Japanese tourism fad: Factory tours
For those who think they've "done Japan," forget Harajuku. Forget Tokyo, for that matter.
Head straight to Kawasaki, an industrial city sandwiched between Tokyo and Yokohama, where an alternative tourism fad is emerging.
Kojo moe or "factory infatuation" refers to the booming popularity of bleak industrial zones as tourist destinations.
A growing number of shutterbugs are finding the illuminated steel furnaces and smokestacks of Kawasaki so alluring that they're signing on for night cruises and day tours just to gape at them from afar.
Unlike conventional factory tours that admit visitors inside the plants, kojo moe excursions are whistle-stop tours near industrial compounds, which can take on a neo-noir, science fiction-like quality at night.
Tourists are known to burst into cheers whenever a drawbridge rises or furnaces start belching smoke.
"The geometric patterns of metal pipes and frames, eerie smokes and flames, they remind me of the designs of H.R. Giger," said Chiba native Daigo Yokota, a first time visitor to Kawasaki's factories. "It is within range of the Tokyo metropolitan area, where my friends and I live."
"It is great to be able to experience a completely different world less than an hour's drive away,” Yokota added.
Masaki Ishitani, an Osaka native who has visited Kawasaki's factories three times in the past year, said looking at factories gives him an "innocent" sense of enjoyment.
"I like taking photos and I like factories," said Ishitani. "Kawasaki factories are the biggest, most beautiful and the most wonderful in Japan -- just like the movie Blade Runner."
The subculture is thought to be spawned by a photo book of Japanese factories titled 'Kojo Moe,' co-authored by writer and photographer Ken Ohyama and freelance illustrator Tetsu Ishii.
The book has sold about 40,000 copies since it was first published in 2007, McClatchy-Tribune reported. There's even a Kojo Moe DVD in circulation for the true factory fetishist.
Ishii currently heads a 24,666 member strong web community titled "Kojo Kombinato Ni Moeru Kai," or "A Group in Love With Factories" on Mixi, the Japanese equivalent of Facebook.
The Kawasaki City Office and Kawasaki City Tourist Association are cashing in on the frenzy by organizing nighttime boat cruises around Kawasaki on a twice monthly basis.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the cruises, which cost about 4,000 yen per person (about US$50), are booked out months in advance. Some bus tours sell out in less than a day.
Industrial zones such as Yokkaichi in the Mie prefecture and Kitayushu in Kyushu have also started offering factory tours.
The movement has its detractors. A TIME blogger pointed out that residents of Yokkaichi still suffer from asthma as a result of smog exposure forty years ago. Some plants have also expressed annoyance over tourists snapping away at what is potentially confidential corporate information, McClatchy-Tribune reported.
Kawasaki is located in the greater Tokyo area and is easily accessible from Toyko and Yokohama. A train ride from Tokyo to JR Kawasaki station takes around 18 minutes. The journey into JR Kawasaki station from Yokohama station is eight minutes.
For more details, refer to the Kawasaki City Tourist Association website.
The website also has a detailed list of Kawasaki factory tours.
To check train schedules, click here.