It is very hard to refuse an invitation to an exhibit that promises to be the juxtaposition of sake (yes, the Japanese alcohol), technology and art. Although I admit it was perhaps rather less necessary to illegally break in.
The exhibition was 'Sake Tech Lab 2017: sake x technology x media art'; an event that promised to be the next generation sake tasting experience. Visitors --the website declared-- should come and be the first to witness the rising cultural movement. When a friend mentioned he had tickets, I could not decline; I would be part of this bright future.
Our illicit entry was accidental. The exhibit was on the third floor of an arts and culture building in Ometesando in Tokyo. However, the elevator turned out not to go to the third floor, leaving us with the option of floors two or four. We selected floor four, with the plan of dropping down one level via the stairwell.
There was no stairwell.
Exiting on floor four deposited us in a narrow corridor of grey carpet facing a series of very closed white doors. It looked extremely private. In fact, several of the doors were even labelled 'private' in the unassuming font used for authorisation notices that would never be read by non-authorised personnel. They were far too terrifying to touch.
Fortunately, we were not experiencing this mishap alone. A Japanese lady had also exited the lift, made a round of confused noises and then brashly walked through one of the doors labelled 'private'. There were several surprising points to note here:
Firstly, the door swung open to reveal a staircase. Why would this location be labelled 'private' when surely it must be the emergency exit? Moreover, the stairwell appeared to be for general use, since the walls were aesthetically decorated with a mural. In an exhibition centre, this suggested the stairwell was less private than the white washed austerity of our current location, and we dashed through the door in hot pursuit.
Surprise number two was that Japan is full of spoken and unspoken rules that people almost universally obey. People don't jay walk, eat on the street or talk on their mobile phone while on the subway. In brazenly slamming her way through a door that was forbidding entry, the lady we were following had gone rogue.
Thirdly, this rogue creature then disappeared. As if proving that such rebellion could not exist in Japan, we slid through the door on floor three to find an empty hallway. It looked even more forbidden than the last one. We crept around a corner and spotted the public entrance to the exhibit through two doorways ahead of us. A hurried discussion, a half-scuttle-half-walk and we casually stepped from behind a pillar and pretended we had been in the right place all along. No one saw us and we never saw the lady again.
We were also now inside the exhibition without ever showing our tickets. I had accidentally committed a crime in Japan for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
The place we should have entered was marked by a queue of people. These honest folk were receiving pamphlets in exchange for their tickets. Feeling that gaol still beckoned without a better cover, we casually stepped into place at the end of the queue and equally casually handed our tickets over.
It was the perfect non-crime.
The exhibition was an incredible combination of an art gallery and a sake tasting experience. One wall in each of the two exhibit halls was filled with a giant display, showing moving images created by Naoko Tosa; a renowned Japanese media artist who holds an academic position at the University of Kyoto.
It transpired (during the most casual of conversations that I feel we should have had earlier) that my partner in very recent crime knew Tosa personally, having proposed a brain-themed art project while studying medicine at Kyoto. He introduced us in the exhibit hall where Tosa told me her dream of creating art in the zero gravity of space. Potentially serendipitously, I have read that morning about artists working with virtual reality headsets to create a similar experience. It was only 'potentially serendipitous' as I was too tongue-tied to use this as an informed and intelligent conversation piece. Hmm. Better luck next time.
The media Tosa displayed on the walls of the exhibition depicted an abstract flow of shapes and colours created by smoke and liquids. As one scene came to an end, clear liquid appeared to splash over the art in preparation for the next piece. This represented the sake, clearing the canvas possibly in the same manner over consumption does to the brain.
The sake was from all over Japan. Upon production of our valid tickets, we were issued with a pretty sake cup and --rather pointedly-- a bottle of water. The latter was presumably to help the good vibes about art last through the following morning.
The first exhibit room contained a blind tasting of sake, with the different choices presented in bowls with wooden ladles that resembled minature versions of those used in the purifying hand washing stations outside shrines.
The second room had labelled sake bottles with polkadot QVC codes that could be scanned by a downloadable app on your phone to reveal more details. The descriptions were only in Japanese, although I admit my knowledge of sake was perhaps insufficient to appreciate the information even if it had been in English.
There was also cocktail sticks of cheese to offset the alcohol consumption. A rare treat in Japan, I confess I may have liked this perhaps even more than the different sake.
While we milled around the different sake stations, several speeches took place at the front of the exhibition hall. Most of these were in Japanese, including comments by the artist and representatives from established sake manufacturing companies.
One was by the Ambassador of Denmark.
This was slightly surprising. Speaking in English with a Japanese translator, the Ambassador expressed his appreciation for Japanese sake by saying that he had learnt it was great for the skin for both women and men. If that was not encouragement enough to sample more of the drink, his concluding phrase was 'smart sake, smart art, smart government'. I concluded that he had perhaps taken a little too much of his own advice. That said, his skin did look good.