Tokyo is teeming with opportunities for families to learn and play, but the nation’s capital doesn’t have a monopoly on educational fun.
Osaka has many great places for kids, including the popular Big Bang Science Museum. Located between downtown Osaka and the Kansai International Airport, Big Bang is filled with activities designed to nurture interest in science and technology.
Well, most activities are educational. Some are just fun. For example, one of the venue’s star attractions is a four-story-high vertical obstacle course. I’d head here first, as it will help burn away the kids’ excess energy. The course is replete with padding and barriers to prevent injury (the four stories are split into nine levels). Still, before they enter, the staff will fit your kids with a helmet. Parents are allowed to enter as well, but my wife and I chose to take the elevator to the top instead, and “time” our kids’ ascent on a stopwatch. They loved this, thankfully, and demanded we repeat the process so they could beat their own records.
From here, I would head to the main building and work your way down from the fourth floor, which contains toys of many shapes, sizes and eras. In the back corner there’s a life-size diorama of an old Japanese village. Here you will find toys of old: wind up robots, wooden tops and do-it-yourself balls made of old milk cartons. Nearby, you’ll find large mechanical contraptions reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine, many of which require the child’s own energy (pumping, pedaling, etc.) to operate. There is also a large fan demonstrating Bernoulli’s principle by keeping a beach ball suspended in mid-air, and a set of large, soft building blocks that help children understand the basic architectural principals of an arch.
We didn’t have time to investigate several exhibits: a massive kaleidoscope, a glow wall that catches your shadow and smoke machines that create a miniature vortex. Instead, we stayed busy with a simple rotating chain suspended from the ceiling. Not unlike a bicycle chain, it rotated steadily over a gear, but when it was tapped the curls and ripples it sent through the chain seemed to suspend there as if the world had gone into slow motion — and excellent example of force and momentum in action.
After leaving the chain, all four of us remained transfixed on one exhibit near the entrance: a “pin impression” wall comprised of many red, horizontally arranged plastic pins (or rods). When it was our turn, we stood behind the wall and slowly walked into it, pushing some of the pins forward to create a Lego-like relief that looked frighteningly like our faces. You’ve likely seen smaller pin impressions being sold at novelty shops, only those ones are metallic and can only cover the area of a child’s hand. The one at Big Bang is big enough to render an child’s entire body, or a whole family of faces. We played with it for quite some time, not because we were necessarily learning anything, but because it was fun and made for some great pictures. I should mention, though, that you might want to keep your eyes and mouth closed when you press your face into the back of the pin impression wall, and perhaps even wash your hands and face afterward. Lots of people (including entire school groups) will have used it before you, and it would be impossible to clean it after every person. In fact, my kids both had the flu the day after we visited the museum, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think their illnesses might have originated here.
But wait! We’re still on the top floor! If you’re like me, then perhaps you’re running out of time and must rush through the other exhibits, but there is a lot in store elsewhere in the building. On the third floor, you’ll find a large indoor playground, complete with a treehouse, a suspension bridge and a small rope-swing. But what you’ll notice first is the bus-size lizard in the center of the room. That’s a Toyotamaphimeia, a massive ancestor of the crocodile that was native to Japan 400,000 years ago. Kids can crawl through its mouth and out its belly, or use the slide and trampoline that reside in an excavated skeleton version of him a few meters away. Breastfeeding rooms and an infant play area are nearby.
One floor down are classrooms and demonstration-based activities. My kids enjoyed drawing their own aquatic characters here, and then scanning them into an electronic “aquarium,” where their artwork wriggled and swum digitally across a large screen. Around the corner is a kitchen for baking demonstrations, as well as a workshop for repairing old toys and building with recyclable materials. Check the schedule for times, but keep in mind that everything here is in Japanese.
There is a shopping mall only one pedestrian bridge away, so when the kids get hungry, head there instead of snacking. Big Bang is a popular spot for school trips, so expect crowds to be larger until around 2 p.m. After that, you may very well have the place to yourself.
Osaka Big Bang, 1-9-1 Chayamadai, Minami-ku, Sakai, Osaka; 072-294-0999; www.bigbang-osaka.or.jp; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Mon, if Mon is a holiday then closed Tues); adults ¥1,000, junior high school students ¥800, elementary school students ¥600, preschool ¥400, infants free.