When my daughter and I first visited Odaiba, Tokyo's redeveloped waterfront, to see a one-ring Bolshoi Circus performance at the Tokyo Big Sight international exhibition center, I couldn't shake the impression that I had just landed on a newly constructed settlement on the moon.
Glass-and-steel towers angle toward the heavens, massive geometric pavilions seem to hover in place, covered walkways connect various installations, and a sleek and silent train whisks explorers in and out of the area. There are themed shopping malls, a museum, a TV broadcast center, various sports facilities, an exhibition center, theme parks, two virtual reality entertainment centers, a vehicles-of-the-future showcase, a brewery, restaurants, hotels and what's billed as the world's largest Ferris wheel. The feeling of an alternate reality was only reinforced when one of ANA's Pokemon passenger jets roared overhead.
Part of a landfill island in Tokyo Bay, Odaiba was the site of a failed development scheme in the 1980s, but in recent years has recovered to become a thriving entertainment and romance district for locals. Visitors still don't get there much, but it's a great way to explore one Japanese vision of the leading edge in shopping, entertainment and leisure. It's also one of the few opportunities in Tokyo to see horizons and smell the ocean.
To get there, start at Tokyo's Shimbashi subway station, in a gritty neighborhood of bars and pachinko parlors. Out the east side of the station is the covered entrance to the new train called Yurikamome, which means "sea gull." The doors of the cars slide silently shut and the train glides off with a hum, its tires running in a slot that gives the impression of a monorail. Shimbashi's grime recedes, and the panorama of Tokyo begins as the train heads south, about 45 feet above ground. On one side is the spread of office buildings, warehouses, schools and playgrounds, on the other the activity of Tokyo Bay, with barges, fishing boats, container ships and even cruise boats docked at Hinode Pier. If you did no more than ride the Yurikamome from Shimbashi to the last stop and back--a one-hour excursion--the views of the city alone would make it worth the $7 round-trip ticket.
Odaiba, sometimes called Daiba, is popular with Japanese tourists. Families from the provinces come to stay at the two new luxury hotels--Hotel Nikko and Le Meridien Grand Pacific--and to tour the shopping centers, amusement parks, Fuji Television's 25th-floor observation deck inside the metallic ball perched between two towers, and, maybe, Tokyo Disneyland, a short bus ride away.
Tokyoites, by contrast, come for the romance. Odaiba is known as a place for couples. Some restaurants have special couples' dining prices. The waterfront is filled with couples talking quietly and holding hands. The Meridien has nine banquet rooms suitable for weddings, and each one can be used twice a day. So in one weekend the Meridien can have 36 weddings, and it sometimes does. In its first year, the hotel hosted 1,200 weddings.
But it's romantic enough just to have dinner on the hotel's 30th floor, where there are three restaurants specializing in sushi, tempura and teppan-yaki. They are small, quiet places with seating at counters facing the view. Behind the chef's back is one of the best views of the city, taking in the Rainbow Bridge and the lights of Tokyo.
But there are plenty of other choices. Take the train first to Aomi Station, where the complex called Palette Town includes Venus Fort, a shopping mall aimed at women; the Toyota City Showcase, where you can test-drive the latest models on a short, safe course (or try the virtual reality drive, where accidents are part of the fun); and the Wonder Wheel, said to be the world's largest Ferris wheel. It's 376 feet high and carries 384 people, six to a gondola, for a leisurely 16-minute circle (cost: about $6.50). On those rare days when no haze blankets the city, riders claim to have seen Mount Fuji.
Venus Fort ("The Theme Park for Ladies"), built of corrugated-tin paneling, is unpretentious enough on the outside. But the inside is a different and far stranger story. The mall is supposed to evoke an 18th-century European village. Yes, there are squares with fountains and a church--not to mention Hope Plaza and Happiness Plaza--but behind every stone column is a boutique with leading-edge fashions, fragrances and accessories. In place of a stained-glass window, the church has a flat-screen television and booming speakers. Every hour, the cloud-painted ceiling simulates the sun's progress from dawn to dusk.
To take in the views, for $4 you can buy a ticket to the immensely popular, futuristic Fuji Television observation deck, to savor the cityscape and harbor-front. Or you might want to splurge on the 30th-floor dining of the Meridien or the third-floor bay-front dining of the Hotel Nikko. But the Decks Tokyo Beach mall has lots of restaurants on the fifth and sixth floors, most facing Tokyo Bay and with outdoor seating. Lunches run from $8 to $12, dinners a bit more.
At Decks is Sega's virtual reality amusement center called Joypolis. You can buy a passport (about $32) through the spaceship doors, or pay a smaller entrance fee and buy individual ride tickets at $4 to $6 each for the range of 3-D faux adventures, which range from whitewater rafting to exploring the bowels of a medieval castle.
The waterfront is still a work in progress, with construction underway for other entertainment and shopping venues. Empty fields show there is plenty of room to expand. But, like Tokyo itself, Odaiba does not think of itself as being permanent. Many of the attractions of Palette Town--including Venus Fort and the Ferris wheel--were built on 10-year contracts with the understanding they'd then be razed--and replaced, no doubt, with some other vision of the future.
The Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau (TCVB) offers an Odaiba "Welcome Card," which entitles users to discount admissions and services, reduced hotel rates and discounted or free soft drinks at numerous venues. Cards are free of charge and are available at, among other places, various hotels and Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) info centers in Tokyo and Narita Airport. For more information, check the TCVB Web site at www.tcvb.or.jp, or contact the JNTO at 212-757-5640, www.jnto.go.jp.