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Destination: Japan

Over the Rainbow

In Tokyo, a gleaming futuristic cityscape made for work and play

March 08, 1998|BARBARA E. THORNBURY | Thornbury is an associate professor of Japanese at Temple University, Philadelphia

TOKYO — 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.

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