February 6, 2018

Aichi’s Industry Tourism

While a lot of overseas tourists tend to skip Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture in lieu of Kyoto, this part of Japan is a haven for industrial tourism.

Statues of men pour molten metal at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya

Have you ever heard of “industrial tourism?”

Yeah, I didn’t think so… Truth be told, I hadn’t encountered the term either until recently when I was invited by the government to go check out Aichi Prefecture’s budding scene. According to Wikipedia, industrial tourism refers to an approach to selecting travel destinations that includes industrial sites peculiar to the location. The concept is by no means new and includes possibilities such as wine tours in France or visits with cheese makers in the Netherlands.

But why Aichi Prefecture though? Well, as it turns out, the central regions of Japan have long been hotbeds of industry for hundreds of years. Sitting halfway between Tokyo to the east (then called Edo) and Kyoto and Osaka to the west, Aichi Prefecture in particular was perfectly positioned to profit from trade with both locations. Today, these industrial roots are still very tangible all throughout the central regions of Japan and woven within its unique culture.

While by no means an exhaustive list, what follows is a mere taste of what’s on the menu. Do note however that industrial tourism in Aichi Prefecture (and Japan on the whole) is still a very new industry inasmuch as it pertains to foreign guests. While I expect that those with vested interests to step up their game in the near future, for now, expect to encounter challenges with the language barrier at some of the locations.

Industry Tourism in Aichi: Toyota’s Legacy

Old spinning wheels from Toyota’s initial business are on display at Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya

Let’s begin with everyone’s favorite… Toyota Motor Corporation.

Did you know that the company actually got its start in the textile industry? That’s right, the poster child of Japan’s economic miracle did not begin as the automotive giant we know today. In fact, it wasn’t until relatively recently in the 1930’s that Toyota even produced its first car! This of course is a bit of a shock to westerners who have for years associated the Toyota brand with affordability and/or reliability.

When it comes to industrial tourism, Toyota is of course a forerunner (no pun intended). Today, you can delve into the history of the corporation at any number of museums that chronicle Toyota’s legacy. Chief among these though is the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya’s Nishi-ku. This behemoth facility documents the rise of Toyota from its early roots in the textile industry to some of the company’s current work in automobiles and robotics.

Statues of men work on machinery at Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya

The attention to detail at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology borders on the manic. With over 3,000 working machines on display spanning the ages, no stone of the company’s history is left unturned. You could easily spend a few days just admiring the evolution of the company over time. If you pay close attention, you can easily see how Toyota’s early philosophies regarding production helped to transform it into the mega corporation it became later on down the line.

Furthermore, unlike with the following two suggestions, you’ll encounter no issues with language barriers at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. All of the exhibits have been thoroughly localized into English as well as several other foreign languages. What’s more, the many, if not all, of the staff speak some modicum of English and are able to explain the workings of each machine on display. It’s truly impressive.

Anyway, to reach the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, take the Meitetsu Line to Sako Station. From there it’s about three minutes on foot. While it’s a straight shot to the museum from the station, here’s a link to a Google Map just in case. The property is open from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Entry will run you a mere 500 yen per person.

Industry Tourism in Aichi: The Mizkan Museum

A cutout of a man makes vinegar at the Mizkan Museum on Aichi Prefecture’s Chita Peninsula

Moving on, the second place that I am going to recommend is the historic Mizkan Museum. As you may surmise from the name, this attraction was put together by Mizkan, a company that has been producing vinegar and other such goods since 1804. Their most important claim to fame however is the fact that they were the first to break with tradition and use sake lees instead of rice for vinegar production. Thanks to this willingness to go against the grain, a new taste was born.

At the Mizkan Museum, you’ll learn all about the historical process of how the company made its vinegar. While this may seem to only appeal to vinegar fanatics, nothing could be further from the truth. The slice of history that the museum curates for you creates a direct connection with the past. Interestingly enough, though the machines have changed slightly over the last hundred years, the process itself remains largely the same.

A mural at the Mizkan Museum on Aichi Prefecture’s Chita Peninsulahe Mizkan Museum on Aichi Prefecture’s Chita Peninsula

Perhaps the most interesting insight that I gleaned from visiting the Mizkan Museum was how the company was responsible for the popularization of sushi as we know it. In the early 1800’s, just as nigiri sushi was beginning to take off in Edo, Mizkan saw a business opportunity. It turns out that vinegar made from sake lees goes perfectly with sushi rice. To capitalize, the founder quickly mobilized and made ships to transport his products from central Japan to the far off capital. Thanks to this entrepreneurial spirit, sushi became an easy to eat on-the-go hit with the denizens of Edo.

If you’re interested in planning a visit, know that the Mizkan museum is located on the Chita Peninsula in the city of Handa. To get there, you’ll need to take a train from Nagoya to Handa Station and then walk 10 minutes to the museum. The entire trip takes a little less than an hour. Note that while only 300 yen to enter, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance. This can easily be done here online but you’ll need to battle your way through the Japanese site. Furthermore, the museum currently does not offer any English so you’ll need to bring a friend to really get the most of the experience.

Industry Tourism in Aichi: Teatime at Aiya

Aichi Prefecture’s Aiya Nishio Matcha Museum Waku Waku

To end this piece on industrial tourism, the final spot that I would like to introduce is the so-called Aiya Nishio Matcha Museum Waku Waku. Much like the aforementioned Mizkan exhibition, this museum is also located on the Chita Peninsula in Nishio, a city that, along with Uji in Kyoto, is famous for its matcha production. You’ll find the facility atop the Aiya Corporation’s main office headquarters. Established in 1888, this company boasts the largest market share of matcha powder in Japan.

At the Aiya corporation’s museum, you’ll have the chance to learn about how to produce matcha. A guide will walk you through the process of transforming tea leaves into the familiar green powder enjoyed all over Japan. Later, you’ll also review how to tell the difference between different grades of tea by using the five senses. Towards the end of your visit, you’ll even have the chance to grind your own matcha and drink it.

Despite the alluring appeal of Aiya’s museum, they are not yet fully equipped to deal with guests who cannot speak Japanese. In addition to this lack of English support, another downside is that the facility is located rather far away from all public transportation. As you can see from this Google Map, it’s quite the hike. To cut down on travel time, I therefore suggest you just hail a taxi from Nishio Station.

Before moving on, note that you’ll need to make a reservation with Aiya well in advance. There are only three tours per day and they appear to almost always be booked out by groups of Japanese. In the interest of brevity, I’ll direct you to the Aichi Prefectural Tourism Association’s official site for more information about the process.