The Okura Hotel provided a beautiful view of Kobe and the Good Times World and Maritime Museum – the first stops for Day 2 of our Japanese adventure.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) is divided into eight different divisions: Aerospace, Shipbuilding, Industrial Equipment, Infrastructure, Rolling Stock, Energy Plants & Facilities, Environment & Recycling and of course, Motorcycles, Jet Ski and ATVs. The three most accessible facilities we had the honor of touring included Kawasaki Motorcycles, Ship Building and Rolling Stock. Check out the vital details of each and every one of them at KHI.com if you are interested in learning more about them. A look at the inner workings of the Akashi Works motorcycle manufacturing operation would be the first stop on this tour: But not until we had our fill of the Kawasaki Good Times World and Maritime museum on the Kobe waterfront.
The Good Times World and the Maritime Museum were outside our hotel so we paid a visit in the morning before heading across the sea to the motorcycle plant that afternoon. The Good Times World facility is a showcase for Kawasaki from its inception to the present day and features a detailed timeline with models of key historic elements, a variety of interactive displays, photos and video of key stages in the company’s history, as well as flight simulator, robots, a collection of particularly significant motorcycles and much more.
The Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge is also known as Pearl Bridge in Japan. At 12,831 ft it is the longest suspension bridge in the world.
We had to jockey for position at the displays with the droves of school children who were out in abundance. The young students were eager to soak in all the cool features the museum had to offer before returning to the disciplined regiment and daily routines we witnessed at the entrance, prior to the youngsters being unleashed on us and the museum staff. After an hour-long assault on our senses, it was time to make our way to Akashi Works so we were herded onto the bus for the first leg of our tour.
It didn’t take long to find something worthy of taking a picture. Our bus ride took us across the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the first true wonder of our trip. Also called Pearl Bridge, this $5 billion, 12,831 foot-long structure spans the Akashi Strait of the Japanese Inland Sea linking the cities of Kobe and Iwaya along the Honshu-Shikoku Highway. Our tour bus took us over it and then stopped for a photo-op on the other side. Although the structure was not built entirely by KHI, the two main 978 foot-tall supporting towers were erected in a joint effort between Kawasaki and auto and electronics powerhouse, Mitsubishi. The longest section of the bridge measures 6,532 feet, despite being designed at 6,529 feet. After the infamous Kobe earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995 the span actually increased by a full meter.
KHI is renowned for its prowess in structural engineering and its Infrastructure division has participated in the construction of many notable projects throughout the history of modern Japan, providing many of the internal frames found in the sky scrapers and bridges throughout the nation, the development of a variety of heavy equipment and much more. The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, however, is one of its crowning achievements.
Aimlessly wandering American journalists weren’t the only spectators at the Good Times World, with flocks of school children also visiting the museum.
When we finally arrived at Akashi Works we were debriefed in a conference center and supplied with uniquely identifiable blue caps before being ushered into the facility by yet another short-bus, where every Kawasaki motorcycle that gets our adrenalin pumping is produced. The tour guide informed us that 30,000 units are produced by Kawasaki every month, an impressive endeavor considering it only employs around 420 workers in its plant. All the more impressive upon the discovery that the well organized production process is less automated than I had envisioned prior to seeing it with my own eyes.
I had visions of an assembly line with rows and rows of articulated robots grabbing frame spars, placing them in jigs and welding the components in place, but that was not the case. There are assembly lines, plenty of them in fact. However, humans are doing most of the work. Again to my surprise there were endless rows of frames, sub-frames, swingarms, wheels, forks and other hard parts being shuttled around the facility by an assortment of over head and floor conveyors, forklifts and small trucks all in a sort of organized chaos. Each piece was in a different state of assembly, some heading to the paint booth, suspended on hangers overhead while completed frames sat in queue awaiting turns on the final assembly line. Rolling chassis of various models are intermingled with one another on the primary assembly line conveyors as they move from station to station where actual humans do the work. Plugging in wiring harnesses and routing control cables looks just as painstaking at the production level as it is in my garage too.
The Yamato-1 is the first superconducting watercraft in the world. With no moving parts in the propulsion system it uses electrmagnetic energy to pull itself through the water. It is on display in front of Good Times World.
We were lucky enough to show up in time to watch as containers and pallets full of the new Concours 14 hard-parts were being pieced together. The new sport-touring machine had not even been released to the press at the time of the tour, so we were witnessing the creation of the very bikes we would ride for the first time a month later. As each unit was rolled off the final assembly line it was visually inspected, the motor started and even ran through a series of tests on a dyno to ensure everything is ship-shape before being ushered to the crating/shipping area. As the tour continued deeper into the bowels of the production facility, there were more pallets piled high with assembled motors, incomplete motors, heads, cylinders, raw unfinished crankshafts, finished cranks and pretty much everything you can imagine that is hidden between frame spars of your favorite ride. How exactly they keep track of everything is beyond my ability to comprehend, but I am glad they do.
At the motor assembly line the engines and cases are loaded from pallets to the conveyor by hand before having the internals installed by identically dressed technicians, who appeared to be quite focused behind their safety glasses and khaki-colored overalls. The hard parts meander through a series of work stations where employees install the crankshafts, rods, pistons, cylinders and heads – torquing each piece to spec and checking for tolerance in a routine capable of causing anyone to want to jump on their sword in order to break the monotony. A particularly interesting station featured a lady installing rings on hundreds, probably thousands, of pistons as they trickled past her hyper-articulate digits. She was so fast and efficient that she looked like a robot as she picked ring after ring, spun them into place and grabbed another repeatedly, tirelessly, never missing a beat. Can you say carpel tunnel syndrome?
Among the displays in the Good Times World were bullet trains, which is yet another aspect of the diverse Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
Off in the distance, CNC milling machines whined tirelessly as raw crankshafts are inserted, machined and removed in a never ending demonstration of metal shavings and cutting fluid. Further down the line were a multitude of welding stations where fame spars were being hand-welded to steering heads by craftsmen shielded behind translucent dark green curtains like mad scientists in a B-movie with sparks flying and welders humming, crackling and spitting while the scent of hot alloy and burnt grease permeates the air. Although it was a surprise not to see the robots I envisioned, it was great to know that those good looking welds on the frames of Kawasaki’s bikes are pooled into place with a pride of craftsmanship that might have been taken for granted.
In the end our bewildered assemblage of scribes staggered on to the bus impressed with the process by which the bikes are created, but looking as funny as we felt with our nifty blue hats on our heads.
Blog: Day 2
Inside Kawasaki’s Good Times World was a mass of school kids, swarming the displays and generally having a great time. It was cool to see how in to the bikes they all were.
I couldn’t sleep very well so I was up early for day one. We’re going to see the motorcycle plant right out of the gate. My plan was to do a video feature of this trip, so I grabbed the camera and went to the lobby. There I was informed no video or cameras would be allowed, so I went back up to the room and left it there. Then we walked to the Kawasaki Good Times World museum located a couple hundred yards from the hotel. Outside there were a couple rocket ship-like boats on display out front and a mass of well-dressed kids in red hats. They were checking out the worlds first ocean going super-conducting propulsion driven ship, the Yamato-1 (which just so happens to have been built by Kawasaki). The museum was great fun but I like action, so it got old quick. The kids dug it. We finally loaded up on our big bus and headed off to the factory.
Along the way we crossed an amazing bridge that resembled a super-sized Golden Gate. It turns out that Kawasaki also had a hand in the construction of the towers for what turned out to be the longest suspension bridge in the world: Akashi Bridge. Very cool. We stopped and posed for pictures at the other end. There are loads of vending machines everywhere. Energy drinks, ice cream, sodas and snacks of one form or another, you can get anything you want without any interaction from people. Maybe I never noticed it in the U.S., but these machines seem to be everywhere here.
A half hour later we were back on the bus again for the rest of the ride. We got the meet and greet and our cool blue baseball caps before being loaded to another short bus that took us to the plant. It was amazing to see the amount of effort it takes to build these babies. From now on we’ll be extra careful since we know these people actually put their hearts into it. We returned to the hotel for dinner. It was an amazing buffet loaded with high-end sushi, teriyaki chicken, grilled steak, noodles and booze. It was great. Afterwards we convinced a group of folks to hit the town to see if there was any night life on a Thursday in Kobe. There wasn’t.
We made our way to the N.Y. Bar and enjoyed a few rounds while going over the amazing things we saw that afternoon. The crowd of locals on hand looked fairly suspicious of the dorky looking group of Americans that was intruding on their personal space. The bar itself was small so we couldn’t even set the entire group together, which was interesting. Some of us were on the up-and-up while others had their fanny packs on, cameras slung around their necks and looking rather conspicuously like tourists (You know the ones – you’ve seen them before) and generally exhibiting an inability to communicate, even in the language of the lounge. After a few rounds it was time to hit the head. This is easier said than done. The itsy, bitsy bathroom was barely big enough to stand with shoulders square to the toilet. Even then the sink was nudging against my right butt cheek and my left elbow pressed against the sliding door. It was cramped. Poor Dave. At 6-foot-mungous I don’t know if his bicep would fit in there without some Vaseline! Before long the close quarters got to the gringos so they decided to return to the hotel as a cohesive unit but not everyone wished to be assimilated at that time.
The Kawasaki Tour of Japan 2007 included a who’s who of motorcycle media. We even tossed in a few automotive editors for good measure. Say cheese!
While everyone but Dave Sonsky of Super Streetbike and Steve Atlas of Cycle News and myself threw in the towel, we headed out on our own to be all we could be. For a while we wandered about, soaking in the scene. It seemed as though every male was dressed in a suit of some type while the women were more diverse in their wardrobes. Everyhting from business casual to hump-me heel were on display. Obviously we had no issues with that! Eventually, we stumbled across a club with a billboard out front with the mug shots of a dozen beautiful ladies so we figured that was the place for us. Negative ghost rider the pattern is full. The bouncer said no. No Americans allowed as we approached the door. We tried to argue our case, but to no avail. At least the guy pointed down some other street and told us to go that way, so we did as we were told.
On the way to the Akashi Works facility where tthe Kawasaki motorcycles are churned out at a rate of 1000 units per day. Are we cute in our little blue hats or what?
After hiking aorund for a few minutes into what was obviously the shady side of this city, things started to get interesting. Finally the elusive ladies began to appear, usually in pairs, giggling as they walked past while trying not to stare too obviously at our motley crew. The next thing we know we’ve got a few skanky looking ladies approaching us – apparently the guys sent us to the red light region. Of course we had to take the opportunity to find out what the dealio was, so when a couple particularly aggressive gals wouldn’t let go we asked what they wanted from us. With a sly grin on her face the tallest one, in a weak attempt at an Ava Gardner impression says ‘Banana massagey.’ I swear it was one of those moments when I wished I had been video taping the meeting because there is no way to do justice to the way she said it – it was hilarious. We all started laughing so hard we almost wet ourselves, and left the area post-haste, giggling like a bunch of prepubescent teenage boys after looking at their first girly-mag. We were pathetic, and from that point on every time we saw a cutie we couldn’t help but parrot this classic line under our breath. Yeah, we are idiots but it makes me laugh to this day. Hutchy out!
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