, Wanza Ariake Mall occupies two lower floors of an office and showroom complex called Tokyo Fashion Town. Perhaps 20 eating places--from sushi shops to McDonald's--do business here. There are also a few shops, including a nice bookstore. The mall has its own indoor showplace in its airy central concourse. In it, a silvery waterfall sprinkles down to a ground-floor pool from a height of several stories.

But when it comes to playtime in Rainbow Town, the center of the action is Decks Tokyo Beach. Its boutiques and 30 or so restaurants are uniformly attractive and calculated to lure in hip, young crowds. Looking for lunch? It's easy to spend 30 minutes or more shopping through the five stories that house fancy shops, cute cafes and handsome dining spots. An economic malaise is gripping Japan these days, but you would never know it here. There is something oddly reassuring about falling in with an obviously prosperous crowd populated by young women toting Louis Vuitton bags and guys wearing Ralph Lauren tennis shirts. Someone still has money to spend.

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When your appetite for food has been sated, head to Tokyo Joypolis. For an admission charge of $4 and between $4 and $6.50 for every game played, another dimension of the post-modern world of Tokyo's Rainbow Town can be experienced. Flashing lights and weird whooping noises emanate from machines that are staging grounds for alien combat and other tests of skill.

Although Rainbow Bridge and its Gull transportation system have yet to celebrate their 3rd birthdays, the land on which the development sits has been decades in the making. A marvel of civil engineering, Rainbow Town will doubtlessly see more buildings constructed on its open spaces, once the Japanese economy returns to a firmer footing. It promises to continue providing an interesting glimpse into Tokyo's future.

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GUIDEBOOK

Rainbow Ready

Getting there: JAL, Singapore Airlines, United, ANA, Korean Air, Varig and Delta fly nonstop from LAX to Tokyo. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,053.

To get to Rainbow Town from central Tokyo, take the Yurikamome line from the Yurikamome terminal next to Shinbashi rail station. One-way fares between stations range from $2 to $3, depending on the distance traveled. The $6.50 day pass is a sensible choice for anyone planning to get off and on at several stations. The station serving the Tokyo Big Sight international exhibition area is Kokusai Tenjijo Seimon Eki. The Telecom Center has its own station (Terekomu Sentaa Eki), as does the Museum of Maritime Science (Fune no Kagakukan Eki). For Hotel Nikko Tokyo (from the U.S., telephone 011-81-3-5500-5500 or tel. [800] 645-5687) and the Fuji Television building, use Daiba Eki station. Decks Tokyo Beach is accessible from Odaiba Rinkai Koen Eki station.

Museums: Admission to the Museum of Maritime Science (local tel. 5500-1111), open on weekdays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. (on weekends and holidays until 6 p.m.), costs $8. (English guidebook available.) The observation deck on the 21st floor of the Telecom Center is open daily from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. The entry fee is $4.80. The observation floor in the Fuji Television building sphere is open to the public without charge.

Also worth a visit is the Port of Tokyo Museum (tel. 5500-2587) on the 20th floor of the Aoumi Frontier Building. Open every day except Mondays from 9:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., the museum has displays related to Tokyo Bay and its reclaimed land projects. Admission is under $2.

Visitors who like boat rides may want to tour the waters of Tokyo Bay and visit Rainbow Town by water bus (suijo basu). For more information: Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 1611, Los Angeles, CA 90017; tel. (213) 623-1952, fax (213) 623-6301.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK

Rainbow Ready

Getting there: JAL, Singapore Airlines, United, ANA, Korean Air, Varig and Delta fly nonstop from LAX to Tokyo. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,053.

To get to Rainbow Town from central Tokyo, take the Yurikamome line from the Yurikamome terminal next to Shinbashi rail station. One-way fares between stations range from $2 to $3, depending on the distance traveled. The $6.50 day pass is a sensible choice for anyone planning to get off and on at several stations. The station serving the Tokyo Big Sight international exhibition area is Kokusai Tenjijo Seimon Eki. The Telecom Center has its own station (Terekomu Sentaa Eki), as does the Museum of Maritime Science (Fune no Kagakukan Eki). For Hotel Nikko Tokyo (from the U.S., telephone 011-81-3-5500-5500 or tel. [800] 645-5687) and the Fuji Television building, use Daiba Eki station. Decks Tokyo Beach is accessible from Odaiba Rinkai Koen Eki station.

Museums: Admission to the Museum of Maritime Science (local tel. 5500-1111), open on weekdays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. (on weekends and holidays until 6 p.m.), costs $8. (English guidebook available.) The observation deck on the 21st floor of the Telecom Center is open daily from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. The entry fee is $4.80. The observation floor in the Fuji Television building sphere is open to the public without charge.

Also worth a visit is the Port of Tokyo Museum (tel. 5500-2587) on the 20th floor of the Aoumi Frontier Building. Open every day except Mondays from 9:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., the museum has displays related to Tokyo Bay and its reclaimed land projects. Admission is under $2.

Visitors who like boat rides may want to tour the waters of Tokyo Bay and visit Rainbow Town by water bus (suijo basu). For more information: Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 1611, Los Angeles, CA 90017; tel. (213) 623-1952, fax (213) 623-6301.

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