World's fairs were once extravagant showcases for cultural diversity and for new inventions—not to mention national pride. Luke Barr travels to Aichi, Japan, to see whether the first expo of the 21st century can deliver the same thrill.
Tetsuya Miura

Inside the Toyota Group Pavilion at Expo 2005 Aichi in Japan, a show is in progress: a band of gleaming white robots wielding trumpets are playing jazz. Out comes another one, keeping time on a drum machine, and now they're joined by a human MC, rapping in Japanese.

"Utaou! Arukou! Genki ni naru kara!" ("Let's sing! Let's walk! Because we'll all feel energized!")

Even if the music is awful, the robots themselves are impressive—they move with eerie humanity. They have rubber lips of some sort, and are playing real instruments. Some of them even dance, or at least bend their knees in time to the music. And then comes the main event. The stage, which resembles an ice rink at the center of an amphitheater, is cleared, and a modern-dance performance begins. It's two parts Cirque du Soleil and one part Star Wars: There is elaborate, mesmerizing trapeze work; a video projected on the ceiling; and a star turn by Toyota's futuristic i-unit, a one-person concept car. Vehicles and dancers circle each other in a kind of high-tech mating dance set to a sound track of loud, over-dramatic music. This goes on for quite some time, but eventually, each dancer finds a matching i-unit and the dance is consummated as they drive off the stage.

The show at the Toyota pavilion is one of the highlights of the exposition, and an opportunity to ponder the apparent anachronism of a 21st-century world's fair. Since London's Great Exhibition of 1851, the celebration of an empire for which the legendary Crystal Palace was built, these events have drawn millions of visitors eager to experience the shock of the new. The diesel engine debuted at the Paris fair in 1900, nylon fabric and the first TV set were seen at the 1939–40 New York fair. But this is (and has been for some time) an age of telecommunication, easy jet travel, and the Internet—all forces that would seem to obviate the need to build a replica of the global village in miniature every few years and then invite everyone to come see the latest inventions. After all, we already live in the actual global village.

Perhaps partly in response to this conundrum, the organizers of the Aichi fair, which is about 45 minutes by train from Nagoya, have chosen a theme not of grandiose optimism and progress ("The World of Tomorrow" was New York's 1939–40 tagline) but of caution and warning. "Nature's Wisdom" is the slogan, and environmental awareness—broadly defined—is the agenda. This is the anti-expo: every structure installed at the 400-acre site (including 62 pavilions representing 120 countries, all connected by a wooden walkway) will be removed when it's over, leaving no footprint behind. But although the eco-conscious theme is the message, it is more than overwhelmed by the expo's dominant medium, which is extravagant national and corporate showmanship, usually involving video screens. Nearly every pavilion, from the Red Cross's to Jordan's to Spain's, makes use of some spectacular projected video presentation—on walls, on ceilings, on everything. Unlike the world's fairs of the past, which strove to amaze their audiences with novelty, the 21st-century version, it seems, seeks to mesmerize us with the cold manipulations of multimedia.

One of the best examples of this is at the French pavilion, the centerpiece of which is a large room with videos projected on all surfaces, videos that tell a riveting and rather apocalyptic story of Third World poverty, deforestation, pollution, consumerism, overpopulation, global warming, and war. It's a brilliantly produced, impressionistic documentary that despite its grim subject matter is often beautiful to look at. So what's to be done?What is the solution to poverty, pollution, war, and the rest?No answers are provided here; that task is left to smaller, peripheral installations demonstrating French efforts—governmental and commercial—to reduce greenhouse gases, build parks, and so forth.

Most pavilions follow this model: a main attraction supplemented by a series of smaller displays that usually highlight the products and innovations of the important businesses of the country. At the glitzy First World pavilions, these are generally the same companies who've paid to sponsor the production—partly for PR purposes and partly to get access to the business-development meetings that are in some ways the raison d'être of the exposition.

This is certainly the case at the U.S. pavilion, where Ambassador Lisa Gable presides over a vast VIP area, outfitted with leather couches and club chairs, a formal dining room for state dinners, and contemporary art on the walls. "No public money was spent on this—none," says Gable, explaining that U.S. participation in the exposition is paid for entirely by 42 corporate sponsors, including the National Association of Manufacturers, GM, and American Airlines along with state business groups and a few non-profits. Over the course of the six-month-long expo, the governors of 10 states are scheduled to pass through, each extolling the advantages of doing business in his or her state. Gable, a highly polished State Department appointee with a background in global brand management, speaks proudly of "the messaging that is occurring here."

Downstairs, meanwhile, a large crowd files into the theater, where a Ben Franklin impersonator appears on-screen for a time-travel routine. He's happily amazed at the 21st century and most impressed with our technological advances. Indeed, we have learned to harness "nature's wisdom," much as he harnessed lightning with his kite. The show, which seems targeted squarely at kids age 10 and under, fudges some of the details of its environmental message. "They tell me that part of this very building is powered by a box that makes electricity from hydrogen—an element of the air itself," says Franklin. "And its only waste product is water, pure water." He proceeds to drink a glass of it. Of course, this isn't quite true. Hydrogen fuel cells don't actually "make" anything; they are essentially storage devices. It's misleading to laud a battery as a clean energy source.

Thus the ecological theme finds its way into most of the pavilions in the form of lip service. One exception, not surprisingly, is the Japanese pavilion, a marvel of cutting-edge design and engineering innovation. The building is covered with bamboo latticework that insulates it from the sun, reducing the need for air-conditioning. This woven cocoon gives the structure a bloblike form reminiscent of Future Systems' Selfridges department store in Birmingham, England. One exterior wall is planted with bamboo grass and moss and constantly watered, which further cools the interior. Koji Yoshitsugu, the acting pavilion director, explains the various facets of the design in loving detail, cataloguing the use of biomass bricks, residual wood, nail-less construction, and traditional roof tiles. "Problems we have, yes, but still the earth is strong and beautiful," he says in conclusion, sounding positively Yoda-like. The man exudes sincerity.

Yet even here, at the site of the most coherent environmental presentation at the exposition, the premier attraction is another exercise in total media saturation: Earth Room, a 360-degree video sphere some 40 feet across. When viewers enter, they find themselves standing on a transparent bridge, surrounded on all sides by a jungle scene, animals everywhere, then diving underwater, and finally airborne, flying with birds Winged Migration–style. It's not 3-D, but the effect is vertiginous all the same, like being swallowed by your TV set. The sphere is the apotheosis of the exposition's devotion to immersive multimedia, and it's stunning.

Stunning, and also ironic. Shouldn't "Nature's Wisdom" be discernible without the use of digital effects, screens, or goggles?There are bits of real nature to be found at the expo—for example, at Japan's Forest Experience Zone. Unfortunately, this is a pathetic, small-treed affair, heavily manicured and tiny. In this case, Earth Room trumps the real thing. It's fair to say that the Aichi world expo as a whole succeeds as entertainment more than it inspires deep, world-changing sentiment. Perhaps inevitably, no modern expo can possibly match the impact—or generate the excitement—of world's fairs of earlier, more innocent eras.

At the Forest Experience Zone, visitors are required to attend a 20-minute training session before embarking on their hikes, only to discover that the entire accessible trail is less than 200 yards long. They may be forgiven for seeking nature's wisdom elsewhere—at the Japan Gas Association pavilion, perhaps?

Expo 2005 Aichi runs through September 28. See for details.

LUKE BARR is Travel + Leisure's news director.

1851 LONDON The Crystal Palace.

1876 PHILADELPHIA First typewriter, first telephone, and the gigantic Corliss steam engine.

1889 PARIS The Eiffel Tower.

1893 CHICAGO The world's first Ferris wheel.

1904 ST. LOUIS The debut of the ice cream cone.

1915 SAN FRANCISCO Giant scale models of Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon.

1933–34 CHICAGO The Graf Zeppelin.

1939–40 NEW YORK The General Motors Futurama exhibit.

1939–40 SAN FRANCISCO The Golden Gate Bridge.

1958 BRUSSELS The Atomium building.

1962 SEATTLE The Space Needle.

1964–65 NEW YORK The Unisphere, built by U.S. Steel.

1967 MONTREAL Buckminster Fuller's geodesic American pavilion.

1970 OSAKA, JAPAN Girl guides at the first ever Asian expo.

1984 NEW ORLEANS Declared bankruptcy one month before closing.

1992 SEVILLE Commemorated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the Americas.

2000 HANOVER, GERMANY The Venezuelan pavilion.