Touring Japan with Kawasaki Part 3

August 7, 2007
Ken Hutchison
Ken Hutchison
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The ulcers keep piling on for the warden of the MotoUSA asylum. With the inmates running rampant around the globe, Hutch has opted to get in on the madness more these days than in years past and is back in the saddle again.

The <i>Orient Phoenix< i>  bulk carrier was launched on June 1  2007 from KHI s Kobe shipyard. Officially designated as Kawasaki hull number 1578  the 189.9 meter vessel is scheduled to be delivered to Panama-based Black Ship Line in August 2007.  - Kobe Shipyard - Kawasaki Tour
Our tour through Kawasaki’s Kobe shipyard included spectacular views of The Orient Phoenix, a bulk carrier launched on June 1, 2007, just weeks after our visit.

Ship Yard

We traded our trucker hats and short sleeves for hard hats and umbrellas on day two. The second leg of the journey included scheduled tours of the Kobe Works shipyard and Hyogo Works rail car (Rolling Stock) facilities, both of which represent a side of Kawasaki that few have actually seen and even less are aware of. As it turns out, the Shipbuilding Corporation is a hard-working earth-friendly innovator in the realm of overseas commodities transportation, offering an array of services for ocean going industries ranging from complete overhauls, routine maintenance and engine replacement to an assortment of brand new vessels. We would witness the production of a couple cargo ships and take a look inside the engine manufacturing plant where the term “huge horsepower” takes on an entirely new light.

Braving the elements we exited the mini-bus and were greeted by an enormous hulk of a container ship that we were scheduled to tour on this soggy afternoon. The view of the immense vessel from dock level makes a person feel a bit insignificant by comparison, with its massive flank and gunwale towering a good hundred feet overhead. We made our way up a spiral staircase winding up from the dock to the gangway above. From there it was up more stairs to the bridge for the Captain’s view of things, including the soon to be released Orient Phoenix a cargo ship in the final stages of assembly in the adjacent dock.

The Orient Phoenix, a bulk carrier, was launched a week after our departure on June 1, 2007. Officially designated as Kawasaki hull number 1578, the 189.9-meter (623-foot) vessel should have already been delivered to Panama-based Black Ship Line by the time you read this. The Phoenix features new proprietary hull designs intended to reduce wave resistance and improve fuel economy. I would love to see one of these things in a wind tunnel while they were working the bugs out of that theory.

The <i>Mokara Colossus< i> sits in an unfinished state at the shipyard  the same site as the vessel we would tour one year later - Kobe Shipyard - Kawasaki Tour
The Mokara Colossus sits in an unfinished state at the shipyard, the same site as the vessel we would tour one year later.

Inside the bridge our guides explained the details of the shipbuilding process from stem to stern while the group peered out the rain-soaked windshield at the ships moored around us. Giant gantries were moving slowly off in the distance as they maneuvered tons of materials form place to place. The massive cargo bay doors and accompanying 30-ton cranes on the deck below were infinitesimal by comparison. Although we did not get photos of this particular ship, we were provided with shots of its sister ship while it was under construction prior to its launch in September, 2006. You can see just how humungous these babies are. Once the awe subsided, the answer to a quality question from one of our inquisitive correspondents really piqued the group’s interest. How big is the motor anyway? Rather than tell us, we were led into the belly of the beast so we could see for ourselves. After making our way through a series of hallways, passing through bulkheads and staircases, we arrived at the engine room for our first look at the huge in-line five-cylinder 2-stroke powerplant and pair of accompanying generators lodged in the three-story-tall engine facility.

The pistons were about five feet in diameter connected to the articulated polished steel con-rods that were nearly 2-stories tall. It turns out this baby put out over 75,000 horsepower at 120 rpm – a far narrower powerband than found even on the massive Vulcan 2000, but the available torque should be enough to keep even the astute commander smiling for decades. For the really power hungry folks among us, you’ll be happy to hear that this isn’t even the largest motor available. There is a Ten-Cylinder that pumps out more than 100,000 horsepower for use in the really big boats. This one here is merely the economy class mill and unfortunately for Jamie Hacking, neither of them are AMA legal. Once finished with the boat tour, we took a look at the actual facility where these huge motors were assembled.

These con rods will cause some serious damage if they come apart at red line - Kawasaki Tour
These con rods will cause some serious damage if they come apart at red line. The massive scale of the 2-stroke motors being assembled at the Kobe Works was incredible.

The view behind the massive Kobe Works bay door is reminiscent of a scene from an industrialized version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An assortment of titanic warehouse-sized motors in various stages of the assembly process were being worked on by a handful of tiny little humans in matching over-alls, all while monstrous overhead cranes maneuvered heavy components into position. The reality is, the people aren’t tiny, they were just dwarfed by the 3-story tall cases and cylinders they were wrenching on. A look at the motors free standing on the assembly line rather than looking down from the catwalk inside the ship itself really puts things into perspective. They are really, really big and it was a surprise to learn that the most efficient design continues to be the 2-Stroke.

Although modern technology has allowed for the production of 4-Stroke motors, the 2-Stroke is still the mechanism of choice in the shipping industry. We saw 6, 8 and 10-cylinder engines with their colossal flywheels and crankshafts putting the myriad of miniature motor internals we saw at the motorcycle plant the previous afternoon, to shame.

Rolling Stock

Tour two was in the books before it began, so by the time we waded our way to the exit and crammed into our favorite short bus, we were thoroughly impressed with the magnitude of the shipyard and looking forward to checking out the Rolling Stock later that afternoon. On the way out of the shipyard we had one last opportunity to see the Orient Phoenix as it received a final coating of black and red paint on its massive hull before heading to our final non-traditional Japanese meal of the mission. With the immense imagery etched in our minds we ate our fill at a buffet-style lunch in town before making our way to the Rolling Stock manufacturing facility for a look at the trains.

The Hikari Rail Star is another variation of the <i>Bullet Train< i> - Kawasaki Tour
The Hikari Rail Star was just one of the many bullet trains on display at the Hyogo Works, home of Kawasaki’s Rolling Stock.

Hyogo Works is the home of KHI’s Rolling Stock headquarters where 130 billion yen ($1.1 billion) worth of rolling stock alone was manufactured in 2006. It looked like business was good during our visit with a variety of Shinkansen lead cars, passenger cars and an assortment of high tech bogies being churned out at a rate of approximately 90 coaches and lead cars per month. Hyogo Works has been around since 1906 and, after a century of manufacturing experience, the company has evolved into an innovator in state-of-the-art rolling stock technology. These cars are everywhere, including the NY Subway. There are even a pair of manufacturing plants in the United States that produce railway cars which are utilized in rail systems throughout the U.S. but most regularly in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Like some sort of land-locked space shuttles, these trick bullet trains are spiffy machines from whatever angle you look at them. The latest aluminum-alloy bodies rest atop the most efficient Bogies ever produced and the attention to detail inside reveals a true pride in craftsmanship from the hundreds of workers we saw at Hyogo. We would get to experience the comfort of the first-class accommodations afforded by rail travel in the days to come. On the opposite end of the factory was the machine shop where many of the precision components of the trains are made but also the turbine engines used by Airbus, Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers. Yeah, Kawasaki is even in the sky too.

Since I have only been on one train my entire life, it was difficult to get overly excited about the machines we were looking at initially, but the machine-shop was most definitely incredible. I appreciate that these vehicles are light and utilize the latest assembly technology, but in the end it is just a train, right? You can imagine that the engineers reading this might want my head on a platter for such an indiscretion but give me a minute before lathering up the blade with lavender there Dr. Lector. The next day we were scheduled to ride a Shinkansen to the southern half of Japan for our rendezvous at the All Japan Road Racing event at Autopolis. After that, I would understand just how sweet they are. As it is, we took the slow bus to Kobe for our final evening in this city.

Rolling Stock HQ at Hyogo Works is impressive from the moment you walk through the door - Kawasaki Tour
The Hyogo Works has been producing rolling stock train cars since 1906, with Kawasaki Heavy Industries producing 130 billion yen of product in 2006 alone.

Closing out the official Kawasaki festivities was an amazing dinner held at the top of the 32-story Kobe Crystal Tower, the head office for Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Kobe City. This evening we were all the guests of Mr. Shinichi Tamba, Kawasaki’s President of Consumer Products & Machinery, for a dining experience none of us would soon forget. This would be the first of our traditional Japanese meals on three consecutive nights. The Crystal Tower accommodations were lavish to say the least, with a view of the harbor and city lights of Kobe beckoning us from below and an open invitation to imbibe from the same bar the executives at KHI sip their sake. The drinks were cold and the view was breathtaking as we watched the evening take over the town. A million lights alert us to our position atop one of tallest building in the region with its commanding view of the Kobe Shipyard, the city itself and the Akashi bay with its ports and docks full of ocean-going traffic. Then, there was the matter of the meal. Surely food fit for a king, this array of entrees needed to be eaten (It wouldn’t be tasteful to turn it down you know, and how often does a person get a chance to sample this level of cuisine anyway?). First up: A champagne glass with what appeared to be a type of custard congealed with a clear gel float topped off with a lima bean and a dollop of orange stuff.

And this my friends  tastes even better than it looks - Crystal Tower dinner - Kawasaki Tour
Pureed tongue and raw sea urchin – it tastes even better than it looks and much, much better than it sounds.

I thought it would be best to go for broke, so I spooned the entire orange thing in my mouth along with a generous helping of the clear and yellow custard. It tasted like cold eggs with a decidedly tasty hint of seafood. It was cold and had the consistency of custard but it was not sweet. There were shrimp in the middle and it left a slippery feeling on my tongue. When I asked what it was, it turned out that the custard was actually pureed tongue and the clear gel was the congealed fluid and the orange thing was raw sea urchin. It may be a true delicacy among the well-to-do in Japan, but it wasn’t the best thing this novice sushi eater consumed on the trip. The remaining courses of the dinner were more palatable, although still very much authentic Japanese cuisine. I left the tower full of food I never would have had an opportunity to eat before and likely never will again, but that was not the most memorable moment. Sitting beside the VP Tamba as he thanked us and welcomed us to Japan was the true honor.

As a member of the media it is easy to forget that there are actually people behind the machines we ride and the events we attend. It’s their hard work and the perseverance of their predecessors, as well as the employees who sweat and bleed in the plants that make this all a possibility. It is all of these people from the workers painting the Orient Phoenix to an industry leader like Mr. Tamba who deserve our respect and our thanks for making Kawasaki one of the coolest companies around. From bullet bikes and bullet trains to cargo ships and airplanes, the influence of Kawasaki Heavy Industries extends to land, sea and air, but the consumer products are its leading source of revenue. Who says motorcycles aren’t cool?

Blog: Day 3

Once we got back to the hotel after our evening of dining and drinking at Kawasaki HQ, it was time to primp and prepare for the evenings festivities. With the bucket load of obscure sushi coagulating with the whiskey in my belly, I was primed and ready to tackle the best of Kobe on Friday night. Fellow journos Sonsky, Atlas and I took off on our own to get a real look at the seedy underbelly of Kobe on the weekend – and we got it this time around.

The view of Kobe from the penthouse of the Crystal Tower - Kawasaki Tour
Sure, the view of Kobe from the penthouse of the Crystal Tower is incredible, but Hutchison-san did some serious cultural exploration once it got dark out.

After failing to come up with a legit club scene, despite hitting a handful of potential places in the first hours on the prowl – we had put away a few cocktails along the way – we decided to check out a Karaoke bar, since they were everywhere and back home it is always good for a laugh. It turns out it’s way different than our concept of Karaoke. Instead of a hundred wasted American Idol wannabes jammed in a club watching each other butcher Shakira and Seger on stage in front of the entire crowd, you rent a very small room from a well-dressed kid at the counter which looked like an empty Baskin Robbins, go in with your small group of friends and sing amongst yourselves. Well, that just wasn’t going to be any fun, so we high tailed it out of there.

On the way to the elevator we saw a small hot-pink sign for Girls Club with the silhouette of a babe pointing down the hall. Now we’re talking. Of course, we had to check it out and it was not what we expected. The Girls Club was actually a long narrow rectangular shaped hallway doubling as a room. It was dolled up in pink with lots of cutie pie trinkets like a girl’s bedroom. I was thinking ‘yikes, we are in a cat house’ but once the hostess bounced up to the bar I didn’t really care where we were. She was dressed in knee high socks with a catholic schoolgirl get-up and pig tails. She was so cute…and nice and actually spoke some English. Her gal pal joined in so we sat and got boozed up for an hour or so. There was one other dude in there with us who offered to bring us to a secret underground night club. We paid up and headed out with the girls giggling as we left. At the time I was thinking, “I hope this insn’t going to be something from the movie Hostel.”

They only come out at night. Three American motojournalists were roaming the Kobe streets in search of a good time.
They only come out at night. Three American motojournalists were roaming the Kobe streets in search of a good time.

So there we were, the tattooed and muscle-bound Sonsky standing over six-foot looking like a WWF reject, Atlas at five-something with his hair spiked up looking dapper as usual and me, as equally vertically challenged only older and fatter and decidelly less dapper, all of us following this random Japanese guy with even more spiked-out hair, bracelets and necklaces than any male should wear. There was more wiggle in his walk than I care to admit, as he led us down the back alleys of Kobe, Japan. After a long squirmy saunter we arrived at the hidden door to the mystery club. Our new friend led us down a very dark brick staircase into the basement of an older skyscraper with the sound of techno tunes growing louder and louder as we descended further. This was going to either be really good or really scary. We kept our fingers crossed as we rounded the corner and opened the heavy wooden door only to find the mother load of Japanese youth pop culture on full display.

The emcee looked like an Asian Eminem replete with wife-beater T, bleached blond hair and skate shoes. He was very animated and was playing some sick tunes for a horde of scantily clad, manga-looking chicks that were wiggling like crazy on the dance floor in front of him. Between the cigarette smoke and the steam machine it had as much potential as anything we could have hoped for, so we bellied up to the bar and began to booze on our most memorable night of the trip. We watched with youthful exuberance as the babes bounced past us giggling and watching coyly. The talent pool was deep and our guide was busy getting us boozed up even further before we started swinging the bat. All I can tell you is that the liquid courage was at redline but the results were not. We got shot down repeatedly while trying to get Betty’s to dance, so our game was non-existent here. Maybe the sea urchin was some type of kryptonite for gringos? After watching us go down in flames again and again by justifiably suspicious Japanese girls, our buddy went to bat for us. Now things were getting good.

Pulsating music  dancing girls  a guy biting your ear... Hey  Kobe s a wild place at night!
Pulsating music, dancing girls, a guy biting your ear… Hey, Kobe’s a wild place at night!

Before we knew it we were dancing and partying and things were looking great. I don’t know what he told them or who we were supposed to be, but it was working for us now. The only hitch in the giddyup was this one wasted dude who kept trying to join the group and even eventually bought us shots and pounded a few beers with us. Not all was right though because the bartender tried to scam me for a $40 Jack & Coke before I called his bluff by showing him I actually do know how to count Yen. It wouldn’t be the only interesting thing to go down either. I had a bad feeling about the drunken cat, so it came as only a slight surprise when he grabbed on to me and a gal I was dancing with and gave us both hugs at random occasions throughout the evening. But it was a surprise when at the end of the night, during a particularly uncomfortable embrace, the freak bit my ear, Mike Tyson style. Maybe that’s how they show affection at the disco these days, I don’t know! After checking to see there was no blood loss in the bathroom (That was an interesting place too, but we won’t go there) I decided we should consider getting out of this place while we were all in one piece.

After another half hour of trying to pry the boys away from their groupies, the bouncer made it pretty obvious we had somehow outstayed our welcome and we needed to leave sooner rather than later. Apparently we’re huge in Japan. Our guide had long since abandoned us so we had no idea where we were once we staggered out of the darkness of the subterranean club. Using our salmon-like instincts we eventually located a cab and made it back to the hotel in one piece. There would be no banana massagey for us tonight either, but now we know how these Japanese kids like to party!

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