Welcome to Kawasaki! 

The City of Kawasaki is leveraging its industrial heritage and technological strengths to increase tourism and boost regional revitalization. The City is also demonstrating the possibilities of a low-carbon hydrogen supply chain that includes the world’s first hotel to be partly powered by hydrogen produced from recycled plastic. Julian Ryall reports.

Illuminated at night, factories in the Keihin Industrial Zone, of which Kawasaki forms the heart, make for an eerily beautiful sightseeing experience. Pictured, the Showa Denko plant. COURTESY OF CITY OF KAWASAKI

In comparison with the bright lights of Tokyo, the history of Yokohama and the cultural sights of Kamakura, the city of Kawasaki is rather lacking in the attractions that turn foreign visitors’ heads and encourage them to get off the train. Instead, tourists have the unfortunate habit of speeding through.

In truth, Kawasaki has plenty of things for visitors to see and experience — from art museums through expansive parks, temples, gardens, urban “onsen” resorts and others — but they don’t quite capture the imagination of too many travelers. Undeterred, the city is turning to the one area in which it does unquestionably lead the nation — industrial tourism.

“Since 2009 we have been working hard to attract tourists, such as by training guides who are experts on industrial sightseeing tours,” says Tsutsumi Hisamune, manager of the city’s Coastal Area Projects Promotion Department.

“The following year, we started to sponsor a range of factory night view tours by bus or boat departing from Kawasaki or Tokyo,” he says. “And now, under our Coastal Area Vision, we have started a regional revitalization project that makes the most of the coastal district to attract more people to Kawasaki.

“The attention on Tokyo is increasing because of the Olympic Games and Paralympics in 2020, so we want to provide more tours to showcase our cutting-edge technology in manufacturing and the sciences, while also raising the profile of Kawasaki,” Tsutsumi says.

The Keihin Industrial Area

Located on the waterfront of Tokyo Bay and strategically sited within easy reach by road and rail links of both Tokyo and Yokohama and points south, Kawasaki emerged as one of Japan’s most important industrial areas more than 100 years ago. Since then, it has evolved and attracted numerous international companies and their manufacturing facilities with firms in Kawasaki today producing steel, chemicals, electrical machinery, information technology equipment and countless other products.

These include firms such as Ajinomoto KK, which produces kitchen condiments, a Toa Oil refinery, the printing facility for the Nikkei newspaper group, research and development offices for high-tech company Fujitsu Ltd. and a production plant for Knorr Foods.

In addition to these “traditional” industries, Kawasaki also hosts cutting-edge research laboratories, adding within the last decade a special strategic zone that is home to world-leading life science and environmental research organisations.

And many are open to the public through organised tours, with the city’s tourism authorities actively encouraging more companies to show off their facilities to outsiders.

The city intends to increase and expand sightseeing tours that take in industrial sights, link up with the numerous unique museums that dot the city and encourage more companies to take part in a scheme that arguably has few — if any — parallels elsewhere in the world.

Japan’s Pioneering Steel Firm

One of the first companies to commence production in Kawasaki was JFE Steel, which was Japan’s first private steel-making company when it was founded in 1912. The company took over a large area of reclaimed land — known as the Keihin area and measuring 3 km by 2 km — in the bay in 1971 for the JFE Steel East Japan Works.

The plant employs around 8,000 people, imports raw materials from Australia, Canada and Brazil through its wharves and produces 4 million tons of rolled steel every year.

After a presentation about the company’s history and activities at the company’s on-site office, visitors board a bus for the tour. The route takes in the docks where the raw materials are unloaded and stockpiled. There are vast mounds of white limestone and coal in the yards, with 40 km of conveyer belts used to deliver these components all across the site.

Disembarking outside the No. 2 blast furnace, where pig iron is manufactured, the noise is constant. Trains haul vast crucibles into position beneath the furnace, which soars 100 meters into the sky. Another train pulls a crucible away along another line. Conveyer belts that are constantly in motion crisscross the site. Steam and plumes of smoke escape from chimney stacks.

JFE Steel Works’ No. 2 blast furnace, where pig iron is manufactured. JULIAN RYALL PHOTO

The long steel-making building stands in the very center of the site and is where molten pig iron from the site’s two blast furnaces are delivered for the next phase of the production of high-quality steel. Refined with pure oxygen, the glowing slabs of metal emerge from chambers and roll onto a fully automated production line. Visitors can watch the process from a walkway high up in the building that offers a panoramic view — and from where the heat from the metal can be clearly felt, despite being around 30 meters away.

The slab of steel is at 800 degrees centigrade as it is worked into a thin sheet. Advancing through a series of rollers, the still-orange metal is pulverized by water that instantly — and very loudly — evaporates into steam that climbs into the roof. The noise is deafening. The process is repeated a number of times until what was a block of steel has now been thinned and stretched until it is about 25 meters long. Still glowing, it moves along the production line and will eventually be used in automobiles, pipes and countless other products.

The plant also uses unique cooling control technologies to produce steel plate that is much in demand among car makers.

The factory also has a cold rolling mill, where steel sheets are manufactured by washing hot-rolled steel sheets with acid to remove oxide from the surface and then putting the sheets through a cold roller to make them thinner.

The tour also takes in the docks where rolls and sheets of steel are being loaded onto cargo ships to be delivered to final customers. The skyscrapers of Yokohama and Mount Fuji are on the horizon.

Low-carbon Hydrogen Supply

The plastic recycling center at the Showa Denko plant JULIAN RYALL PHOTO

Another company with a long history in Kawasaki is Showa Denko KK, which first produced hydrogen and ammonia on this site in 1931 and has since developed systems to produce a wide range of organic and inorganic chemicals. The plant is also in the forefront of the campaign to find a solution to one of the most serious problems facing modern society; reducing pollution through the recycling of plastic used in millions of Japanese homes and companies.

As part of a five-year joint demonstration project with Japan’s Ministry of the Environment that started in 2015, the Showa Denko plant is at the center of a low-carbon hydrogen supply chain that commences with the waste plastic from homes and businesses in the surrounding region being collected and transported to the firm’s plastic recycling plant, where it is bundled into densely packed bales each about 1 meter square.

Waste plastic is put through a crusher that reduces big pieces into shards, while a separator is required to remove metals and other foreign materials that may have been collected with the waste. A forming machine then turns the waste into pellets of refuse plastic fuel, or RPF.

Bales of local waste plastic waiting to be recycled into hydrogen. JULIAN RYALL PHOTO

The pellets are fed into a low-temperature gasification furnace, along with steam and a small amount of oxygen, where they are partially oxidized and become a mixture of cracked gas. The gas rises in the furnace and passes into the high-temperature gasification furnace, which operates at 1,400°C to turn the gas into a reformed synthesis gas that is made up primarily of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Through a series of cleansing systems, impurities are changed into salt, carbon monoxide becomes hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and sulfides can be recovered from rubber products that had been mixed with the waste plastic.

Once the synthesis gas is compressed, it is transferred to the adjacent production plant, where the hydrogen is turned into ammonia that can be put to industrial uses.

The hydrogen that is recovered from the recycling process is also utilized in a sustainable way. Some is trucked to nearby hydrogen fuel stations for vehicles, while a supply is also sent by pipeline to the nearby Kawasaki King Skyfront REI Hotel, which relies on recycled hydrogen for around 30 percent of its entire energy consumption. And, as part of the cycle, the hotel ensures that the waste plastic products that it generates — such as used combs and toothbrushes — are returned to Showa Denko to be recycled.

Visitors to the company’s plant can observe bales of waste plastic being crushed and molded into pellets, as well as see the exterior of the 60-meter gasification plant where the process takes place.

King Skyfront

In addition to being a recipient of recycled hydrogen to power a portion of its operations, the King Skyfront REI Hotel — the first hotel in the world to be powered by hydrogen from recycled plastic — has bought into both the history and the ambitious future aims of Kawasaki’s waterfront industrial zone.

Kawasaki King Skyfront Tokyu REI Hotel, AKA “The Warehouse,” relies on hydrogen produced from recycled plastic for around 30 percent of its energy consumption. JULIAN RYALL PHOTO

Located directly across the river from Haneda International Airport — a new bridge is due to open in the near future, meaning the terminal is less than a 10-minute drive from the hotel’s lobby — signs on the top of the hotel proclaim “The Warehouse.” Although the building is completely new and only opened in the summer of 2018, the interior is designed to reflect the district’s industrial heritage, with exposed steel and concrete in the lobby area, restaurant and bar. A racing car sits in the middle of the ground-floor public spaces, alongside a bicycle rental shop.

Kawasaki’s industrial heritage is reflected in the hotel’s interior design. JULIAN RYALL PHOTO

And while the “look” is edgy and industrial, the restaurants are more than comfortable and the 186 guest rooms are welcoming. The co-working spaces are busy and the banqueting facilities overlook the river and the bright lights of the airport.

A similarly new development that has emerged side-by-side with Kawasaki’s traditional industries is the nearby King Skyfront International Strategic Zone, an open innovation base designed to bring together new life sciences industries that are on the cutting edge of science and technology. Constructed on the south bank of the Tama River, directly opposite Haneda Airport, the site was previously owned by a vehicle manufacturer but was taken over in 2011 to serve as a site for companies looking to advance their technologies.

King Skyfront is now home to sixty-seven companies and organizations focused primarily on the development of new medicines, medical devices, regenerative medicine and research institutions and university departments operating in related areas.

The resident organizations include the Innovation Center of NanoMedicine, which is developing “smart nanomachines” the size of a virus that will in the future travel through the human body to locate an illness or infection and then diagnose and autonomously treat the problem. ICONM’s researchers like to think of their project as an “in-body hospital” and they hope that it could be operational within a few decades.

Fujifilm also has a research facility on the site, working with Toyama Chemical Co. to carry out research and development of radiopharmaceuticals for diagnostic purposes, particularly in the areas of cancer and for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

World-famous medical company Johnson & Johnson has its Japan science center on the site, along with the Japan National Institute of Health Sciences, PeptiDream Inc., Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma and Kawasumi Laboratories Inc.

“We have really grown from nothing to a very large and important research facility in a short space of time, and we are continuing to grow and develop,” says Nomura Ryuta, president of the King Skyfront Networking Council and chairman of the Central Institute for Experimental Animals, which also has its premises on the site.

“From the outset, Kawasaki City has been one of the biggest supporters of what we are trying to do and they go out of their way to ensure that things operate smoothly and that the companies and researchers here are able to collaborate and develop new ideas and products,” he says.

Factory Night Tours

For many visitors to Kawasaki’s industrial zone, the visual highlight is the night view across the waterways, roads and bridges, with lights glittering on factories, smoke-stacks and cranes unloading sea-going ships and, in places, making the night sky as bright as day.

The first official tours of Kawasaki’s night lights began in 2008 — and the overwhelmingly positive reaction convinced the city to set up more frequent visits. Now, tours are operated by private bus and boat companies, with professional guides explaining the details and significance of what visitors can see.

There are no fewer than twelve viewpoints that have been identified as the best places to admire the view across the industrial zone. From a boat, the route on the Keihin Canal offers views of illuminated oil tanks in the Ogishima district, while the Showa Denko plastic recycling plant dominates the skyline along the Minamiwatarida Canal — and is famous for emitting clouds of steam in the cold winter months. 

The towering coking plant at the Toa Oil Co. facility alongside the Shiohama Canal is another favorite viewpoint. Flares of orange or near-white leap into the night sky. The lights of the factories and storage plants are reflected in the moving water, doubling the number of lights that the visitor sees. And even though there is so much happening and constantly in motion, there is almost total silence.

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

Awe-inspiring sights abound on a Kawasaki night factory tour. Pictured, the Toa Oil refinery. COURTESY OF CITY OF KAWASAKI

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