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Into the white

Japan’s old-meets-new blend remains a beguiling pull for travellers keen to enjoy a bit of both. Beyond the rituals and time-honoured traditions, Jo Caruana looks at how Japan offers an exciting – and sometimes mind blowing – sneak-peek at the technologies of tomorrow

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Japan

You’ve just exited the Bullet Train, grabbed a bouquet of fresh flowers from a nearby vending machine and are solar-powering your mobile phone as you walk. It must be Japan – the country where on any given day, you could be eating a lunch cooked by robots, catching forty winks at a capsule hotel and storing your groceries in a specially designed, refrigerated locker.  

Travellers hungry for technology will be hard-pressed to beat the frenetic pace of Tokyo’s busy, neon-lit streets. A sprawling metropolis of mega billboards and TV screen-bedecked skyscrapers, the city’s humble beginnings as a fishing village have been replaced by the latest and greatest of just about everything; and the newness of it all has become one of the country’s biggest attractions.

Throughout Tokyo’s various districts, technology feels omnipresent. For starters, the transport on offer is some of the sleekest and most reliable in the world. The city’s trains are largely considered to be the best way to get around, as they are clean, safe and reliable – although usually pretty crowded too. Bullet trains are particularly useful because they travel at much faster speeds than trains in most countries, while the futuristic monorail system overhead is both efficient and fun. It is also worth using your commute to catch up on the latest news, weather and financial reports courtesy of the carriage’s LCD screens.

If you do opt to come into the city by car or bike, high-tech parking options include the use of conveyor belts that whip your vehicle off to an underground lot until you are ready to have it carried back up to you, leaving you with more time to explore what other technologies are in store.

The Ginza district, for instance, is a shopper’s haven – where everything from the latest, quirkiest fashions, to the most cutting-edge of electronic equipment is available in the many unique boutiques and sprawling department stores. The renowned, four-storey Sony Building (on Sukiyabashi Crossing) is the place to take a sneak-peek at the gadgets and gizmos that the rest of the world won’t be privy to for years, while the Bic Camera and Sofmap electronics department stores, as well as the Ginza Apple Store, are must-sees for techies. 

Throughout Tokyo, and much of Japan, it is evident that everything has been designed with the utmost convenience in mind. For instance, if you find yourself with some spare time following a cancelled meeting, you could opt to head to a capsule hotel, where individual pod-like spaces can be rented by the hour for a rest or lie-down. Alternatively, a robot could prepare you a sumptuous bowl of ramen noodles, ordered via the handy touch-screen menu embedded within your dining table, or you could simply grab a steaming bowl of soup from a handy nearby vending machine.
 
In fact, the sky’s the limit when it comes to technology and Tokyo’s skyscrapers are certainly testament to that. In Odaiba, one of Tokyo’s other major districts, you’ll find the sky-high Fuji TV Building, the Tokyo Big Sight Convention Centre, the 24-hour Tokyo Leisure Land gaming centre, and the popular Toyota MEGA WEB, where futuristic car technology, eco-friendly options and F1 developments are proudly showcased at the touch of a button. There’s no doubting this district as a technology-lover’s retreat, but Odaiba also offers alternative sight-seeing opportunities if the electronics of it all have become too much for you, including the celebrated (and stunning) Rainbow bridge, two of Tokyo’s unique beaches and the popular Museum of Maritime Science.     

If you are still hankering after more high-tech purchases, then you might as well head straight to Akihabara, on the eastern side of the central Chiyoda – an electronics Mecca that stocks just about everything imaginable. Nicknamed ‘Electric Town’, it’s not hard to understand why, as over 250 electronic stores sit side-by-side vying for business. It is important to bear in mind that many items won’t work outside of Japan and Asia, but just ogling at what is on offer will be enough for most. That said, not all the space-age wizardry is off limits, as retailers are careful to stock a number of items for Europeans – and many of these will still be light years ahead of what is available back home. 

The district’s main street, Chuo Dori Avenue, was originally developed as a retail area for home electronics, but recent trends have centred it on the Internet and Japan’s obsession with Otaku and Anime. In fact, in addition to the standard stores situated here, you will also find a number of animation-related establishments, including cosplay (‘costume play’) cafes, where waitresses are dressed up like anime characters, and manga kissaten (‘comic cafes’), where customers can read comics, watch DVDs and surf the net. While in the district, it might be fun to check out Tokyo’s Animation Centre, which pays homage to animation and gaming through a variety of demonstrations and events every day.

A good gateway, Akihabara can also be your link to other techno-obsessed parts of Japan. Tsukuba, (nicknamed ‘Science City’), a striking modern urban landscape, is about an hour outside of Tokyo on the Tsukuba Express Train. Both at home and abroad, it is largely recognised as Japan’s pre-eminent centre for science and technology.

With a population of around 200,000 it really is a city in its own right, carefully created to combine some of the best technologically-minded people in the world, as well as 33 national research centres, universities and over 250 private research institutes.

Those keen to glance into the future will do well to add this spot to their itinerary, and numerous accommodation options exist within the city itself for those wanting to make this their base. Tsukuba has plenty to offer, including the Tsukuba Information Centre, which details the history of the city as well as various exhibitions, and Cosmic Hall, one of the largest planetariums in the world. A convenient Tsukuba Science Tour Bus visits all eight of the city’s major sights 21 times a day.

Accommodation all over Japan is known to be excellent, with futuristic touches that make your stay all the more exciting. For instance, be sure to keep your eyes peeled as your enter your en-suite, as toilets in this part of the world generally do more than a bog-standard flush. Japan is undeniably the world-leader in toilet technology. In fact, you can expect your loo to wash you, self-clean and heat the seat, though more advanced models may even replace the toilet roll, play music and… blow dry your posterior. It’s early days, but toilet talk in Japan has rumoured that future advancements will allow medical sensors in your bog to measure your blood pressure, body fat content and pulse – before automatically passing this information on to your doctor via built-in internet cables.

And if multi-purpose toilets are all a bit much, then steer clear of another of Japan’s latest innovations – high-tech graveyards. Here, upon entering these new, city space-saving ‘cemeteries’, such as the Kouanji Buddhist temple in Tokyo, mourners are asked to insert a membership card before their loved one’s cremated remains are brought to them via a conveyer belt, for them to be honoured and remembered.

This, like much of what has been detailed here, may seem weird to some, but in Japan it is simply another high-tech solution to a problem posed by the fast-paced, space-strapped elements of modern living. Japan truly is a land of contrasts, where picturesque and historic temples sit beside glitzy skyscrapers, and iconic geishas mingle with modern anime-obsessed teens in high-tech sushi bars. But that is simply all part of Japan’s unfailing allure as a destination for today, and tomorrow.

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