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Take the kids to the future at Miraikan

by Jason Jenkins

The National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation stands prominently near the shore of Tokyo Bay, but it looks more like a space station on the edge of a far-off galaxy.

In Japanese, it is known as Miraikan (roughly translated as “Hall of the Future”), yet despite its science-fiction aesthetic, the museum focuses on scientific realities — both present and potential. Its stated goal is “to provide an open forum for all to ponder and discuss the future roles of science and technology,” and the exhibits cover a wide array of disciplines — from robotics to genome research.

Many of the scientific principles presented are quite complex, and I think that some of the displays could go further in helping visitors understand them. However, to its credit, the Miraikan is one of the few big museums in Tokyo with adequate signage in English, Chinese and Korean, which goes a long way toward helping everyone follow along — especially if you have children in tow

Like all museums, Miraikan features temporary exhibitions — this month’s Digital Content Expo (until Oct. 26) is a good example. However, the permanent displays alone can take up half the day. The most prominent of these is the “Tsunagari,” a massive globe lit with more than 10 million pixels of organic LED panels. It’s easy to spot — just walk around the corner from the ticket machines and look up. It looms overhead using data from weather satellites to appear just as how the Earth must look from outer space. At certain intervals, the globe becomes a massive infographic, using its vibrant LEDs to display information such as atmospheric temperatures and plate tectonics.

German media artist Ingo Günther, the creator of “Tsunagari,” takes this informative characteristic a step further and uses the globe’s surface at several points throughout the day to bombard the viewer with facts in something he calls “World Processor.” The information depends on the country and covers categories such as population, energy consumption, life expectancy and the number of women who hold government positions. This can all be viewed from the third floor, but many visitors tend to enjoy lying down in the (free) space provided on the ground floor to look up at the “Tsunagari” like an unfeasibly low-orbiting moon. The soothing sounds and colors above may also make this a good place to calm any visiting babies.

As impressive as “Tsunagari” is, we’ve only just passed the entrance to Miraikan. From among the other permanent displays, visitors should head to the third floor and enter an area called “Create Your Future.” Here, parents will spend the next hour following their kids from one part of the exhibition to the next. Our own favorites were both on the left of the entrance: a “quantum computer” that uses facial-recognition technology, and an artistic interpretation of what city life could be like in the year 2050.

On the other side of the “Create Your Future” space, you’ll find areas devoted to subjects such as the Internet, new media and spatial-information science, but before going this far, stop by the robotics area and pay a visit to Asimo, Japan’s favorite little robot.

There are several daily presentations featuring Asimo (which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), but my brood didn’t find his stiff and measured movements as fascinating as kids probably did when he premiered in 2002. In fact, my daughter seemed to prefer rubbing her hands on Paro, the fuzzy robotic seal used to provide companionship to Japan’s elderly and infirm.

Onto the fifth-floor exhibitions, which are collectively titled, “Explore the Frontiers.” The topics here are interesting, but the displays and explanations may not hold the attention of children for long. Personally, I think that — with the right spin — particle accelerators and the human genome can be fascinating for children. Mine, though, were ready to move on after seeing one rocket engine and a deep-sea probe. It could have been because they were tired. By the time you get to the fifth floor, you’ve likely been on your feet for hours.

It might be worth picking up tickets for a planetarium show when you first arrive. Budget an hour or two to see the displays and get reserved seats for a show that takes place some time after that. Current shows last for about 30 minutes and include a CG-animated explanation of the formation of the universe and a Miyazaki-inspired anime about regenerative medicine. Both are in 3-D.

For those looking to turn a trip to Miraikan into a full day out, you’re in luck. After all, the museum is in the Odaiba district, where there are many opportunities for family fun — often at no extra cost. Directly outside Miraikan’s entrance is a park with walking paths that stretch from the Yurikamome Monorail’s Telecom Center station all the way to Odaiba Station and its nearby restaurants and facilities. On the other side of the building, moored to the dock across the street opposite the monorail’s Funenokagakukan Station, is the Soya, a retired icebreaker barge that now serves as a floating museum of its time as an Antarctic research ship. It is part of the Marine Science Museum next door, but the Soya is free. Climb aboard its rusty decks and lay your hands on a well-worn captain’s wheel — a nice spoonful of history to complement your day in the future.

National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan), 2-3-6 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo. Admission to permanent exhibits: ¥600 for adults, ¥200 for kids under 18; preschoolers free. All kids free on Saturdays. For more information visit www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en.