Fire, earthquakes, robots and arcades

“Kasai! Pin! Hose! Lever!”

We shout “Fire!” to the other occupants, then pull the pin on the fire extinguisher, lift the hose out of the hold, pointing it to the fire on the screen, then squeeze the lever until the fire disappears.

This is the Life Safety Learning Centre in Ikebukuro. We’d just made it, minutes late, after catching trains up from Shinjuku and me getting a bit lost on the wrong side of the tracks.

This isn’t your normal museum. It’s a working fire brigade centre, the purpose being to teach visitors on safety procedures that could save theirs and others’ lives in case of emergency. Tokyo has been destroyed by major earthquakes and fires in its past, so these skills are important. As frequent visitors it does no harm for us to learn as well. Although the instruction and signage is all in Japanese, it’s not too hard to follow.

We begin with a sombre video about ordinary people when a huge earthquake strikes. We can’t understand what they are saying, but it serves to demonstrate the importance of what we are about to learn.

The next step is learning to use fire extinguishers, then we get to try it out for ourselves.

We watch a cartoon demonstrating the need to keep low in situations where smoke is filling a building. We are divided into groups and sent into a series of connected rooms filled with artificial smoke. You have to keep below 120 cm or a buzzer will apparently sound. I failed to close the doors behind me, but after that experience you can be assured I won’t forget next time.

Finally comes the earthquake simulator. Here the is English signage describing the causes of earthquakes and the P and S wave detectors. Again we are divided into groups. Each group gets a turn sitting on chairs by a table mounted on a platform that moves and shakes to simulate a selected earthquake. You have to quickly go under the table and hold the legs as the floor violently shakes.

A couple of groups got the magnitude 9 Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, while we had a more sedate magnitude 7. It was rather scary, especially after watching the others struggle to hold on during the bigger quake.

All in all it was a very different experience and hopefully one that we will never have in real life. But if we ever do it’s good to have a bit of training that could be the difference between life and death.

That wasn’t quite enough shaking for the day. We head to Odaiba, getting out at the Tokyo Teleport that sadly offers no such service. We had promised Alex a trip to Sega Joypolis and he was looking forward to playing arcade games. I wasn’t.

As we walk towards the Decks shopping centre we pass the small Kawasaki Robostage. I’d never heard of it, but it said free entry, so why not?

We are greeted by one of the common Pepper robots and a couple of very human staff. A couple of other Kawasaki robots were doing a Halloween demonstration of handling blood products. We are offered a virtual reality ride on chairs held by other industrial robots. Alex and I decided to give it a go, donning VR headsets and strapping in.

Initially I am nervous, with the visuals showing flying as a drone and the robots simulating motion by tipping the chairs. Gradually the anxiety gives way as I realise the actual motion is limited. I have a real sense of disembodiment flying high above the ground, although the visuals are a bit glitchy, with defined edges where the picture has been knitted together. The resolution was also a bit low for my liking.

I can see how VR could be used to treat anxiety disorders. I recall recently reading a report, performed in an aircraft simulator, where the passengers wearing VR headsets ignored turbulence, emergencies and crew messages. That’s kind of attractive for me.

Another couple of robots drew a portrait of us using pens and edge detection techniques. They drew Alex’s nose like a pig’s!

I’m not sure what Kawasaki hoped to achieve with that little store, but it was a unexpectedly fun little interlude.

Joypolis turned out to be not what Alex expected, more about rides than games. He debated long and hard whether to go in, but eventually decided to do so. Once inside, despite us paying for a unlimited ride passport for him, he refused to go on any of them without much cajoling.

We finally get him playing some and he enjoys them, though he refuses many others, and B and I have to pay extra for ourselves. I get more shaking when I accompany Alex sitting in a race driving simulator with him at the wheel of the car.

Where we should have gone is the Takoyaki Museum just across the other side of Decks. It has old fashioned pinball machines and original arcade games, all for a dollar or so. More fun and no queues.

It’s dinner time, but the all-you-can-eat shabu shabu place is closed for a private function. So we go to a branch of Tonkatsu Wako. Outside the window dinner cruise boats sporting colourful lanterns as they sail under the Rainbow Bridge (which is only coloured white whenever I’ve seen it).

We walk across to Divercity for shopping, but we can’t find anything much to buy, so we teleport (ie, catch the train) back to Shinjuku, where I lead B and Alex on the too familiar path from the station to Zara, Uniqlo and H&M. My male legs can quite happily walk kilometres and their kick may be the strongest in the dojo, but they aren’t built for shopping.

One of the nicest additions to our hotel room is the bench by the big window. As the others fall asleep I sit there and look out across the suburb, listening to the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. I really feel miserable now. On one hand I feel like I have so much left to do in Japan and just want to run off and explore all the nooks and crannies. But I know this isn’t possible, so I just want to be back at the comfort and familiarity of home, to be able to stop and rest. Eventually I lie down and fall asleep, wishing I could wake up at home.

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