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Kids can learn a lot from being on the factory floor

by Jason Jenkins

Children can be full of questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “What happened to the dinosaurs?” “How are babies made?”

Responses to these questions — especially that last one — usually require thought, attention and nuance. It’s an important part of being a parent, but there are times when simply telling kids the answer isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to show them — except, again, for that last one.

Kids want to know how everything is made: cars, buildings, their shoes, their toothbrush, and perhaps even the crackers they’re munching on right now.

When questions like these arise, my wife and I look for a places to visit, ideally a corresponding factory. What better place to learn about an object’s origins than by visiting the place where it’s made? YouTube is an incredible resource for watching everyday objects being built, baked or bolted together, but nothing beats actually looking across a factory floor with your own eyes. There’s something mesmerizing about the repetition of people and machines in synchronization.

We have visited several factories in and around Osaka, but if you’re not in Kansai, then try a few quick Google searches and you’ll have plenty to choose from. My kids love the small pro-biotic milk drinks by the Yakult company, so I arranged a tour there. The day before that, I had a tour booked at Glico, the confectionery maker famous for Pocky, Pretz and dozens of other quintessentially Japanese snack foods. And the final tour? That one was for me: the Asahi Beer plant — a mere eight-minute train ride from Osaka Station. I had to persuade my daughter to come along for this one — hey, fermentation is science, right? — and I’m proud to say that she enjoyed herself a lot more than she expected to.

The Glico tour came first on our calendar. The kids enjoyed this one best of all, despite the long journey into the suburbs of Kobe (the factory is far from the station — check the bus schedules carefully, or just plan to fork out for a taxi). Our guide first led us through displays showing the company’s humble beginning as a caramel maker in the 1920′s to the sweets behemoth that it is today. I found the antique candy boxes and vending machine intriguing, but the kids seemed more interested in the wall of images showing which celebrities had endorsed which candies over the years. Then it was on to the manufacturing division. From windows high above the factory floor, we stared down as hundreds of pounds of Pocky snack sticks were formed, baked, boxed and packed off on conveyor belts. I’d love to share pictures of this with you, but as in most factories, photography isn’t allowed here.

The tour ends with a short 3-D movie that only small children will find interesting — something about anthropomorphic milk, grain and cacao plants saving a princess. Then on the final leg of the tour, we encountered displays depicting the history of chocolate — from its origins in the early Americas up to its incorporation in overpriced frappuccinos. As we left, everyone was given a choice of several Glico sample packs, which my kids begged to eat on the spot. Only one, I said: even an education like this shouldn’t spoil your appetite.

The following morning, it was off to the brewery in Suita. Surprisingly, I felt that the Asahi tour made the most effort to explain the science of their product in an interesting way. The handouts, displays and videos were engaging for both child and adult, and we saw more of the actual nuts and bolts of the factory and its workings than at Glico or Yakult.

Then there were the complimentary beverages at the end of the tour, of course. Officially, each adult member of the tour is allowed 20 minutes to enjoy three — and only three — free glasses of beer. (It might just be possible to surpass that amount with the staff’s tacit approval, but I’m just speculating, naturally.) Asahi makes juices and sodas, so kids have plenty to drink, and there’s an array of snacks.

After the tour, we jumped on the train and headed for a quick lunch, and then it was off to the small Osaka suburb of Neyagawa for the Yakult factory tour, which I can’t recommend. To be fair, I’ll admit that spending my morning in a brewery might have lowered my tolerance for droning lectures, but the Yakult tour was excruciatingly dull. It didn’t even feel like a tour — we spent the first half in a meeting room, lights dimmed, and with a company rep flicking through PowerPoint slides while rambling on about the product’s amazing health properties. After that, there was a quick look at the small bottles being capped and we were finished.

All three of these tours are completely in Japanese, so judge for yourself how that may affect your experience (the Asahi handout material is bilingual). The tours are all free as well, but require advanced bookings — a small hassle I’ll admit, but if it helps answer any of my kids’ questions thoroughly, it’s worth it.

Glico Factory Tour: bit.ly/glcfactory Asahi Beer Brewery Tour: bit.ly/ashfactory Yakult Factory Tour: bit.ly/ykltfactory Other factory-tour information can be found at the following sites: www.factorytour.jp www.kidsinkansai.com