There’s something special about the sky at night. The stars may be clearer during the colder months, but right now it’s easier for you and the kids to sprawl out on a patch of grass (or sand for you beach lovers) and gaze at the galaxy — at least when the weather is more accommodating. I love the conversations that arise during these times: questions about the planets, the constellations and the unfathomable depths of the universe. Many questions of which, I must say, I’m not knowledgeable enough to answer.
For inquiries like these, I may turn to Space Museum TenQ in Tokyo Dome City. While not as affordable as a casual night under the stars (tickets range between ¥1,200 and ¥1,800), Space Museum TenQ offers an entertaining and educational look at the cosmos. With recent Japanese aerospace successes — such as the Hayabusa asteroid probe, which launched last year, and the HTV-5 rocket’s arrival at the International Space Station last month — this may be the ideal time to expose your kids to the wonders and science of space exploration.
Visits are timed and in groups, so once you buy your ticket, you may need to wait a few minutes at the entrance, but don’t worry: The area and its adjoining gift shop have a number of interesting items to keep the kids occupied.
Once through the entrance, you’re shown two movies — the first on a mosaic of large square tiles using projection mapping to give it the depth and dazzling vibrancy. The second is seen across a massive 11-meter circular screen built into the floor of the adjoining Theater Sora, giving you the feeling of stepping onto the observation deck of a space ship in orbit. Here, you see actual high-definition footage from the International Space Station as it orbits Earth, augmented by computer-generated simulations of the solar system far beyond our atmosphere. While amazing, these movies can be overwhelming for infants, so keep in mind that children under 4 are not allowed entry to the complex.
After 20 minutes of passive viewing, it’s time to get proactive. The next room opens into a maze of learning activities with displays and signage in both English and Japanese. There are still many audio-visual opportunities — my personal favorites are CG-simulation videos of the moon’s formation and the mechanics of Saturn’s rings — but the little ones will also find plenty of opportunities to use their hands.
Perhaps the most entertaining of these activities is the station where willing participants operate small spherical probes through an obstacle course of ramps and pathways (expect a line for this one). Don’t forget to look at the displays along the outer wall, though. Of particular interest to us were some small boxes with odd questions written on them like: “Was influenza caused by the stars?” and “What would happen if you lit a sparkler in space?” Open the front panel for the answer.
In another exhibition room, visitors can view recent images from the Mars rover, all while standing in a simulation of the red planet’s surface. Visitors are also encouraged to experience a trip to Itokawa, the asteroid visited by the Hayabusa probe. A large display gives you a sense of what the asteroid’s surface looks like, and in one of my favorite parts of the museum, wall displays show images of various asteroids and other celestial bodies side-by-side in order to get a sense of scale — always a challenge when attempting to understand the size of massive objects.
Near the Itokawa exhibit is an actual branch office of SEED, part of the University of Tokyo’s space research division (SEED stands for “Space Exploration and Education Division”). Here, actual researchers track the Hayabusa probe and run experiments inside a glassed-in laboratory. I’m not sure how self-conscious it makes these researchers to be presented as an exhibit themselves, but they seem unperturbed by observers, and I like the idea of children observing scientists at work — even if it has the feeling of watching fish in a tank.
If your kids vary in age, there is plenty of visual and tactile stimulation for the younger ones. In addition to the many audio-visual marvels, there is an entire LED-lit wall in one hallway, showing the universe with inspirational scientific quotes appearing and disappearing among the constellations. There are also some puzzle-like magnetic displays for the creatively minded, as well as exhibits with buttons to push, levers to pull and drawers to open.
Space Museum TenQ is just one of a wide range of fun, family-friendly activities in Tokyo Dome City, of which I wrote about earlier this year. Although the ticket price seems a bit steep, I can still recommend TenQ as a place that delivers both education and entertainment.
Spaces like this don’t just inspire future astronomers and astronauts, so if even if your kids are merely curious, there’s no better place in downtown Tokyo to launch big dreams.
Space Museum TenQ is open Mon.-Fri. and holidays 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. and Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tickets are ¥1,800 for adults, ¥1,500 for students, ¥1,200 for children (children under age 4 not admitted). For more information, visit www.tokyo-dome.co.jp/tenq/e.