Tuesday, September 22, 2009

TEPCO Electrical Museum

One of the fascinating things about living in Tokyo is the skewed sense of distance that it provokes. Many people have cars here, and they clog the roads trying to get around the city. Partly as a result of wanting to avoid the congestion, partly because gas is about $6 a gallon, and partly because many people don't want to bother with taking care of a car, most people travel by train.

From my apartment to the northeast, Shinjuku, the west side of what's typically considered to be Tokyo city, is about 20 minutes by train. To the south east, Kawasaki is about 20-30 minutes and Yokohama is about 10-15 minutes past Kawasaki. Most of the Tokyoites I talk to make a big deal about how far away Yokohama and Kawasaki are. But it's really only 15 miles to Shinjuku from me, another 15 miles to Kawasaki and maybe 22 miles to Yokohama (all numbers are approximate and off the top of my head). The reason the train takes so long is that it has to stop every mile or so at a station and wait 1-2 minutes for the passengers to change, and that the train's top speed is about 30 mph. If you have a book or listen to music, the ride's not that bad, but most people just don't want to take the time to make the trip.

Where the skewed sense of distance really kicks in is when you get on a bicycle on a good stretch of bike path (the bike path is great leading all the way out to Takao. It's not so good for half the stretch to Kawasaki and it doesn't reach Yokohama). I can get to the Kawasaki museum in Todoroki in about 15 minutes. The Kawasaki train station is another 20-25 minutes after that and part of the ride is on sidewalks in the major shopping districts (lots of foot traffic there). I haven't tried getting to Yokohama yet, but it's doable once you get 1-2 miles past Kawasaki station. That is, if you have a good bike and a good stretch of trail, a lot of interesting places in and around Kawasaki and Yokohama aren't that far away.

Why bring all of this up? Well, as mentioned in the blog entry on the Gakken Spark Generator kit, there's an ad at the back of the book for Tokyo Power Company's (TEPCO) Electric Power Historical Museum. The TEPCO museum is 5 miles the other side of Kawasaki station, and when I mentioned that I may ride to Kawasaki, I was met with looks of disbelief that I'd want to travel that far. But, it only took 40 minutes, and only part of that included cutting through foot traffic around Kawasaki station. Mostly, it was a nice, pleasant form of exercise.

(Berliner's early flat record player.)

The TEPCO museum isn't that easy to find, even with a map (since their map's not to scale), being tucked away between a residential area and a wide swath of train tracks. The museum itself is in a sprawling 2-story building housing a cafe, gift shop, exhibit areas and some theater space.

They advertise having 700 items on display, and that number's probably about right. Many of the smaller items are just high voltage insulator parts, motors, huge bolts, transformers and snow shoes (there's a ski and snow shoe display because the power company construction people had to travel by foot to put up the power lines through the mountainous regions of central and northern Japan). But, they also have larger antique items, including power towers, refrigerators, Edison and Berliner phonographs, turbines and power station control switch banks. Their pride and joy is an 115-year-old original electric car, which pre-dates Ford's model T gas-powered car by several years. The electric car came from Edison, but didn't become popular because the lead batteries of the time took too long to charge, and had a limited range.

The museum is set up chronologically, starting with a display of Europeans (Volta, Ampere, etc.) that laid the foundation for understanding electricity, through an orientation film on Japanese electrical history, to Tokyo's first power grid, the Great Kanto earthquake (which forced Tokyo to re-lay out the grid from scratch) up to TEPCO's modern day technology. It's all really cool, and the 3-story turbine blade is full-scale. Also, they let you take pictures. In fact, while I was there, a photographer and his model were shooting the various exhibits for use in an elementary school textbook. After I was done wandering around, I stopped at the cafe for a hot dog, yogurt with blueberry syrup and ice coffee. Then I went to the gift shop, where they carried lots of science books, toys and bento lunch boxes with the TEPCO mascots printed on them. I wasn't too surprised to see that they also sell two of Gakken's kits - the spark generator and the theremin (side note: the pictures of Gennai Hiraga in the Gakken kit book probably came from TEPCO, as many of them are on display in the museum).

(Cut away of a Japanese heated toilet.)

If you're in Kawasaki, it's worth visiting the TEPCO electricity museum. It's only 300 yen ($3) for adults.

My full photo album is here.

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