Last updated: May 19, 2012 12:22 am

Smokestack sightings

The Japanese are flocking to appreciate the aesthetic charms of industrial sites with factory tours
The Kawasaki industrial zone, as seen on the Yokohama Factory Scenery Night Cruise©Eric Rechsteiner

The Kawasaki industrial zone, as seen on the Yokohama Factory Scenery Night Cruise

It was a moment common to boat tours everywhere: at the request of our guide, the captain cut his engines; the vessel bobbed gently in the sudden quiet, passengers stretched their necks for a better view. “We are very lucky to be seeing this, it’s unusual,” gushed the tour guide into his microphone.

But this was no ordinary cruise. The special sight we had stopped to admire was not a dramatic cliff, a pretty islet or a glimpse of wildlife, but a floodlit crane digging coal out of the belly of a bulk carrier. We had already had a chance to admire the twin chimneys of a power station and the Christmas-tree steel tangle of a chemical complex. Ahead lay a close encounter with an ammonia plant.

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Such are the delights of the Yokohama Factory Scenery Night Cruise, just one of a range of industrial sightseeing options now available for a visitor to Japan who has tired of exquisite gardens or feels a little templed-out.

These tours are part of an emerging niche tourist trade fuelled by kojo moe – “factory infatuation” – an enthusiasm that has taken root among young urbanites whose lives are increasingly remote from Japan’s manufacturing base. Apparently influenced by the popularity of glossy factory photography books published in the past decade, tourists and day-trippers now flock to appreciate the aesthetic charms of industrial installations – especially at night, when lights and flares add to their appeal.

In an illustration of what these enthusiasts are looking for, advertising for the Yokohama night trip includes among its top attractions a “large-scale iron mill”, a “captivating group of smokestacks” and a “intricate cluster of pipes”.

When I told friends I was planning to take my daughter on a factory scenery cruise, some looked askance. Yet it would be narrow-minded to dismiss this new fashion as just an example of Japanese weirdness. After all, tourist aesthetics are always a matter of fashion, changing along with wider social mores and moods.

Everyone aboard the last tourist boat trip I took, off the west coast of Scotland, would have agreed that the area’s landscapes and waters were beautiful. Yet just several hundred years ago, few European travellers would have seen much to enjoy in such wild prospects. One 17th-century British traveller denounced the mountains of Europe’s Alps as “high and hideous” and those of the Pyrenees as “monstrous Excrescences of Nature, bearing nothing but craggy stones”.

In a recent history of England’s Lake District, author Ian Thompson points out that it took the magic wand of Romanticism to transform the area from a scary wasteland to today’s tourist Mecca. Back in the 18th century, most visitors to the area would have been keener to see the busy mines of Whitehaven than to trudge up a fell in search of a view. Industry, Thompson notes, had not yet “acquired the negative associations that would cling to it like ingrained soot from the 19th century onwards”.

In Europe, safely decommissioned mines and other industrial sites have already been rebranded as tourist attractions. Britain bristles with renovated mills and factories converted into art galleries, while Germany is energetically promoting its industrial heritage. One sprawling zone in the gritty Ruhr city of Duisburg has been transformed into a landscape park where visitors can scale concrete climbing walls or scuba dive in old gas tanks.

The Kawasaki factory up close©Eric Rechsteiner

The Kawasaki factory up close

If defunct factories can attract tourists, why not those that are still in operation? In nearly two decades of business journalism in Asia, some of the most striking sights I have seen have been industrial. On a 2003 cruise down China’s Yangtze River, I admired the scenery of its fabled Three Gorges. But even more memorable was the view of smoke-belching factories perched high on the steep slopes above the river and of the colossal dam China was building to tame it.

So on one Saturday evening, I caught a train to Yokohama with my 11-year-old daughter to take the 90-minute night cruise. It did not start terribly well. The complimentary beverage turned out to be a can of cut-price pseudo-beer pumped out by Japanese companies in order to avoid the higher tax levied on a proper brew. Our seats on the boat were too close to the engine to hear any of the guide’s patter, so we ended up perched on the cooler instead.

Our fellow passengers seemed to be having plenty of fun, however. Most were young couples out on a date, defying my suspicion that we might be surrounded by trainspotter-type otaku, the Japanese version of nerds. All cooed appreciatively at the squat gas containers and happily took photos on cameras and mobile phones of a brightly lit oil refining tower.

We, too, soon warmed to the tour. It is always interesting to see a city from a new angle, and this was a Yokohama very different from the old colonial districts and hyper-modern passenger ferry terminals I had visited before. The boat wound its way along grimy wharves lined with coal and past a Toshiba factory with its own railway station. (“You can’t leave the station unless you have a company pass,” the guide told us cheerfully.)

Young couples on the Yokohama night trip©Eric Rechsteiner

Young couples on the Yokohama night trip

On the way back to our dock, the boat’s veteran captain – apparently a local champion karaoke singer – won us over completely by allowing my daughter to steer. I was now ready to sing the praises of factory infatuation. There really is a strange night-time beauty to the steel spiderweb of a gantry crane or a petrochemical plant. Indeed, my only complaint is that our tour was not quite industrial enough. Yokohama port is far quieter than it used to be. Much of the shipping that once thronged its quays has moved to other, deeper, ports. Technological progress and ever-tighter environmental standards mean less smoke and noise. Apart from the coal-lifting crane, we saw little movement onshore.

A keen visitor could always match a night cruise with a daytime visit to the area’s factories. Some already offer tours. I am sure my daughter would enjoy the chance to see the working blast furnaces on view at a nearby steel plant. A couple of years ago at a different factory on the northern island of Hokkaido, I witnessed the forging of a 600-tonne steel ingot. Bigger than a house, it glowed cherry-red and shimmered with sparks as it was squeezed by a vast forging press. That is the sort of sight that should be on every tourist itinerary.

Mure Dickie is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief

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Details

The Yokohama Factory Night Scenery Cruise (www.hamapara.com /factory website in Japanese only) costs Y3,500 (£28). It runs five nights a week, mostly starting at 6.30pm, and lasts about 90 minutes. For details of industrial tours in Kawasaki City (between Tokyo and Yokohama) see www.travelkawasaki.com/industrial-tourism

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