Patrick St. Michel, CNN • Published 24th November 2016
(CNN) — Japan's rise to global tech supremacy is legendary. But few realize where the country's important industrial sectors have some of their deepest roots. That place is Aichi prefecture, west of Tokyo.
One of Aichi's biggest claims is a key role in developing the Tokaido Shinkansen, the famed bullet train that changed Japanese business by making day trips across the country possible.
That's not all though, and as more foreign visitors head to Japan ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games, new English-language tours will help Aichi's rich industrial world become a star attraction.
"Aichi has been called 'the center of the manufacturing industry' in Japan, thanks to companies such as Toyota and [ceramic producer] Noritake," says Masaru Suzuki, a Japanese tourism expert and author.
Seeing the value in industrial tourism
Sites throughout Aichi celebrate the area's strong industrial features.
There are museums highlighting traditional creations and factory tours offering a glimpse into the production of everything from mechanical to edible goods. At some sites, it's even possible to get a glimpse into the future.
"Manufacturing is the key to our current economy," says Hiroshi Oda, chief officer of the Distribution and Tourism Division of the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Aichi's capital. "Many of these companies establish their own museums to showcase their history and technology."
As a result, industrial tourism has taken off in Aichi, to the point where the local government launched an industry-focused rally campaign.
"We see our industries as a tourism opportunity, so we've been using them to try to draw more visitors to the region," Oda says. He also says it has reverse benefits for the industries themselves.
"If people come to see the factory, it can help motivate our employees to work better, and also make sure our safety standards are high."
Aichi's best industrial experiences
The Toyota Kaikan plant at the company's headquarters in Japan allows visitors to walk through welding and assembly areas where the world's best selling cars are made (although visitors aren't allowed to get this close).
The best place to begin any exploration of the area's tech prowess is the city of Toyota, which is a quick train ride away from Nagoya, the country's fourth-largest city.
As the name implies, it's the birthplace of the world's largest automaker, Toyota. Today it houses Toyota's headquarters, along with a production plant and the Toyota Kaikan Museum.
Cars from Toyota's past and present -- along with a few looks towards tomorrow, both via automobiles and violin-playing robots -- are on display in Kaikan Museum. Visitors can also arrange to take a tour of the plant, where they can see Toyota's automobiles assembled by workers and robotic arms. It's a rare chance to see the company's celebrated Toyota Production System up close.
Another tech giant with roots in Aichi is Brother Group, which lets visitors get a taste of the past and present at the Brother Communication Space, in Nagoya.
The company is known for goods such as printers and karaoke song systems, and the Communication Space allows visitors the chance to check out all sorts of takes on these electronic goods, all free of charge.
For a real slip back in time, Brother devotes a large chunk of space to antique sewing machines. English tours can be booked online through the Brother Communication Space website.
Trains, electricity and the world's largest planetarium
SCMAGLEV and Railway Park's bullet train simulator.
Moving into the space age, Nagoya City Science Museum includes a variety of hands-on exhibition, but the real draw is its planetarium -- the largest in the world. For fans of industry -- and even for those who aren't -- a trip to Aichi isn't complete without a visit to the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park.
Located within Nagoya proper, it's partially dedicated to the nation's railroad history, featuring vintage train cars and locomotives from more than a hundred years ago to the present day. The park puts its strongest spotlight on the history of the bullet train, as Nagoya has long been a central hub for the high-speed transit system.
A village of vinegar and beer
Japan's been using vinegar -- a byproduct of sake brewing -- since the 5th century. And it all began in the brewing town of Handa, located south of Nagoya on the picturesque Chita Peninsula. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), Handa was a leader in the export of soy sauce, sake and vinegar across Japan.
Handa-based Mizkan company, founded in 1804, continues to produce vinegar and sake to this day. Located opposite the Mizkan sake brewery, the Mizkan Museum explains the history of Handa's vinegar brewing and manufacturing process, using traditional tools and techniques. Nearby is the Kunizakari Sake Museum. Created by Nakano Sake Brewery, which was founded in 1844, the museum is housed in a building that used for sake brewing for 200 years. Displays include brewing tools and sake samples. Prefer beer? There's the Asahi Brewery factory tour, located at the beer producer's Nagoya plant near the Shonai River. Visitors will see the equipment and ingredients used to make one of Japan's most popular brews and taste freshly made beer in the Asahi tasting room at the conclusion of the tour.
Japan's biggest ceramics producer
Noritake Garden highlights Aichi's ceramics history.
Right down the street from Nagoya's Toyota Commemorative Museum is Noritake Garden. The large brick space celebrates long-running ceramic maker Noritake, which was founded in Aichi in 1904.
Visitors can see creations dating back to the company's beginnings and kids can paint their own ceramics. Indeed, Aichi has long been one of Japan's biggest producers of ceramics, especially the area now known as Seto city, just northwest of Nagoya.
"For our lives, manufacturing is vital, we can't live without it," says Oda. "To understand the manufacturing industry through manufacturing tours, it will make people's lives richer. Aichi has the potential to become the center of that."