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This is one museum where kids will have a blast

by Jason Jenkins

Once a month, it will be my goal to help you and your kids get the most out of Tokyo. This city is full of opportunities to learn and have fun, and I’ve been seeking out these opportunities ever since my first-born arrived 10 years ago. I hope to share some of what I’ve learned with you, and for my first column, I have chosen to cover the Tokyo Gas Science Museum.

Wait, come back!

Hear me out. If you’ve never been, then I forgive you for questioning my judgment, but read on, especially if your kids are in the single digits. The Gas Science Museum is a lot of fun. It’s clean and spacious, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and an excellent venue for both educational activities and physical play. The kids will enjoy themselves and might actually learn something between sessions with flamethrowers and thermal cameras. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?

The first thing you’ll notice is the small hot air balloon display in the lobby. Press a button and flames roar to life, heating the balloon’s interior and lifting it to the ceiling and back. In the darkened room next door, you’ll find glowing, gaslit torches of varying sizes — all behind thick glass, of course. One exhibit lets you change a flame’s color by adding other gases, while another uses the vacuum created by fire in glass tubes to make something akin to a massive slide whistle. The best one by far is what my kids call the “bubble blaster.” Here you control a small flame on the other side of the glass while methane-filled soap bubbles float by: connect your flame with a bubble and you get a bright little blast, right at eye-level — safe, but still packs a satisfying thrill.

Now, before we continue down the corridor, let’s get one thing clear about the Gas Science Museum (also known as “ガスってなーに? Or “What is Gas?”): it is owned and operated by Tokyo’s gas utility. But for something ostensibly set up to shill for a fossil fuel, it’s surprisingly enjoyable and benign, hitting a nice combination of education and entertainment while still getting its message across. Sure, my daughter now notices gas meters on the way to daycare, but in return, I get follow-up topics to discuss with my kids — chemical reactions, fire safety, the concepts of air density and buoyancy, for starters — and we’re still on the first floor.

Walk past the elevator and you’ll see an auditorium on the left. Here they have interactive science quizzes every hour (in Japanese only), most of which deal with — you guessed it — electricity and other power sources. Buttons are built into the armrests of each seat, and whoever answers the most questions correctly is recognized at the end. In the main hall are activities for a range of ages: The younger set will enjoy putting on helmets and “exploring” the tunnels and tubes where gas is transported, while the elementary school set can learn about air pressure using bicycle pumps to send foam balls flying. On the second floor, kids operate a massive gas-powered toy wok to stir-fry a variety of computer-generated treats. Nearby you’ll find thermal cameras in two rooms: one where the results are projected almost life-sized on a wall, and another by a refrigerated room to show how your heat colors change after “chilling out.” Across the room, a number of displays explain how gas power is used to pasteurize milk, dry ink for books and even fuel some Tokyo buses. Most of these are job-related, and use old-school hand-cranks, relying on your kids’ own strength to reach an entertaining payoff.

In the center of the hall is a small lab/theater. Whether discussing sound waves or dipping things into liquid nitrogen, the staff performs experiments while they explain the underlying scientific principles in an easy-to-understand way (in Japanese only, but worth watching even if you don’t speak a word). Check the schedule when you arrive.

The museum is conveniently located right next to a park, a playground and a branch of the Sumida River, and water buses to or from Odaiba frequently arrive at the LaLa Port shopping center next door. You’ll find plenty of places to eat at Lala Port. If you bring your own food, you could picnic by the river or use the museum’s own designated dining area. Combined with its surroundings, the area could keep you occupied all day, but since it’s located at the tail end of the Yurikamome monorail, it could also become part of a day-trip to Odaiba.

The Gas Science Museum is open 9:30 to 17:00 (last admission 16:30, closed Mondays and National Holidays). Admission is free. For more information visit www.gas-kagakukan.com