Kyoto is a special city for the people of Japan. The capital of the country for over 1000 years until it moved to Tokyo in the 1800s, the city is known for the historic temples and shrines nestled into its hills. They’re peaceful and serene, and reflect the beautiful craftsmanship of the country.

With that, there was much excitement last year when the O’Reilly Japan team (producers of Maker Faire Tokyo) announced they’d be hosting a faire in Kyoto in 2019. I traveled out there last weekend to experience the event; here’s my recap.

Kyoto is also an agricultural district, with small and medium-sized farming plots all over the landscape. Looking out from the bus on the way in from the Osaka airport, these large garden spaces seem to tuck in between every home and fill up all vacant lots.

Around five to ten years ago, three bordering districts started development on a new technology hub dubbed Kansai Science City, in in a rural area that overlapped each region far from Kyoto’s city center. Universities and research centers were built, and large Japanese companies put technology outposts in the region. Neighborhoods popped up and families moved in, many that commute to Kyoto or Osaka for work. A couple of small strip malls seem to have arrived as well. Our hotel was part of this tech growth program, as evidenced by the mammoth concrete sundial installation in front, which projects a bright green laser into space at night. It had a futuristic feeling, but also nestled up against small family farms on two sides.

One of these Science City venues is where they held MF Kyoto — a glossy glass/cement/metal space that looks like it would be ideal for a science museum as a long term tenant. It was hard to tell how many of the buildings in Science City are seeing regular use; the location and weekend aspect made it more difficult to notice bustling activity the way it can be seen in other regions.

Because of the the location being 30-40 minutes outside the city center, and it being a first time event, the organizers (Hideo Tamura, Fumi Yamakawa, and team) were pretty anxious about the show and its potential turnout the night before it kicked off.

On the day of the show, attendees walked up a short tree-lined staircase that led to the venue. At the top of the stairs, a bus-based mobile lab with a Maker Faire Kyoto banner on it sat in front of the building entrance. You could walk through the inside of the bus, or write on the outside in chalk. Next to the bus, a small vendor sold paella to the visitors — a nice homage to the dinner tradition of Maker Faire Bay Area and New York. (Speaking of, MFBA 2019 is this weekend. Buy your tickets here.)

Through the building’s doors there were about 200 exhibitors, which gave me plenty to dig into over the two days of the show. All were indoors, minus the bus and paella. I recognized three exhibits from last summer’s MF Tokyo, but everything else was new to me.

Thematically, the makers all seemed to have a knack for incredibly small, intricate, moving projects — electronics is their specialty, and although many of these were highly refined, most seemed to be personal projects from dedicated hobbyists, rather than startups or hopeful future vendors. The event also had a highly interactive dark room, a lot of music projects, some really wonderful artisan craft pieces, a toddler’s creation area, a maker-food zone, a sponsors section, and various tech workshops (Micro:Bit; soldering; leather etching), all stretched throughout two long, open floors of the building, with stairs and ramps leading between them.

   

For my favorite projects, I kept a running Twitter thread updated through the weekend, focusing on short video clips. Check them all out:

On Saturday evening, after the first day, the team held a maker dinner in the venue. Food and beverages were served, and speeches were given (including one from the Vice Governor of Kyoto). I was asked to say a few words and help congratulate everyone on the historic moment of Japan’s new emperor taking the throne, and to uncork a special bottle of sake to commemorate. I served some to most of the makers in tiny thimble-sized paper cups. A fair amount spilled on the floor, but spirits were high regardless.

By end the producers’ anxiety had turned to wide smiles about the turnout — they had surpassed their expected attendance by 50%. Many of those came as families, likely from the neighborhoods nearby. I did see some visitors on the train to Kyoto on Sunday night too. The Vice Governor expressed his eagerness for the partnership with the venue and region to continue. The show was a hit.

After the Faire concluded I made my way into Kyoto itself for a day to explore some of its ancient locations. I also marveled at the massive, modern train station and the bullet trains that pull in and out every 5 minutes. I’ve read that there has been some local disappointment about the glossy style of the station and its adjacent Kyoto tower clashing with the historic elements of the city. But the union of them both represents what Japan is today — a combination of peacefully intricate craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology. You can see this in their cities, and you can see it in the projects at their Maker Faires. I recommend visiting to check out one of these shows — it’s a special event.