Tours around the world focus on finding grandeur and beauty in what many see as unsightly sources of pollution.

In Kawasaki, Japan, tourists are flocking to a new kind of attraction: a power plant. It is a monument of sorts, but not one made from marble or granite. Rather than celebrating history or culture, it memorializes how our societies run. And its tall smokestacks, shooting up clouds like industrial geysers, inspire awe in the minds of kojo moe tourists.

Kojo moe, meaning “factory infatuation”, is a growing subculture of people who travel around Japan to see oil refineries, steel manufacturing plants, chemical factories and other such fortresses of industry. They find grandeur and beauty in what many see as unsightly sources of pollution.

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has made a career from bringing these “manufactured landscapes” to life, forcing his audience to confront the contradictions that the images create. When accepting the 2005 TED Prize (given annually by TED, a series of conferences on innovation in technology, entertainment and design), Burtynsky said he wanted his striking images – from a tessellation of manufacturing workers in China to a bloody river of mine tailings in Canada – not to disgust audiences, but to challenge them. “To say, ‘Wow, this is beautiful on one level, but on the other level, this is scary – I shouldn’t be enjoying it.’ Like a forbidden pleasure”, he explained in his TED talk. “And it’s that forbidden pleasure that I think is what resonates out there…I’m drawn to have a good life, I want a house and I want a car, but there’s a consequence out there. And how do I begin to have that attraction-repulsion?”

That conflicting sensibility is inherent to industrial tourism around the world, as remnants of industry’s past and bastions of its present draw visitors who are curious about society’s growth over time. Here are a few fascinating industrial tours designed with these travellers in mind.

Kawasaki, Japan
Kojo moe has transformed the industrial hub of Kawasaki into a tourist destination, for everything from its food plants to its oil refineries. The Kawasaki City Tourist Association now offers night cruises that tour factories around the Tokyo Bay. Sights may include the huge, brightly lit Kawasaki oil refinery or the JFE Steel Corporation. Several factories (including JFE) offer tours inside their facilities and information can be found on the tourist association’s website. To book a night cruise or a daytime bus tour, contact the tourist association at 04-4-544-8229.

Saint-Nazaire, France
The Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard has built around 600 vessels and more than 110 cruise ships and ocean liners (including the RMS Queen Mary 2) since it opened in 1861. Information on touring the shipyard, which gives visitors a rare look into ship construction, massive machinery and all, can be found at the Saint-Nazaire Office of Tourism website.

Belle Isle, United States
Virginia’s Belle Isle is a place of paradox. Sitting on the James River and rife with freshwater swimming holes, the island is smack dab in the middle of downtown Richmond. The park itself is an odd amalgamation of natural and unnatural, with trees, cliffs, hiking trails and wildlife co-existing alongside abandoned industrial structures. Once home to a hydroelectric power plant, an iron foundry, a granite quarry and a Civil War prison camp and cemetery, Belle Isle is a simultaneously eerie and peaceful place to explore.

After touring the island’s abandoned buildings, consider going for a relaxing swim in the park’s blue, freshwater holes, a go-to spot for locals seeking respite from the heat. The James River’s active rapids around Belle also make tubing, kayaking and canoeing popular activities. 

Bataan, Philippines
In 1985, the Philippines completed construction on a nuclear power plant that cost 88 billion Philippine pesos, but the Bataan plant was never used. This year, it finally opened – as a tourist attraction. The plant is offering tours in hopes of increasing support for nuclear power (contact the power firm Napocor at 63-2-921-3541). Meanwhile, the environmental group Greenpeace is hosting its own tours in hopes of decreasing support for nuclear power (contact Greenpeace’s Philippines office at 63-2-332-1807).

Balaklava, Ukraine
Balaklava is home to an underground submarine base that was built by the Soviet army in 1961 and eventually abandoned in 1995. The base is now a museum, which you can visit independently or through a tour operator. Ukraine Tour is one of many companies offering private guided tours.

Brooklyn, United States
New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yard opened in 1801 and was used to build warships, including the United States’ first steam-powered military ship, the Fulton Steam Frigate. After the shipyard closed in 1966, it was turned into a city park. Today, it is a 300-acre industrial park with more than 40 buildings, including residential and office space. The Brooklyn Historical Society hosts bus and bike tours of the Navy yard.

Munich, Germany
A truly unique experience can be found at the BMW Plant in Munich. Tours lead visitors throughout the automobile factory, allowing them to witness how parts are produced, how engines are built and how cars are assembled. Tours include visits to the BMW press shop, body shop, paint shop and engine assembly area.

Detroit, United States
Once the centre of the United States’ automotive industry and an economic powerhouse, Detroit is a must-visit city for industrial tourism. Travellers can explore the history of Ford Motor Company at the Piquette Avenue Plant, where the Model T — the first affordable car for everyday Americans — was born. A few minutes away from Piquette Avenue, visitors can see manufacturing in action at the Ford Rouge Factory, the only Detroit automotive plant tour available to the public. The Rouge offers tours of its assembly plant, observation deck and legacy gallery – which houses five historic Ford cars.

Throughout Detroit, the city’s ruins provide an even grittier look into its industrial past. The abandoned Packard Motor Car Plant, on East Grand Boulevard, has become an attraction for photographers, street artists, skateboarders and even paintballers. A Detroit News video provides a glimpse into the appreciation locals have for the deteriorating building.