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Creative approach brings science to life in Osaka

by Jason Jenkins

Last month I wrote about Kansai’s Big Bang museum, but that’s not the only place in the region that uses science to entertain. Smack in the middle of downtown Osaka you’ll find two other great places for educational fun: the Osaka Science Museum and Kids Plaza Osaka.

Located next to the National Museum of Art, the Osaka Science Museum will be our first stop of the day. If you go on a weekend or national holiday, make sure to check the schedule near the ticket counter to see if there will be any live science experiments to see. Like many museums in Japan, everything will be in Japanese only, but the most interesting exhibits and demonstrations will be entertaining on their own, and even more rewarding if you can explain a bit to your kids yourself. (I often use my iPhone to look up the ideas we see as we walk, so that I can elaborate further when needed.)

Each floor of the museum shows scientific principles in action. For example, kids can place their hands on the massive cords of metal wire used in industrial power cables, and then operate hand cranks and treadmills to see if they can generate power on their own. The third floor covers chemistry and its real-world uses, such as medicine, perfume and plastics. Give your kids enough time to play with each exhibit — even if you have to wait in a short line. If you visit on a weekend, you may have to.

Half an hour away by car is another great place to spend the afternoon: Kids Plaza Osaka. Like the Science Museum, it has multiple floors, but today I will only cover the fifth floor, since we never seem to leave here until closing time.

Straight out of the elevator, you’ll see a massive zoetrope, and to its left there will be kids lining up to have their running speed measured by the same kind of speedometer that police use to issue tickets. Beyond this are too many exhibits to count.

Younger kids will enjoy the small water playground. Don’t worry, it’s sealed so no one gets wet — in fact, they can even crawl under the pool and look up as someone dumps water using an Archimedes’ screw. Behind this is a nature section, with aquariums and terrariums filled with fish and bugs. A few feet to the left is a station that explains the science of soap bubbles, and beyond that young ones can race small wooden cars and balls along a roller coaster-like course.

My son’s favorite exhibit sits next to this track. Here a flat metal disk the size of a pizza pan spins like a record. Lying next to it are a variety of round objects made of metal, wood and plastic. Place these objects on the disk just so, and they roll steadily while staying in the same place. This small exercise is simple but not easy, and it raises lots of interesting questions about physics and the concept of motion — or then again, maybe it’s just fun to keep the ball rolling.

Step deeper into the building and you reach a small physical-science section, where kids can assemble a skeleton and observe the blood vessels in their own fingers. Through the next door, you enter a mockup of a television studio, where kids can fiddle with a blue-screen background. They can then play newscaster, weatherman or cameraman, and watch their performance played back on a screen. An adjoining studio runs an audio-recording demonstration: Children learn how everyday items such as shells and rocks are used to create the sound of rain, waves and other natural phenomenon for television and movie soundtracks.

The culture section next door has small booths set up to resemble the traditional houses of countries such as Korea and Senegal, with clothing from India, Ecuador and Morocco available for kids to try on. Here you will also find dozens of percussion instruments from around the world. My daughter scrambles to bang each drum at least once before she runs into the massive indoor playground.

Did I mention the playground? Designed by Austrian contemporary artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, this space is an organic jungle gym painted white with primary-colored trim. It’s as if Mondrian and Gaudi had teamed up to build a gingerbread house. Bridges, stairs and slides appear in unexpected places over its three floors, so make sure to save some time to play.

Both Kids Plaza Osaka and the Osaka Science Museum could feasibly be done in one day, but why rush? You could fill two days visiting them separately, and with the National Museum of Art’s proximity, you now have three places to explore.

Osaka Science Museum: 4-2-1 Nakanoshima, Kita Ward, Osaka; 06-6444-5656; www.sci-museum.jp; open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults ¥400, high school and college students ¥300, elementary and junior high school students free. Kids Plaza: 2-1-7 Ogimachi, Kita-ku, Osaka; 06-6311-6601; www.kidsplaza.or.jp/en; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closes 7 p.m. on weekends and hols (closed Mon.); adults ¥1,200, children to elementary school ¥600, preschool ¥300.