With three hours of sleep under my belt, I made my way to Tokyo Station at around 5:30am to catch the 6:23am Shinkansen to Nagoya. To my disappointment the ticketing agent at the window told me that train along with the express one right after it were all booked. I ended up settling for the first non-express train that still had openings. In a stupor as I made my way to the correct track, I attempted to calculate when exactly I would arrive at Toyota's Kaikan Hall when it dawned on me that I still had a chance at boarding the 6:23am train by grabbing an unreserved seat. I hurried over to the corresponding track and to my relief got on a short line in front of one of the non-reserved cars.
Nagoya's Rush Hour, stiff arm!
In Nagoya had I followed the directions on this page I would have saved about 20 minutes of mindless wandering. The most interesting part of that morning commute was taking part in Nagoya's rush hour. Have you ever seen the video of rush hour in Tokyo? Running down the steps and dashing to the closest door, I politely crammed my way in when suddenly I felt someone stiff arm me through my backpack. Realizing I had just been pushed in by one of the white gloved station attendants a big smile formed on my face amid the throng of stern and weary faces, I felt like a true resident of Japan.
Toyota City and Main Campus
The location of Toyota's campus is pretty far East of downtown Nagoya. In fact, only one out of every four trains goes all the way down the Meitetsu Toyota Line and guess which train I got on? The very first train of that cycle, so at Akaike, I watched two more trains deposit passengers before the right train arrived. At Toyota-shi Station, buses came about twice an hour, luckily, I gave myself plenty of padding for the 11am plant tour.
At the Toyota-shi Station, while waiting for the bus I noticed that all the cars that drove by were Toyotas so I started wondering whether or not all the cars in town were Toyotas. I guess similar to Detroit with all its domestic cars before the 80s. Turned out to be an invalid theory when the bus left the station. Saw plenty of Subarus and Nissans around.
Toyota's campus was uninspiring to say the least, in fact, their other office buildings in Japan, Tokyo and downtown Nagoya aren't lookers either. A far cry from BMW's World / Welt Headquarters, and Museum, McLaren's Technology Center or even VW's Phaeton plant. I don't know if it's just a European thing, the Japanese aren't slouches when it comes to architecture but I guess Toyota didn't think a signature building (or two) was needed.
Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall
The Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall isn't worth a visit unless you have reservations for the plant tour as well. It's pretty sparse inside with the showroom taking up the most space. It's not even a full model line showroom, three Lexus models (SC, IS-F, LS Hybrid) and about nine Toyotas.
Their motorsports section wasn't that great either, an F-1 car like the one I saw in Shinjuku, and a replica of it where you can get in to take photos. The highlight and most informative aspect of the hall was probably that replica. I had no idea the seating position of an F-1 driver was so awkward. It's like sitting on the floor, there is no dip in the footwell, your legs extend straight into the body of the car with nary a bend in the knees. How the drivers handle the g's while operating the brakes and gas is freaking amazing. NASCAR, Daytona Prototypes, Off Road Vehicles, compact Drag Racers and trucks were absent from the motorsports area (though I did see a truck covered up in the parking garage).
The other interesting exhibit had a pretty cool effect where they utilized mirrors and lighting to project a 'hologram body' over a chassis. When the lights turned off, the chassis was viewable; with the lights on, you saw the body of the car (though you could see the chassis through it faintly). I wasn't expecting it so when the lights turned off and the body disappeared showing the chassis, I was pretty blown away. Reminded me of this old coin bank I had as a kid, where a mirror projected a ghost swallowing my coins. So with that in mind, I took a look around that exhibit and found the body of the car hanging upside down above the viewing area. Pretty cool stuff.
I guess I should mention the i-unit and the Partner Robots playing music, I think I've seen too many videos and press mentions of these robots so I wasn't exactly in awe of the i-unit going back and forth, the trumpet player or Robina answering back.
Other interesting things I found out was that Toyota is also in the pre-fab housing business, and biotechnology and afforestation among other non-automotive businesses, you can check them out here.
At 11am, a number of us met in the designated area to follow our English-speaking tour guide to the factory bus. We went first to the assembly plant (if you speak Japanese, you can take that tour which is conducted in the order of the manufacturing process, not a big deal at all though) followed by the welding plant.
At the assembly plant, I was surprised by the number of steps that still involve manual labor. I'd say 90% of the steps I saw in the assembly plant made use of manual labor, robots were there to aid, but not replace humans. It's pretty impressive, when I read that factory lines can produce more than one model, I always thought they'd build them in batches. For example, 50 units of the Camry and then another 50 units of the Prius. In actuality, it's pretty much on demand. I came across four or five Prius followed by a Camry or vice versa. Like some of the other things I've seen, it all looked like a complex dance. The movements were repeated every so often, the in-factory vehicles transporting machinery parked at the same spots and followed the same paths. Everything was taped up on the floor to give everyone an idea of where exactly a cart was supposed to be. Screens were also in place offering everyone a glimpse of every station in the factory. If one station was not performing up to task, their number would blink and music would play until they caught up.
The welding plant was more automated, actually I didn't see a single human performing a weld, so it was entirely automated except for the few human operators overseeing various portions of the factory line. The dance performed here was even more impressive. Since not every station used up the same amount of time, there were many instances were the majority of the robot arms were parked waiting for the factory line to move one car down so they could all go to work again. I wish I was allowed to take photos or video, it was a rush seeing the factory line move one car down and then seeing all the robot arms, probably 20+ in view, spring into action performing a number of welds in various areas. Perfectly coordinated, when one arm moved out of a sector, the arm from the other side would move into that area to perform its own welds.
Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology
With the factory tour completed, I made my way back to downtown Nagoya and soon after arrived at nearby Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology 40 minutes before closing. On the way there I also came across a classy looking porno store, put the 6-8 story one Kevin took us to in Akihabara to shame.
Anyway, 40 minutes was definitely not enough time to sufficiently absorb all the information that was at this museum. It's probably the best museum I've been to in a long time. Split into two main sections, one covering Toyota's beginnings as a textile machinery producer, and the other focusing on it's automotive history, there is also a section called Technoland, similar to some things you might see at the Liberty Science Center. Surprisingly I couldn't pull myself away from the Textile Machinery Pavilion. My intention was to zoom through that section and then focus on the automotive stuff afterwards. Instead I spent most of my time checking out loom technology. I couldn't pull myself away, it was only until a helpful employee reminded me 10 minutes before closing that I should go see the other pavilion that I took off and ran through the automotive section.
I was never really that interested in the cotton gin and the events that surrounded it back during my history lessons, but when all that stuff is in front of you, I couldn't help reading through every placard. Most of the machinery there also worked so at every other station, you could get a demonstration of how it was operated. Really really great stuff. I'd love to go back and give the museum more time, but I'm not sure when I'll ever be back in Nagoya. So for my sake, if you are ever there, please make the short walk and check it out. In fact, I'd skip the long trip to Toyota's headquarters, everything you see in the factory tour is reproduced (on a smaller scale) in the autmotive pavilion. And you get to see much more, such as the first car 'Toyoda' produced and everything else from the early days to present day. Did you know Toyota dabbled in rotary technology? They gave up on it after realizing they couldn't get the fuel consumption down easily. Check out the photo on the left of their rotary engine.
The original building where the Toyota Group was formed is also on the museum grounds, can't miss it as you walk to the South entrance. So is the Toyoda Shokai Office.
You must make reservations at least two weeks in advance to take part in the plant tour. Details on how to do that can be found here. Don't worry about having access to a fax machine, after my initial call, every thing was handled via email.
At Nagoya Station, take the East / Sakuradori Exit. Right after you exit, look to your right and you should see stairs heading down to the Higashiyama Subway Line. Take that line to Fushimi Station (believe it's one stop), and change to the Tsurumai Line. One out of every four trains goes all the way to the Meitetsu Toyota Line. If you find yourself on one of the other trains, you'll have to get off at the last stop, Akaike, and transfer there to a train that will take you to Toyota-shi Station (it'll be the same platform). This portion of the trip should take about an hour and cost you ¥790.
Getting out of the Toyota-shi Station, make a right and go up the escalators. Towards your left next to a Starbucks should be stairs leading down to the bus stops. Take the bus for Toyota Kinen Byoin (No. 4 bus stop) and get off at Toyota Honsha Mae. It's about a 20 minute ride and will set you back ¥290. Be alert when 290 pops up on the fare meter and just listen for the stop name. It'll be a covered bus stop in front of a parking garage. After getting off the bus, just walk with the traffic and it'll be on your left. Can't miss it.
To get to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, just walk north for about 15 - 20 minutes from Nagoya Station, you should see signs for the museum, you'll have to make a right somewhere and walk one block, shouldn't be too hard to find. Take a look at their map here.
The Shinkansen from Tokyo will set you back about $100, altogether the trip should run you about $122. Or $127 if you go walk to and check out the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology.