Our trip to Japan to visit Kawasaki’s manufacturing facilities and world headquarters allowed us a better understanding of one of the major manufacturers in this industry we all love. Part one of this series can be found here.
As we pointed out in part one, Kawasaki likes to “Go Big”. This is a company that prefers to manufacture products for dangerous environments. Products that must be built very carefully or the consequences could be disastrous.
Bullet trains that travel at tremendous speed across the land, ships that carry important cargo through rough waters, and motorcycles, of course, that accelerate at blinding speed. These are some of the products that Kawasaki creates on a routine basis at their manufacturing facilities.
After landing in Tokyo, we immediately flew to Osaka and then took a bus to Kobe. Kobe is physically located in the lower third of Japan. It is a modern city with an active business community, and home to Kawasaki’s headquarters, as well as a museum devoted to Kawasaki’s history and culture.
On the morning of our first full day in Japan, I began to deal with some rather devastating jet lag. If you think traveling to the East Coast from California takes a toll on your body, think again. After struggling to get any sleep at all, I sat on my bed wide awake at 4 a.m., wondering what I should do for the next several hours. As soon as I saw a sliver of light, I dressed and left the hotel to walk the streets of Kobe.
One of the first things I saw was a beautiful young woman dressed as if she were a Paris model peddling a bicycle to work. Despite my mental fog, this was a stark vision of the new society I had entered. I saw bicycles everywhere. As a bicycle enthusiast myself, I noted the style of bicycle ridden by most Japanese was a “city bike” with a basket to carry a purse or a briefcase. Almost all of the bicycles were parked and left unattended without a lock. This would never happen in a large city in the United States.
As I passed by the train station, I saw a sea of managers disembarking the trains and walking to work while almost uniformly dressed in dark suits with a white shirt and carrying a briefcase. There were cars on the streets of Kobe, but the vast majority of Japanese commuting to work in this city were either on bicycles or public transportation.
The streets were clean and the citizens, although polite, walked past me without paying much attention. They were clearly focused on the work day ahead.
After a while I entered a Starbucks coffee shop and ordered an espresso and a pastry. A young man and a woman working there were very cheerful and seemingly devoted to making me feel welcome and satisfied with my experience in their business establishment. As I would learn, this is the way of the Japanese retail worker.
After returning to the hotel, I went to the Kawasaki Museum with a group of journalists. The museum told the history of Kawasaki and displayed many of its motorcycles. We saw the legendary two-stroke triples, the Z1, as well as dirt bikes and watercraft. We also got a feel for the breadth of Kawasaki’s business operations. In effect, a preview of the week ahead of us. Kawasaki began building ships in the 1800s, trains in the early 1900s, as well as bridges and aircraft beginning in roughly 1915. The motorcycle business began in 1952 with the manufacture of engines, while full-scale motorcycle production began in 1960. In 1969, Kawasaki was involved in the creation of Japan’s first industrial robot.
Kawasaki paved the way for Japanese manufacturers operating in the continental United States when it opened a Lincoln, Nebraska facility in 1974. This is roughly when Kawasaki began manufacturing and selling jet skis, virtually creating a new personal watercraft market later joined by other Japanese manufacturers.
After leaving the museum, we took a bus across the Akashi bridge, which has a total length of 3910 m and a central span of 1991 m. Kawasaki had a central role in the manufacture of this massive bridge, including construction of the 283 m supporting tower on one side of the span (which weighs roughly 25,000 tons). Our group stopped on the island across from Kobe to take some photos and look at some of the massive cables used in construction of the bridge. After lunch, we continued on to the manufacturing plant at Akashi, which is one of the main production facilities for motorcycles, general-purpose gasoline engines, industrial robots, and gas turbine engines. We watched the assembly lines at the plant, specifically focusing on motorcycle assembly. At first, the sea of parts and the flow of workers appeared confusing, but Kawasaki has systems in place to make sure that each motorcycle is carefully constructed from the correct parts, and each of the workers appeared alert and deliberate in the way they approached the assembly processes. After the bikes finish their path through the assembly line, they are immediately taken to an area where they are tested.
The building housing the main motorcycle assembly plant is huge, but it is only a small part of the Akashi Works. The facility covers several acres, includes dozens of separate buildings, and even has a test track running a straight line down the middle of the property.
After spending one more evening in Kobe, we visited the Kobe Works. In many ways, this was the most impressive manufacturing facility we saw all week. The finished products were giant ships, but the engines that power those ships were most impressive. Look at the scale of one of these engines in the photo. Most of these diesel powerplants produce 10,000 hp or more. Kawasaki manufacturers engines with bore and stroke as large as 1 m x 3 m. These massive engines turn less than 100 rpm and may have as many as 12 cylinders. One of the biggest engines produced makes 100,000 hp and weighs 2,400 tons.
After lunch, we visited Hyogo Works nearby where Kawasaki manufactures rolling stock, also known as railroad trains and cars. This includes electric trains, coaches, freight cars, electric locomotives and diesel locomotives. Kawasaki supplies customers all over the world with these products, and also sells them within Japan. The world-famous bullet trains, known as Shinkansen cars in Japan, are also manufactured here. Again, the scale of this facility, and the logistics of moving the massive parts was very impressive.
That evening, we returned to our hotel and prepared for a formal dinner at the Kawasaki world headquarters located in Kobe. After having cocktails near the top floor of the Kawasaki headquarters, and greeting the vice president in charge of the consumer products division, including motorcycles, we were taken to a beautiful dining room that overlooked the city on the opposite side of the building. Here, we were served a delicious seven-course French meal prepared by private chefs employed by Kawasaki for their executive dining. The setting was almost surreal, as this group of somewhat scruffy American journalists enjoyed the perks of the top executives of a multi-billion dollar company, influenced to some extent by old world European traditions, but in a modern Japanese setting.
Although I awoke early again the next morning, I was beginning to adjust to the local time zone. Feeling more alert, the journalists gathered on the bus and traveled to the train station to board a bullet train. The bullet train would take us to the very southern end of Japan at Hakata. The sensation of being aboard a train traveling at more than 170 mph was quite interesting. The seats were comfortable, and the ride remarkably smooth. When a train passed in the other direction just a few feet away (also traveling at over 170 mph), it was as if two jet planes had narrowly missed each other. Amazing. These trains are even designed to tilt in corners to combat centrifugal forces.
This was a travel day, and after departing the train we boarded a bus for a long ride even further south to Kumamoto, where we stayed in another comfortable hotel.
The next morning we were ready for the experience most journalists had been anticipating all along. Another bus trip took us from the hotel to the Autopolis race track, where we toured this impressive facility originally built for Formula One racing, and had the opportunity to spectate at a round of the Japanese Superbike championship. It was a long day, but a welcome opportunity to relax from the somewhat hectic travel and socializing earlier in the week. After a nice rest that evening at the hotel, we went back to Autopolis. This time to ride.
Our second day at the track presented a special opportunity to ride Kawasaki sport bikes. Kawasaki had purchased Autopolis several years earlier, and we had the entire facility to ourselves. The long and flowing track features elevation changes and a number of interesting corners. One of the journalists in our group had ridden all of the major racetracks throughout the world, but he declared Autopolis the best and most entertaining he had ridden. After a few sessions, I developed a good rhythm and really had a blast. We also had the chance to ride some street bikes around the outside of the track, including models not available here in the United States.
That evening, we flew from the southern tip of Japan back to our starting point in Tokyo. Another group meal was followed by a comfortable night’s sleep and I was now completely adjusted to the time zone. The next morning we were free to explore the streets of Tokyo. Tokyo, as you might expect, is a massive city full of modern architecture and Western influences. Like other parts of Japan, I was impressed by how clean the city was, and the polite nature of its citizens. The long flight home to California (two of them, actually) was tedious, but well worth the experience I had in Japan.