There are many amazing sites to see in Japan; Tokyo’s Shinjuku, Kyoto’s Kinkakuji, Nara’s Daibutsu, but if you are sewer like me why not visit the Toyota Factory Museum in Nagano!
Ok stay with me here a moment; it is way more interesting than it might at first appear.
Sure there was some stuff about cars… but that’s not all. It was a truly fascinating and hands-on history of fabric and weaving and one of the best museums I have EVER been to.
Let me tell you about it:
So this was last month when I was up in Nagoya on business and I had a day off between meetings. I decided to go into town and get some sightseeing done; the castle, the gardens, temples; that sort of thing… but as I got on the train it started absolutely bucketing it down with rain!
Struggling to think of something to do in the rain I went to the tourist office in the station. Disappointingly, the only thing they could suggest was a visit to the Toyota Factory Museum which sounded pretty dull tbh. But I figured I had nothing better to do so I might as well go.
Getting there is super easy. It’s the first stop on the special tourist loop bus that departs from the main Nagoya station every 30 minutes. Actually you could walk – it’s only about 20 minutes up a straight road, but if you’re new to navigating in Japan I’d take the bus.
The bus stops directly outside the museum – a charming red-brick building with a beautiful garden.
Entering the museum
Tickets were 500 yen and an English audio guide was an additional 300 yen (well worth it). Because, while all the staff speak English well, there’s loads of additional information in the guide.
A little history
Did you know Toyota used to be ToyoDa? Did you know he started out in weaving fabric? I certainly didn’t! Even the wikipedia page skips straight to cars in the 1920s.
So when I entered the museum and was confronted by this monstrosity I had no idea what to think! What does this have to do with cars? It was revolving and wiggling side to side like a giant worm. The sign described it as a circular loom – a what?!
So let’s go back a bit. During the Edo period of Japanese History (1603 -1886), Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world and technology stagnated. While Europe and America were having the industrial revolution; inventing steam engines, trains and telegrams etc Japan was essentially medieval.
Then the Meiji Restoration happened – and glossing over a lot here – Japan realised how far behind they were and had a huge “Oh shit!” moment. They then spent the next 40 odd years desperately catching up. And did they! In basically one generation Japan went from a feudal economy to a fully industrialised country with trains, electricity and factories etc. (Of course it wasn’t all fun and games, cos it seems humanity cant make massive progress without stamping on poor people – oh well!)
Sakichi Toyoda (1867-1930) was one of great innovators of this age. Basically self-taught by studying western machines, he patented his first handloom in 1891 when he was 24. After some struggles and a lot more invention he set up his first company selling machines in Nagoya in 1894. In 1911 after a trip to the US and UK he returned to Nagoya to construct the factory (Toyoda Loom Works) that now houses the museum.
In the 1920s his son did some stuff with cars… but who cares about that?
In the museum
So that was just a little background to bring you up to speed. The museum however covers not only the company’s history but the also the history of weaving itself.
Starting from the most primitive forms of cloth making.
To the earliest forms of loom.
To the production of thread.
What was absolutely amazing for me was that apart from the most historic of the machines they all worked! By each machine (and there were alot) was a guide who would tell you about it, then switch it on and show you how it worked. The demonstrations were fantastic – you could watch one cotton ball be cleaned, combed, spun and respun into workable cotton thread. And then that thread be woven into fabric.
Of course it was all stuff I “knew” before. We did the industrial revolution in high school after all, but to see it happen before your eyes was incredible. Seeing inch by inch of new fabric slowly pour out of the loom was mesmerizing.
How do they make the little loops? How do they vary the texture? Why doesn’t that weaken the fabric? I had never thought about any of this before, I mean why would I? But I must have spent 10 minutes geeking out with the guy in charge of the towel machine.
The circle loom
This was the mad worm thing from the entrance hall. A 1906 invention by Sakichi, this bizarre machine is actually incredibly efficient. Whilst normal looms rocket a shuttle back and forth banging away (the museum got pretty noisy when more than a few machines were on) this machine avoids that by using a circular motion to move the suttle. As a result it was much quieter and very energy efficient. And not only that, with this machine fabric of an incredible 5 meters wide could be produced.
If you have ever read about the history of computers you will have heard about jacquard looms. These looms make fabric with complex patterns made of different coloured fabrics such as brocade and damask. The automatic system was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804. It used punch cards to lift only some of the warp threads at a time to catch the coloured weft threads in the right place to create the pattern.
Before the invention of the automatic punch-card system this effect could be achieved by a team of two weavers working together. One operated the machine as usual, while another, the master weaver would sit above and manually lift up the correct threads – a very slow and complex process.
Now I had seen these old machines gathering dust in museums before, but I had never seen one working. And that was amazing to see here – a hundred year old loom – still producing fabric with its old punch cards.
They also had the modern computerized version that can produce photorealistic fabric with some many threads and colours!
There was so much more as well but I wouldn’t want to spoil it all for you.
All joking aside the second half of the museum dedicated to cars was fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits and demonstrations there too – and I hate cars!
They also had a robot playing the violin, so there’s that too.
All in all, if you have any interest in fabric and it’s history I would highly recommend a visit!