IT IS as if you’ve stepped straight into the Matrix, that digital universe where Keanu Reeves & Co capered crazily through an alternate reality just below the surface of everyday life.
But, no, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. This is for real.
Welcome to the surreal surrounds of teamLab Planets in Tokyo, a parallel playground where the laws of physics are forgotten, and where there’s a surprise awaiting around every corner.
I’m experiencing this mind-boggling masterpiece of interactive art with guide Eriko Shiratori, who has been sharing her love of Japanese culture with people around the globe since 2017.
Eriko has travelled to dozens of countries and lived overseas, in Australia and Canada, for a couple of years. Being exposed to other cultures has given her a new lens to look at her hometown and its traditions.
Her great-grandfather was a kimono craftsman in Tokyo, and he wouldn’t have believed his eyes had he seen the technological wonderland in which we find ourselves, quite literally at times, immersed.
And, in keeping with the place itself, I’m doing it digitally – on a live-streamed, real time tour on the Heygo platform, where you not only walk with local guides but chat with them and fellow guests, and take ‘postcard’ snaps. All the images in this post were taken remotely that way.
Initially, we find ourselves in a web of digital lights reflected off mirrored walls and ceilings. It’s just like the opening of The Matrix movie as the motes move and flow fluidly around us.
Looking up, it’s as if you’re in a dense rainforest of light, or as if you’re standing at the foot of a waterfall, especially when the lights run through all manner of aqua shades to deepest blue.
Not only do the colours change, but so do the patterns they make, opening up long corridors like gateways to an alternate universe. Marvel’s Doctor Strange would be right at home here.
At times they appear translucent but next moment they look solid. This is 21st century art that you not only have chance to admire, but actually to be a part of.
That interactivity is highlighted when you open up an app on your phone to discover that you’re in charge. You can change the displays in this Infinite Crystal Universe at the touch of a button.
It means that no two visits will ever be the same. Quite apart from the programme of changing seasonal exhibitions here, what you see really does depend on you.
It can prove quite disorientating at times, especially when you add mirrored floors to the mix. At times we meet multiple Erikos as we walk through the installation.
Sometimes it’s quite difficult to work out where the exits and entrances are but, rest assured, there are friendly, helpful staff on hand to help guide you on your way.
That way is entirely up to you, by the way. Although tickets offer timed admission, you can ‘do’ the various areas of teamlab Planets in any order, and spend as much time as you want to explore its wonders.
You discover the Water Garden barefoot, not least because you find yourself wading knee-deep through actual water. Don’t worry, though. It’s pleasantly warm and there are towels to dry off afterwards.
Through the water dart digital koi carp which react to your own movement, flowing peacefully around your feet, and darting away should you make any sudden movement.
They’re just like the real thing but in pastel hues of pink, blue and green. And, as in all the different areas, they swim to a soothing soundtrack of electronic music that would be at home in a spa.
And there’s another surreal surprise. When the fish collide with people they turn into flowers and scatter. Throughout a year, the flowers that bloom will change along with the seasons.
From water to fire, there’s a spot where you can sit on a slab and watch a wall ablaze with flickering flames that may well remind you of the Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Back out in the water, things have changed. There are now threads of colour moving through the mirrored room, creating a vast seascape of shifting shapes.
Imagine the largest infinity pool you have ever seen, then super-size it.
Suitably dried off, there are entirely different sensations in store. The next area is filled with spheres of free floating light, through which you can walk.
As you touch them, the spheres change colour and tone which, in turn, resonates out to nearby spheres as if you’ve set off a chain reaction.
Next up is a kaleidoscope of colour, first of shapes that are hard to process but which gradually resolve themselves into flower petals.
It’s here that the mirrored surfaces really come into their own, allowing you to walk through the falling petals which gently drift above, around and beneath you.
Here’s a closer look at the blizzard of blooms which seemingly gently blows through the room. It’s a wonderfully relaxing experience, perhaps the ultimate chill out.
Eriko explains that each time she has visited the centre the installations have been different, whether by design or by the delightful accident of people’s interaction with them.
More physically immediate is a field of glistening globular shapes sitting atop mounds of moss. Just like pretty much everything here, they change colour if you touch them.
I have to admit that, as a science fiction fan, they initially put me in mind of the seed pods featured in the Alien movies, from which emerged face-hugging creatures.
No such worries here. They’re beautifully benign and alluringly addictive. The reflections in them are dramatic, occasionally defying description.
Enter barefoot, immerse your body with others in the artwork spaces, and become one with the world, we’re told at the beginning of your journey.
Last, but not least, is the Garden of Flowers. Here, you become one with nature as exquisitely designed digital greenery stretches out around you.
Here’s our guide Eriko again, setting foot at the entrance to the area, the mirrors around us turning her this way and that, upright and upside down.
And here’s a close-up of the jungle that grows around us, showing just how detailed it is. You’d swear that it’s the real thing as your eyes deceive you once again.
“This is a museum where you walk through water, and a garden where you become one with the flowers,” say the curators. “The boundary between the body and the artwork dissolves.
“The boundaries between the self, others, and the world become continuous, and we explore a new relationship without boundaries between ourselves and the world.”
And, okay, it might sound a tad pretentious but, d’you know, there’s certainly some truth in what they say at this palace of wonders where you really can’t believe your eyes.
For more on teamLab Planets Tokyo, take a look at the teamLab Tokyo site and to catch up with Eriko on her forthcoming Heygo tours head to heygo.com.
Read more: Head to my Heygo archive for destination features, interviews with guides and news and views about the live-stream platform.
Elegant and accurate description of the tour. I have been on many Digital experiences with Eriko and loved every one (as I do all her tours) but could never describe them as well as you do.