There are no snaking lines outside the Japan pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
But the reservation system that allows visitors to book a day in advance is busy.
Word-of-mouth recommendations are driving tourists and residents to gather at the unassuming, understated white origami-inspired facade.
Curiosity about the pavilion continues to grow, three weeks before the world's fair ends.
Tourists and UAE residents said they wanted a taste of the “unusual experiences” their friends talked about.
The promise of an immersive encounter, specifically tailored to each individual’s interest, is drawing crowds to the pavilion. Its theme is ‘where ideas meet’.
The National finds out why the Japanese structure tops the list of must-visit attractions.
'The thing to do'
Keep in mind you need to commit about an hour to the pavilion.
People receive smartphones and headsets that keep track of the time they spend in sections related to nature, history and miniature forms.
The grand finale collates this information to create a snapshot of each visitor’s interests.
The findings will be used to curate the next Expo in Osaka in 2025.
“We want to receive each visitor’s idea,” Yabunaka Aiko, secretary general of the Japan pavilion, told The National.
“The way we made it interactive is that it is guided by you, so you walk as per your interest. At the end an avatar emerges and this is real-time graphic art is generated according to your interest.
“It may be a simple idea you share. But to know your issue exists, that you are not alone and to come together to solve this, that is our message.”
A cool mist descends as people find themselves in four zones, with the red group signifying a keen interest in human possibility. The yellow represents leaving no one behind, the blue reflects the ocean and green is a symbol of forests.
“The mist covers everything to show that each of us are different but live in the same borderless world,” she said.
“When we host the next Expo Osaka 2025 in Japan, it will be with your idea.”
'I’m going to Osaka in 2025'
Does it work? Visitors said they enjoyed being part of artificial intelligence and technology in action.
Audrey Ozanne, a French tourist, who is in Dubai for a week, has visited the Expo site twice and seen 15 pavilions.
She rates Japan as her favourite and said waiting by the phone before 9am to book a slot was well worth the effort.
“A lot of people recommended it. They said it was ‘the thing to do’ and they were right,” said the 25 year old, who lives near Paris.
“Yesterday morning before 9am we were on the starting blocks and we managed to get a ticket.
“It’s a unique experience. It’s not a pavilion where you walk and read. This is personalised and they kind of adjust it to your personality, make you choose doors.
“It’s an immersive experience. It’s extraordinary really. It’s breathtaking.”
The excitement has convinced her to block the calendar for the next Expo.
“I’m going to Osaka in 2025,” she said.
Issues you care about
Visitors are amazed by the dramatic animation beamed on screens.
Visitors choose between spring, summer or winter, before moving on to concerns about the planet, oceans or an inclusive world.
A large room showcases more than 100 miniature works by Tanaka Tatsuya, a famous Japanese artist.
The popular artist posts miniature exhibits daily on Instagram to 3.5 million followers.
He uses everyday objects from bean bag toys to dominos to tell stories of innovation.
A tsunami warning system is depicted with rows of toppling blue dominos to capture rising tidal waves and show how technology can save lives.
Dubai resident Joseph Tambis found himself in the blue zone. He described it as an astounding experience.
His home country, the Philippines, is annually hit by typhoons causing floods and landslides that wreak death and destruction.
“The experience was so personal. It was as if it was meant for me,” he said.
“It is tailored for each person.”
After 15 visits to Expo and 70 pavilions, he rated the Japan pavilion in his top three, followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Innovation with a twist
Another exhibit shows how bean bag toys inspired an engineer to develop a marker that helped the country’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft land safely in 2019 on the rough surface of an asteroid.
The aim is to show how memories can stimulate path-breaking inventions.
“How we show innovation is very different to what you imagine,” said Ms Yabunaka, the Japanese official.
“There were not so many commercial toys when our mothers sewed bean bags for us to play with when we were children.
“And this simple toy led to high-tech possibilities in space.”
Lure for anime fans
Several visitors are fans of anime and manga (Japanese animation) and die-hard followers of characters from Pokemon to Gundam.
They want to know more about the country that produced the animation they admire.
Fatima Masavi, a tourist from India, was on her 13th visit to the Expo, along with her husband and cousin, also anime enthusiasts.
“I’m a big fan of the anime demon slayer. But it’s not just because of anime that we are here, I really like Japanese culture,” she said.
“A lot of people told us that this is the pavilion actually worth seeing so I wanted to come and see what all the talk was about.”