Travels: TeamLab Planets (Tokyo)
By Skywing Knights // November 20, 2023
Back in December 2022, I was delighted to be able to finally return to Japan after a 4 year pandemic induced hiatus. Literally, the moment that I knew I was able to go, I booked my tickets. And that was even though I’d be there for only less than a week. I just had to go back!
While there, I was able to visit a number of familiar places as well as some new ones (which is always my aim). I got to shop through my beloved Ikebukuro (池袋), visit the Graves of the 47 Ronin (浪人), buy fabric in Nippori (日暮里), hit up some out of this world cafes, and even find the final resting place of the infamous Kawakami Gensai (河上彦斎). It was a trip that for me highlighted how some things stay the same and others change with time. (And regardless of change, I still loved every moment I was there).
In Japan, there is a term that encapsulates the aesthetic concept of transience, in which there is an understanding that nothing is permanent and all things eventually move and feed into one another. Say it with me now: Wabi-sabi (侘寂) . Now say it 5 times fast. And one of the first things I did was the epitome of that term – a trip to Tokyo’s TeamLab Planets.
The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi
Unlike many artistic aesthetics in the world, this Japanese art aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, born from the Buddhist teachings of the sanboin (三法印) (impermanence, suffering, and emptiness), is one that embraces imperfection and natural progression. As a result, much of this style of art intentionally encompasses slow movement, the passage of time, and gradual change to remind the observer of our great connection with the universe.
Forgive me for dragging up iconic movies from my childhood. But as a wise lion voiced by James Earl Jones once said “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.” One might say that Mufasa was referring to the slow progression of how everything, even humans change into new things with time, the very thing that Wabi-Sabi art styles attempt to capture, and release, and capture, over and over again.
A Modern Form of Wabi-Sabi
Now, all of that said, if you said “All is One, One is All” instead of Wabi-Sabi three paragraphs above…. I’ll give you a pass. Because yes, all of this talk of what Wabi-Sabi is likely is giving you some major ‘All is one, one is all’ vibes from “Fullmetal Alchemist” (Or “Hagane no Renkinjutsushi” – 鋼の錬金術師) if you’ve ever indulged in one of Japan’s modern art forms – anime and manga. (And don’t you go making references to “My Hero Academia” – Fullmetal incorporated that phrase long before Deku ever even heard of “All for one”). But that just goes to show how this concept has slipped into even modern art made in Japan.
And that’s where our story begins today. In the midst of Tokyo’s Toyosu (豊洲) district lies what I would consider a stunning modern day creation of art that very accurately encompasses the concept and intent of “wabi-sabi”. The best part? You can visit and become a part of it for just 3,800 yen (adults).
The widely popular attraction “TeamLab Planets” is an interactive art exhibit in which guests are invited to experience becoming “One with the World.” This is achieved through the creation of specially designed spaces that are constantly changing and impacted by each visitor who comes to the museum. Visitors are invited to not only see these artistic spaces, but to interact with them so as to perceive other sensations, such as texture, sound, temperature, and depth.
So of course, I had to check it out for myself.
Prepping for TeamLab Planets
For this adventure, I was joined by my long time friend Airi who met me at Shin-Toyosu station (新豊洲駅). We arrived early, and as we had purchased tickets in advance, we were quickly able to enter. Tickets often sell out, with each ticket getting designated entry times to avoid overcrowding. So do yourself a favor and buy your tickets early!
We also both made sure to wear pants for this. The museum is riddled with mirrors, including those on the ground. So while you can rent shorts to wear upon arrival, both of us decided we preferred to just come wearing clothes we could easily move in and that would also hide our underwear with.
Something we weren’t expecting, but that came in handy was the fact that what we were wearing could easily be rolled up to our knees as well. There are multiple areas within the museum in which we were walking in water, sometimes up to our knees. So this saved us from wet hems around our legs too.
Entering the World of TeamLab Planets
Once our tickets were scanned, we were committed and set to our experience and from the get-go, we knew it was going to be cool.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by the first art piece, “Universe of Fire Particles Falling from the Sky”, a tower that almost mimicked lava somehow suspended and floating in the air. We would come back to it later, but before you even enter the museum, it’s possible to interact with it by downloading the TeamLab app. Already, the minds behind the museum were working to draw us in.
Prior to entering, guests are asked to wait in several lines in a waiting zone. Instructions were projected and announced in several languages, including in English, giving crisp direction on what we could expect moving forward. And the first thing we were told was to remove our shoes, which we did, before moving inside to find lockers to place them and items we did not want to carry around inside. After a quick stop to the bathroom though, there was nothing to stop us as we moved into the first of the many exhibits – “Waterfall of Light Particles at the Top of an Incline.”
Immediately upon entering the first exhibit, we found ourselves walking through a stream of water before we made our way up an incline. We gasped in delight and held on to the railings to make our way up. It was the first indication that I had made the right call to leave my giant camera bag in the locker. Tripods are not allowed inside the space and looking around, there clearly wasn’t time for one anyway. There was a need to move and climb to make our way through the exhibit with the rest of the group.
Our path was illuminated by what almost looked like glowing crystals at ground level that were being washed with water. The water was slightly below room temperature, just enough to make us gasp and dance a bit. (Don’t worry, it’s cleaned regularly). And just then, we made it to the top where a beautiful cascading crystalized waterfall seemed to be suspended in midair above us. It was stunning and one that my phone just could not do justice for.
Wrapped in Shadows
Exiting the area, we quickly dried our feet off only to land in the next space – “Soft Black Hole – Your Body Becomes a Space that Influences Another Body”. The titles of these exhibits continue to be long by the way. But boy, this one was extremely descriptive and accurate. In this next space, it felt like we were falling into dense stuffing. It was soft, fluffy, but dense enough and dark enough that one could almost nap in it. In many ways, the shadows of the whole room felt as though they were engulfing us and wrapping us with our own shadows into the darkened space.
It was eerie, but cool to sense how we made such an impact on the floor beneath us. It contrasted well with how the crystal waterfall and descending water made an impact on our motion. In this way, both of the first two exhibits gave a great taste as for what was to come, with my favorite surprisingly being the next exhibit – what appeared to be a glorious display of constantly-moving stars.
“The Infinite Crystal Universe”
Perhaps the most well known of all of the exhibits at TeamLab Planets Tokyo is “The Infinite Crystal Universe”. I did not expect to enjoy this one as much as I did. I don’t do well with infinite mirrors. They make my head hurt and trigger long seated anxieties similar to agoraphobia within my chest and head. However, I was surprised that this art piece did none of those things, despite the mirrors throughout the space.
Despite its name, crystals dangling from the ceiling as one might expect upon seeing photos are not what we were greeted with. Instead, strands of clear lights hung down and changed color to mimic movement and the passage of time. These light strands prevent guests from seeing the mirrors clearly, making it seem both expansive and contained at the same time. All the while, you walk on mirrors, making it so that guests are literally standing on their own two feet for support in this sea of stars.
It was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave! I was completely immersed in the gorgeous lights and general ambiance. It was like witnessing a surreal technical form of magic. Perhaps that was a sign as to what was to come though, and we would be immersed in this “technical magic” up to our knees in the next room over!
After exiting the area, we again found ourselves entering a watery pool. But this time, the clearness of the water was gone. In its place was water that was near white and opaque in nature, almost appearing milky. However, it had the same consistency of any other tap water you might encounter. As we stepped in, we were not sure what we were getting ourselves into. But we were soon dazzled as we entered the next room.
The area before us was filled with this milky water up to about a foot in level. It was dark above us. But below, projected on the water, we could see hundreds of koi fish swimming and dancing around us. As we got close to the projections, they would swim out of our way or around us. Additionally, we could see other colored, bright lines also projected on the water doing the same.
In that sense, the name of this exhibit, “Drawing on the Water Surface created by the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity” was incredibly fitting. It was as though these digital koi were directly responding to our presence. It was incredibly surreal. Because you see them, you see them reacting. But there is no indication of anything in the water around you, because there isn’t. Almost like you are seeing their colorful ghosts – full of life, yet completely untouchable.
“Expanding Three Dimensional Existence in Transforming Space – Flattening 3 Colors and 9 Blurred…”
Eventually, after being unable to catch our mysterious new fish friends, we made our way out of the pool. We then dried off our legs and entered the next space. Once more, a brightness filled the room. We found ourselves ducking and dodging around large orbs, which glowed and lit up in tandem with our surroundings. We’d lean up against them, bounce off of them, and smile as we felt the gentle pushes back that came from us pressing into them. Again, it was like making new friends or even being on a trampoline, but just not one under our feet.
Due to the nature of this area in TeamLab Planets, even though we clearly were in a three dimensional space and we felt as though we were 2-dimensional The whole room mimicked a 2 dimensional space in many ways. It was almost like you were on the page of a sketch pad of an artist practicing how to draw and play with color. It gave off an incredibly light and airy feeling and was quite fun!
Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers
Leaving the space before us though, we entered into darkness once more, only to enter a domed room lit by flowers swirling around us. In many ways, it was akin to what flowers might look like suspended in a liquid slightly thicker than water, but not as thick as jelly. And we were right in the middle of it.
Lying down with fellow guests, we gazed up at the flowers projected above us and reflected beneath us in mirrors. Whatever space we are in, whatever space that the flowers are in, was dark. But the flowers were aglow and allowed light to shine on us as a consequence of their magical kind of beauty.
I was honestly reminded of that iconic scene in Final Fantasy X. The one where Tidus and Yuna embrace, holding one another in water with the lights swirling about them. It was very much so like being in the midst of that. Indeed, like all of the others, this piece of art’s name hits it dead on the head. We really were suspended, floating in a falling universe of flowers. And the serenity of it all kept us quiet, breathless. We were just taking it all in before we finally arose to move to the second to last art exhibit within TeamLab Planets.
Moss Garden of Resonating Microcosms – Solidified Light Color, Sunrise, and Sunset
This was the only exhibit at TeamLab Planets that was a little underwhelming if I’m being honest. But it was still beautiful and a unique experience. We stepped outside using slippers provided for us into a rock garden filled with moss. But unlike most rock gardens in Japan, this one was filled with oddly shaped, large, almost glass like stones that shifted in color. They reminded me quite a bit of perhaps large dinosaur eggs, though distorted and not quite oval. That was ironic to me, given the title of this exhibit including the word “Microcosms”. But the more I thought about it, the more I did feel like we had ‘shrunk’ down in some way. Because it started to feel as though everything around us had increased in size.
Still, even though it wasn’t my favorite of the exhibits, it was still fascinating to see. And it did feel like we had stepped into another world or land in a sense. I am also very glad that by the time we saw this, night had come. As a result, the orbs really did glow and the color changing lights were much more impactful. I definitely recommend going in the evening if possible for that reason. (And because I am not a morning person in the slightest!) However, because it was a little on the chilly side (I went in December after all), we did quickly return inside for the final exhibit within TeamLab Planets.
Floating Flower Garden: Flowers and I are the Same Root, the Garden and I are One
The final exhibit was frankly one of my favorites. At the end of our journey, once we returned inside into TeamLab Planets from the chilly moss garden section, we entered another room filled with mirrors. But this time, we were also surrounded by hanging flowers. And they slowly moved up and down all around us.
The effect it created meant we felt like our environment was constantly changing. However, each new change was incredibly striking and lovely. We found ourselves crawling through the space at times, diving into new, little pockets created by the oscillating plants above us. I almost felt like we were floating in a way too. The mirrors beneath us made it so we were also looking below at flowers moving towards and away from us at times. And all the while, we remained in a space – in air – seemingly floating between them all.
Above all, it was one of the most gorgeous of the exhibits. Out of all of them, it was the only one that I honestly wished I could have taken home with me to place in my kitchen or something. It felt fresh and vibrant through natural means. And that was even if it was clearly being manipulated by mechanics behind the scenes. Still, it was hands down a solid favorite of mine. So I was very glad that it was the exhibit we ultimately ended on.
Exiting TeamLab Planets
One of the joys of TeamLab Planets I think is that while you can only enter at your appointed time of day, you can stay for as long as you want and go through the exhibits at your own speed. Not to mention, you can also revisit each exhibit if you’d like too. For us, we spent about 2 or 3 hours going through the museum. We honestly would have gone through it again I think. (However, I had a reservation for dinner coming up.)
Outside, we were greeted with the final (or first?) art exhibits, “Universe of Fire Particles Falling from the Sky”, which I mentioned previously, and the “One Stroke Bench”. The “One Stroke Bench” was exactly what it sounded like. A bench. However, it appeared as though someone had created the bench by literally drawing out a train track in mid air and swirling it around until it came back to the beginning of the stroke. Like all of the prior exhibits, it was also one that people could interact with. Plus, it worked well as a bench, a table, and even a children’s playground. (We saw a number of kids running around on it. We also ate our waffles that I had previously grabbed from a Manneken Waffle in Ginza.)
Additionally, previously we had been entranced by “Universe of Fire Particles Falling from the Sky” when we had arrived. But it was way more striking and even cooler looking at night. It is absolutely a site that photographers out there are not going to want to miss if they go to Japan.
The Gift Shop – and the Flowers
Nearby both exhibits was the teamLab Flower Shop. Here, you could get flowers seen within the museum. While I did want the flowers in my home, I opted to not get these. (Mostly I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of getting them through customs at the airport.) Maybe I’ll try to recreate it at home one day though instead. 😉
Going to TeamLab Planets
If you are going to Japan and will have the opportunity to be in Tokyo at all, I definitely would recommend hitting up TeamLab Planets if you have the time. I do think there are more ‘quintessential’ must-go locations in Tokyo that would take priority if you have a limited amount of time (such as only one or two days). However, TeamLab Planets is absolutely worth the time if you have it and it’s an experience you won’t regret.
So what should you do to go to TeamLab Planets? Here is what you should do and some tips to make your trip all the more enjoyable:
- Buy your tickets online and early at their website here.
- On the day of, wear practical clothing. If you’re wearing a skirt, wear shorts underneath. Otherwise, everyone will be able to see up your skirt. Also, wear skirts or pants that you can easily roll up so that you don’t get them wet in the water!
- If you want to take photos, remember that you can not use tripods. Also, the majority of the locations are dark. For that reason, make sure you bring an appropriate lens that can handle low-light environments. Smartphones tend to work decently, but be prepared for them to struggle in the low light as well.
- Make sure to download the teamLab app. This will provide you with a guide and an additional way to interact with the art exhibits.
- Consider going early in the morning or in the late afternoon. This way you can see all of the exhibits in different lighting. Each one is unique and you’re going to want to see all that they have to offer!
Other Places to Experience TeamLab Planets
Currently, TeamLab Planets Tokyo is scheduled to operate until the end of 2027. However, TeamLab often opens other exhibits both in Japan and all over the world. Two other permanent TeamLab art exhibits in Tokyo currently (though both are on a smaller scale) include MoonFlower Sagaya Ginza and Mirai Lab Palette. Additionally, January 2024, TeamLab is opening back up teamLab Borderless in Azabudai Hills, Tokyo, due to popular demand.
In Japan, other permanent exhibits include 12 others in Osaka, Fukuoka, Kyushu, Fukui, Akita, Tokushima, Saitama, Kunisaki, and Oita. Additionally, in December they are opening up teamLab Future Park in Okinawa. TeamLab also has permanent locations presently in Macao, Beijing, Singapore, the USA (Florida), Shanghai, Dubai, Shenzhen, and Chengdu.
Aside from their permanent locations, TeamLab also opens up temporary exhibits, which they announce on their website. As such, it is worth always checking their exhibitions page prior to your trip. You never know when a new exhibit will show up!
Should you go to TeamLab Planets?
In my opinion? Absolutely! It is by far one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in Japan. Not to mention, it stands out to me as a repeat adventure and one that I would be completely on board with for going to again. It may not be a ‘traditional’ Japan vacation bucket list item. But it absolutely encompasses the spirit of one of the Japanese art styles. And it’s an experience you won’t forget for years to come.
This isn’t your normal art museum or a ‘temporary pop up event’, like those that show up in big cities that promise the world and more and can’t deliver. TeamLab Planets ABSOLUTELY delivers on its beauty, ability to interact with each exhibit, and captivating allure to the human mind. So if you have the chance to go, I definitely recommend taking the opportunity to explore TeamLab. You absolutely will not regret it.
Till the next adventure,