All cities take a toll and at times all city dwellers have to take their leave. When life in Istanbul gets too stressful, people can head to the baths. In Rio, there’s the beach. In Tokyo, people take a break by checking themselves into media immersion pods: warrens jammed with computers, TVs, video games and every other entertainment of the electronic age.
The Bagus Gran Cyber CafÃ©s have become the Japanese capital’s grand temples of infomania. Containing row after row of anonymous cubicles, these places look like offices but are actually "drug dens" for internet addicts.
The first Gran Cyber CafÃ© opened in 1999. Today there are 10, serving some 5,000 people a day. Some are geared to teenagers, some to salarymen, but the atmosphere is the same throughout the franchise: equal parts lending library, news stand, arcade and youth hostel.
Sometimes they look like nothing special. But late at night, they seem visionary. "The Japanese love liminal spaces and grey zones," explained writer Con Isshow. "In both the anonymity and role-playing games on offer at the Gran Cyber CafÃ©, you don’t have to exist in tight social norms. You go to these places not to present yourself, but to lose yourself; lose your name, your position, your pride."
Although the services offered by Bagus are above board, the Gran Cyber CafÃ©s are enshrouded in the urgent, furtive atmosphere of a hot-sheet motel. Eyes averted, customers sign in, head to the library of entertainment options, and load up on fashion magazines, video games and DVDs of 24 as if stocking up on alcohol.
What they do in their pods is up to them. Some people channel-surf. Others trade stocks. You can download music, read novels, watch pornography, play video games, go to sleep.
A "night pack" allows use of the pod from 11pm to 8am for £6.
Hidenori Kimura, a sociologist, said he believes the Gran Cyber CafÃ©s fulfil a deep longing to be free of Japanese society’s strict demands for maintaining status.
"Traditionally, tea ceremonies and festivals have been fulfilling this role of depriving people of their social status and thus help them become ‘nobody’."
The Gran Cyber CafÃ©s now serve this purpose, he said.