Japan's World Expo 2005: A Brave New World - My Family Travels

The millennium's first World's Fair in the eco-conscious and technologically advanced country of Japan was dedicated to bettering our planet.

For an instant blast to the future there may be no better vacation this year than a week spent in Nagoya, Japan during the run of the Expo 2005 Aichi. Who needs to be a cosmonaut when you can try the non-stop JFK-Nagoya flight recently introduced by Northwest, which whisked us away from New York’s Long Island to Japan’s large island in a mere 13 hours, going halfway around the world in 1/80th the time it took Jules Verne to circumvent it. You’ll need at least four times that amount to visit Expo’s 124 pavilions and meet the 31 “working” robots, from Nannies to Garbage Collectors to Wheelchair Pushers, who address visitors in several languages. Only through serendipitous exploration is the Expo’s theme “Wisdom From Nature” revealed.

Nature is the driving force behind Expo 2005 Aichi, the first world exposition of the millennium. According to Taizo Watanabe, Commissioner General of the 2005 World Exposition, the Japanese government was eager to host a global event that would unite the continents in a shared quest for environmental harmony. Concerned that the classic World’s Fair concept would be out of date in the digital era, Mr. Watanabe noted in an interview on opening day, “We are trying to redress the mistakes made in environmental pollution and use new means to solve the world’s problems of water and domestic health without relying on limited resources.”

To reinforce its environmental theme, the Expo was located outside Nagoya (Japan’s third largest city and the home of the Toyota company, also an Expo sponsor), without disturbing the terrain of a large pubic recreation area. Furthermore, each participant has pledged to remove and recycle its pavilion materials as soon as the Expo’s six-month run finishes on September 25, 2005. Since foliage and landscaping were left intact during the fair’s quick construction period, attractions are inefficiently but attractively spread out over a wide area, requiring two days to see in full. Fortunately, it’s well worthwhile.

Fuel and Transportation for the Future

Solar powered structures and a 150-meter-long by 15-meter-high wall of plants known as the Bio Lung (predicted to cool the surrounding air in summer) are some of the Expo’s exciting energy innovations. The NEDO Technorium features next generation robots, fuel cells running off compost, photovoltaic power generation, NaS batteries and recycled biomass as well as many other conservation initiatives that provide a glimpse of the future.

Families will be able to take Japan’s excellent train service from the main Nagoya station (said to be the largest in the world, with a Takashimaya department store and the luxury 57-story Nagoya Marriott Associa above it), a shuttle bus or subway directly to Nagakute, the current Expo grounds. The remaining way is traversed aboard the Limino, the country’s first operational maglev train.

Theme park fans already know that super conducting magnetic levitation has been experimented with by ride manufacturers. As rides approach the natural limit of gravity to adhere a moving vehicle to near-frictionless tracks at high speed, superconducting magnet technology has evolved to take advantage of the incredible adhesion (and repulsion) of electronically charged magnets. One must-see is the JR Central Pavilion sponsored by the JR rail line, whose pioneering work 20 years ago with the high-speed Shinkansen, or bullet train, revolutionized the passenger rail experience around the world. The Limino may again revolutionize the country’s rail system boasts the Pavilion’s interesting documentary, though such a large scale project is predicted to cost billions of dollars and years of effort.

Other innovative transportation includes the IMTS, or Intelligent Multimode Transit System, a sleek white and black glass vehicle that drives itself and delivers Expo goers to pre-ordained stations; the battery-powered Global Tram that circles the walkways; finely-engineered Bicycle Taxis or human-powered rickshaws; and two wheelchair-accessible Gondolas, named for Morizo and Kiccoro, the Expo’s utterly charming, fuzzy green mascots.

Touring The World of the Future

A classic elevated boardwalk, the Global Walkway, winds it way through six Global Commons, geographically organized zones containing architecturally distinctive pavilions and collapsible, wireless performance spaces. Just as old and new ways seem to coexist in Japan but never blend, Mr. Watanabe sees no conflict between Expo’s high-tech and pro-environment messages: “We designed Expo on a kind, human scale; for example, by using natural wood pathways that you can walk on barefoot.” In Global Commons 1, there are 17 Asian countries tucked into 15 free-standing pavilions separated by strolling paths and landscaping. Each is representative of its theme and its culture; for example, the South Korea Pavilion, a very popular destination for the Japanese because of a current fad for Korean TV soap operas, is wood decorated with graphic yin yang symbols to create a 3D effect.

In Global Commons 2, there are 17 countries and four international organizations (such as the UN Environmental Development Fund UNEP, Red Cross and a Non-Governmental Organizations pavilion) all representing the region of the Americas. While Canada’s pavilion focuses on the Wisdom of Diversity with sections devoted the Geosphere, the Biosphere and the Ethnosphere, the Andean Amazonian Pavilion bundles the rich cultures of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela into a showcase of folk arts and shops selling crafts from the region. At our visit, a troupe of folk dancers bravely fought the occasional snowfall to perform as scheduled on the central plaza.

The USA Pavilion nearby, ironically, is not noted on the official Expo map — perhaps payback for refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. It features a Disney-like special effects presentation about Benjamin Franklin and an exhibit about America’s progress in space exploration. The best thing about the pavilion is open only to the many corporate sponsors and invited guests who may want to do business with them. This upstairs VIP Lounge, a loft filled with “fresh, new Americana” (think leather floors, elk antlers, images of Hollywood and cowboys) is designed by Thom Felicia of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” fame.

Global Commons 3 features 13 countries of Europe and the little-seen pleasures of Jordan and Tunisia. While France’s choice of a white plastic box sponsored by Louis Vuitton (a very popular designer for the Japanese) to express creativity was unremarkable, genuine espresso from the Italy pavilion was a real crowd pleaser. Our favorite food stop was the Egypt Pavilion, where families will find a wonderful light-up fan and souvenir key ring. We downed several Pharaoh’s Platters of very tasty beef curry and rice, with falafel on the side, and hibiscus juice; quite good but surprising at ¥14,000 (about US$14). There are few options at Expo, as the variety of international treats (such as a Tapas bar in the Spanish Pavilion) are costly and crowded as well.

Toyota Leads The Way

Leave it to developers of the popular Prius hybrid automobile to continue to show the way to others at this Expo celebrating conservation. The freestanding Toyota Pavilion is worth the hour’s wait (you can arrive early and apply for a timed reentry later in the day); it’s made of recycled paper supported by steel friction joints that will later be reused. Although the glossy white pavilion looks like ultra-modern fiberglas, after watching the show indoors while snow fell outside, we can verify that paper provides very poor insulation. Dress in layers!

In keeping with the company’s theme, “The Dream, Joy and Inspiration of Mobility in the 21st Century, ” Toyota’s circular arena is the venue for a stunning show put on by humans assisted by the latest in robots, developed in part to meet the needs of the physically and mentally handicapped. Enthusiastic ushers seat the crowd (one of the Expo’s signature charms is that each pavilion’s staff is dressed to match the pavilion’s theme), then encourage clapping along as a robot band performs “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Those robots with legs with knees gracefully tapped their feet and bounced to the music, those with wheel legs rolled in time. When a little white robot took a mike from the live Japanese MC and started rapping the lyrics… well, we won’t spoil it for you. Let’s call it a must experience.

Other Pavilions To Catch

The Japanese pavilions are among the most effective at conveying the Wisdom from Nature theme. The fascinating Japan Pavilion Nagakute is an all bamboo structure with non-stop media about the progress of environmental efforts, deep sea exploration, native peoples, and a fragrant, soft-floored room devoted to reforestation. Seto, reached by gondola, is a separate, heavily wooded zone at the Expo used to illustrate the virtues of the natural world and the native peoples of Japan and elsewhere. A Forest Nature School here has exhibits illuminating these concepts and a Citizens Pavilion is staffed by, and promotes, the efforts of volunteers around the world. The Mitsubishi Pavilion @Earth is made of tree stumps, bamboo and recycled material, covered over in living grass.

It’s almost impossible to take in all the strolling robots, visit the wooly mammoth excavated from the Siberian tundra in the Global Commons pavilion, and stroll in and out of the pavilions of interest to each family member. If you must allow a few days for Expo 2005, you must allow the rest of the week for exploring Japan.

Rounding Out The Week

There’s no better way to appreciate the future than to study the past, and Gifu Prefecture, the home of Expo, offers several worthwhile daytrips from Nagoya. Because Japan’s rail system is so superb, we can say that a two-hour train ride is enough of an interesting experience to make some farther off attractions worth a visit. Historic Hida-Takayama has derived its income from sake breweries for generations, and learning of their hand-crafted methods is a rich contrast to the region’s automotive factories. Shirakawago, also in Gifu, is a designated World Heritage Site where gassho, or thatch, pitched roof houses unique to the region are tucked into the mountain sides.

The Ise Shrine in neighboring Mie Prefecture is considered Japan’s most important Shinto shrine. Its towering pi-shaped wooden gate (these guard Shinto shrines, not Buddhist temples) leads to many beautifully sculpted attached temples surrounded by cedar trees, many more than 800-years old. Families with more time and their own vehicle may want to visit some of the pilgrimage sites linking this and the shrines of Wakayama Prefecture.

In Aichi Prefecture, the Museum Meiji-Mura is an outdoor collection of traditional buildings from the Meiji period, 1868-1912, when Japan was reopened to the West and Western culture. With more time, the Chita Peninsula surrounded by Ise Bay is a scenic outpost of regional arts and crafts, and a place to admire and purchase contemporary Japanese ceramics.

Getting There and Staying There is Futuristic

Non-stop USA to Nagoya flights are available from Northwest, American and United, and take 13.5 hours Westbound over Alaska and 12.5 hours Eastbound. This journey is a miracle of modern travel, from swiping passports through e-ticket readers to having water bottles scanned electronically by airport security. Even better, the friendly American and Japanese Northwest crew provided a bilingual, bicultural introduction to our adventure. Any family that can afford it should upgrade to a Business Class seat, whose multimedia pod beds allow you to board, dine mid-morning, sleep and land mid-day.

Many visitors will base the family in Nagoya (the Hilton is a good choice). The capital of Aichi Prefecture, Nagoya has a population of 2.2 million and an economy bolstered by Toyota, whose factories are nearby in Toyota City. Contact the local tourist office for information about taking a factory tour. Nagoya is also home to the champion Nagoya Dragons baseball team and has a section known as Little Hollywood, thanks to sister city Los Angeles, who contributed replicas of 25 stars from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Look for Clark Gable, Charlton Heston and Marilyn Monroe among others.

For our vision of the future, you might want to consider a stay at Centrair, the extraterrestrial island airport with its own runway-view Japanese bathhouse and interior cityscape. The airport boasts the fancy Centrair Hotel, with tatami rooms from US$388/N including breakfast, and a budget option Comfort Inn joined to the main terminal by skyways. In addition to the second floor Edo-period village housing Japanese noodle and sushi shops and, across from it, a faux French boulevard with high fashion and jewelry shops, families can enjoy the region’s most highly touted restaurant (Queen Alice and Turandot, whose celebrity chef invented “The Iron Chef” contests), as long as you book three months ahead.

If you’re among the many visitors who prefer to come to Expo 2005 through a packaged tour, there are terrific values assembled by JTB Japan Travel Bureau; General Tours, Jalpak, Kintetsu International and other operators. A variety of programs, including trans-Pacific airfares, hotel and meals, with excursions to other regions, begin at only US$1,399 for a five-night package from Los Angeles (see www.iace-usa.com). The Japan National Tourist Organization also has great information on their site, www.japantravelinfo.com.

Inside Expo 2005 Tips

The weather was snowing and unseasonably cold at our late March visit, but our local intelligence source says it should be “spring-like” in May, typically rainy in June and July, and at its best from August to the Expo’s closing on September, 25. Expo 2005 is open daily 10am-9pm; day passes for adults 18-64 cost: ¥4,600; juniors 12-17: ¥2,500; children 4-11: ¥1,500; Seniors: ¥3,700. There are myriad other rates for multi day passes, weekday family passes and student discounts.

Be sure to allow unscheduled time to stroll around and enjoy the widely available seating areas and “curbside” performances. Besides the various modes of public transport available to reach the Expo site, there are many choices of futuristic transport inside the fairgrounds for when the kids’ legs wear out (nominal fee for each type.)

To help you plan your futuristic visit, Expo 2005 planners have developed a customized, state-of-the-art itinerary tool on their website at www.expo2005.or.jp that enables you to input your interests, make reservations for two timed entries per day, and print out a customized walking tour that takes into account the anticipated crowd flows.

The website is also invaluable in determining the special events schedule. Each night the central koi pond is illuminated as part of a Robert Wilson installation; the world’s largest video wall bursts into color; and Laurie Anderson’s music fills the Japanese garden. Scheduled guests on the Expo Plaza stage range from Yohji Yamamoto, noted fashion designer, to Nobel Peace Prize laureates and marching bands. Tea ceremonies will take place in the Japanese garden with 21 different services offered on weekends and some holidays. Kabuki theatre, Japanese-style Opera, musicals and Noh theatre will also come to the Expo Dome.

Once you arrive at the space station-like, white plastic platforms encircling the perimeter of the fairgrounds, you’ll find heavily secured admission gates and a strict policy of No Food or Beverages entering the grounds. With 8 million presold tickets according to CNN, and an estimated two million foreign visitors expected, the Japanese are concerned about bio-terrorism. A public outreach campaign should cut short the time-consuming search process at the gates, and families can save even more time by purchasing tickets before arrival.

There are dozens of food concessions, most of them surprisingly dull considering they are catering to the exquisite tastes of the Japanese. Don’t let that dissuade you from trying the local curry, pizza or udon noodle shops, which provide satisfying fare — if at DisneyWorld prices.

Citibank ATMs will be most practical for visitors using US bank accounts, but they are few and far between. Make sure to carry cash with you, as credit cards and travelers cheques are not widely accepted.


As Prime Minister Jun-ichiro Koizumi so eloquently put it in his Expo 2005 Aichi opening address on March 25, “We must pass on this beautiful Earth to our children through the simultaneous pursuit of environmental protection and economic development.”

We say simply: Travel light, with a wallet stuffed with Yen for snacks and souvenirs, and you and your children will have great fun learning. Today and for The Future.

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