Today’s destination was quite a change of pace: Kitakyushu, a lively city that has been at the forefront of Japan’s industrial development ever since the Meiji Era. The companies I visited, TOTO and YASKAWA, continue to lead the field in two areas for which Japanese technology is famous, toilets and robots.
I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the TOTO factory. The company began manufacturing flush toilets almost a century ago, with the aim of bringing the most advanced sanitary technology to Japan. This was an extremely forward-thinking business strategy, given that most of the country did not yet have running water or sewers.
In fact, the company also produced ceramic tableware for many decades to pay the bills, while continuing to develop their line of toilets. The strategy paid off, with hi-tech “Washlet” toilets now the norm in Japanese households.
When I told my father that I would be visiting the TOTO factory, he sang the praises of Japanese sanitary engineering at length, while my mother enthused about how beautifully clean Japanese toilets are, down to the frequent displays of fresh flowers. In the factory, I saw how much thought goes into both the manufacturing process and the aesthetics. Even components that will never be seen are treated with an original glaze developed by TOTO in order to ensure a smooth finish, while the appearance of products is modified to suit the tastes of each target market.
Just like the dishes I saw in Okawachiyama, the ceramic toilet bowls are fired in kilns. However, while the variations caused by this process are highly prized in works of art, sanitary ware must conform to extremely precise specifications. TOTO check every single product by hand.
The TOTO MUSEUM, which opened just a couple of months ago, has already received nearly 20,000 visitors. Literally everything related to toilets is here, from picture books in the lounge area to toilet-themed products in the shop. It is not yet well-known among foreign tourists, but judging by my parents’ interest, it has a lot of potential!
Of course, successful manufacturers cannot develop in isolation. Part of TOTO’s manufacturing process is now carried out by robots, and so I visited the YASKAWA factory to see them in action.
Robots are not necessarily the humanoids that I had imagined. YASKAWA’s robots are mainly used in industrial processes, including the manufacture of more robots, and so functionality is key. However, after a while, you start to see past the external appearance and understand that their range of movement is in fact based on that of humans.
In their Innovation Center, there are various hands-on activities, such as playing cards against a robot, or manipulating their movements.
Even my hostel here in Kitakyushu reflects the city’s creative spirit. The Tanga Table recently opened in what was formerly a clothes shop in a bustling commercial district. Like the TOTO and YASKAWA facilities, it shows a high degree of design sense.
I am really enjoying the variety of Hidden Beauties and accommodation so far. I wonder what’s to come...