Labyrinths of light and mirrors: Exploring Tokyo's TeamLab Planets and Borderless
Two digital art museums in Tokyo offer incredible otherworldly experiences by playing with all your senses. Here's what they're like.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
I am barefoot, standing in the dark on soft carpet. I can hear rushing water. I proceed toward the sound while carrying two cameras and my phone. As my eyes adjust, faint blue footlights illuminate the way. The cascade gets louder, then I round a corner and see it: A ramp, two stories tall, softly lit on either side with LEDs. Water pours from a waterfall at the top, covering the ramp with a coating of fast-moving water, warm against my feet. This is going to be an adventure.
I'm in Toyosu, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, at TeamLab Planets. This place is designed to feel otherworldly. It uses light, sound, textures, smells and more to fool your mind and manipulate your senses. It's instantly effective. The warm rushing water, the textured floor giving my feet purchase as I climb, it's transporting. I have no idea what's in store, but I'm excited to find out.
Infinite worlds: TeamLab Planets and Borderless will blow your mind
After the waterfall, I take an offered towel to dry my feet, step into the next room… and sink to my knees. In the dim lighting, the rolling black walls and rolling black floor play tricks with the eye. It's like walking on beanbag chairs. There are a few other visitors here, and they've plopped down on purpose or by accident all along the walls. I move on as a large group arrives.
The corridor twists and turns, this time lit by red LEDs. The floor feels like the mats we used in gym class, the ones that were supposed to "protect" us from falls of 20 feet. I am not prepared for the next room.
A black-clad staff member pulls aside a curtain, blinding me with brilliance after the dark. This is the Infinite Crystal Universe, a hall with mirrored walls, floor and ceiling, lit by thousands of LEDs in giant strands hanging from the ceiling. There's no end and no beginning. Lights pulse and move, colors change and swirl in every direction. One moment a vibrant blue, the next darkness and endless stars. I am in awe. It's a profound experience.
Eventually, I move on. Not out of any desire to leave, really just to see what's next. A shorter corridor descends toward an opening through which I can just make out the shifting liquid movement. It's water, but not clear. Almost like warm skim milk, but with a light, fragrant smell.
In what is probably the largest space at Planets, a giant pool of calf-deep water has become the screen onto which thousands of digital koi are projected. They playfully swim with each other and around me. They start to transform, leaving trails of light as they swim. Soon the pool becomes lines and circles of colored light. This is a radically different experience after the Infinite Crystal Universe, yet still feels connected, not least for being ethereally relaxing.
Again, I move on. There's a long corridor, again lit by red LEDs. It's a soothing way to get you to the next space without taking you out of the zone.
Balls. Balls of light. Intense primary colors, alternating from red to blue to green to many other combinations. Spheres of light float and move, colliding with each other in slow motion, dousing the mirrored space with singular wavelengths of light. Easily the most otherworldly of the entire museum.
After the intensity of the spheres, the next room is awash in darkness. As my eyes adjust, I'm struck by vertigo. Images sweep across the ceiling like a planetarium, but the floor is a mirror. It's impossible to figure out where the floor is. You're just in space. I can make out forms on their backs, and that seems to be the best way to experience this. Images of flowers and plants float by above, and below, depending where you're looking.
I'm sad to leave. Even though I've been at the museum longer than most, I want to go back and start it all again. But there's another TeamLab museum to explore.
On the nearby island of Odaiba is Borderless, also known as the MORI Building Digital Art Museum. While Planets is a linear experience, Borderless is more random. There's no specific order you're supposed to travel between its rooms, and all share that common theme of light, and usually mirrors, to create visuals you've likely never seen.
Well, mostly. There are two rooms similar to Planets, just on a smaller scale. One is another Infinite Crystal Universe. The other is called "Weightless Forest of Resonating Life." At Planets, the counterpart room is called the "Expanding Three-Dimensional Existence in Transforming Space - Flattening 3 Colors and 9 Blurred Colors, Free Floating." I call it that LED ball room. It's less impressive here, less of a cohesive space.
Borderless has its own charms, however. The Forest of Resonating Lamps is easily the most impressive. Again, it's a mirrored room, but here LED lanterns light up different colors. I also enjoyed "Peace can be Realized Even without Order," one of the darkest rooms in the museum. Projectors light up glass panels with musicians, which thanks to the mirrored walls seem to go on forever.
There was lots more, as you'll see in the gallery above. The experience though wasn't nearly as transcendent as Planets. For one, Borderless is significantly more crowded, and with dark corridors and curtains in the doorways, you're constantly bumping into other people. That's fine, I guess, but it took me out of the moment.
Tokyo is a city filled with lights, sounds and unforgettable visuals. Planets and Borderless seems right at home here, another incredible experience in this amazing city.
I did the two museums on separate days, but you could easily do both on the same day. They're just a few stops apart on the Yurikamome line (which is a fun ride in itself). At around $30/$40AUD/£22 per ticket the museums aren't cheap. If you only have time to do one, I recommend Planets.
There are other TeamLab exhibitions all over the world, of varying sizes but similar aesthetics as these. For now, check out the gallery above for a look inside. I also saved a long Instagram Story with more photos and some videos of these amazing spaces.