By Kevin Meyer
Many of us have visiting Japan to tour the factories of companies like Toyota in order to learn a little more about lean. But how many of us visit factories just to appreciate their beauty? Maybe we're missing out by going inside the walls?
Armed with expensive and elaborate camera equipment, the tourists excitedly disembarking the charter bus have all the markings of a stereotypical tour group. But they aren't interested in the area's renowned pottery making or its tranquil Shisuian teahouse. They are here to see a giant power plant billowing smoke.
It's the first stop of a sightseeing trip catering to factory fanatics who caravan to Japan's industrial hubs to gawk at the aesthetics of power plants, oil refineries and other smokestack facilities once derided as polluting eyesores.
Of course I can appreciate that. Factories are amazing places. So much to see, so much to learn. But even I probably haven't appreciated their aesthetic qualities like these folks.
What started as a fringe subculture known as kojo moe, or "factory infatuation," is beginning to gain wider appeal in Japan, turning industrial zones into unlikely tourist attractions. It's the Japanese equivalent of going sightseeing at industrial stretches along the New Jersey Turnpike.
Unlike the tourists who visit the factories of Toyota Motor Corp. and other Japanese manufacturers, the kojo moe crowd has little interest in the inner workings of the plants. They get excited by the maze of intricate piping around the exterior of a steel plant or the cylindrical smokestacks sending up steam.
Ok… now that you mention New Jersey…
Reservations for a nighttime boat cruise around Kawasaki's illuminated chemical factories, steel plants and oil refineries are booked up months in advance. For 4,000 yen per adult—about $48—a vessel resembling a houseboat carries tourists past mammoth, brightly lit factories sending clouds of smoke into the air.
"Most people are shocked to discover that factories can be such beautiful places," said Masakatsu Ozawa, an official in Kawasaki's tourism department. "We want tourists to have an experience for all the senses including that factory smell."
Perhaps a new revenue source for money-starved Detroit, City of Industry, or Newark? Strangely, I could be interested.