When I was walking into one of the buildings, I thought about how great it was to be able to see any part of JAXA, and who knew that they would let me? The last time I visited NASA, I had to register and get permission from the branch head and show my ID and all sorts of red tape. However, here I was in Japan, not a citizen of the country, just freely walking into their facilities. In fact, they welcomed me and even gave me a free pen (two, actually). It was amazing.
A few things surprised me:
(1) I guess I expected to see a lot about JAXA research and I did learn about the two-stage rocket H-IIB and Japan's contribution to the ISS - Kibo. However, in every single exhibit, they also showed some kind of American space vehicle - Space Shuttle and its booster rockets, HyperX. When it comes to space, NASA is still one of the biggest agencies.
(2) When I was talking with one of the few workers who ventured to speak in English to me and asking him lots of questions about top speed, Mach number and use of one of the test vehicles, he admitted to me that the last time that vehicle flew was in 1998. Due to some failed rocket launches in the early 2000's, the entire project of trying to develop a space shuttle-like vehicle (along with a number of others) were scrapped. "Political problems," the man gave by way of explanation. I nodded, "Hmm...I guess every space program has to deal with those." It seems I'm in the field about 50 years too late. No one anywhere has interest in supporting manned programs to space.
(3) The place was swarming with families. I should have guessed. Everywhere in Japan swarms with families. However, I was very impressed by how interested a lot of the kids were in actually seeing the rocket engines and the like. Then again, I was somehow also surprised to find a person dressed up as a rocket walk around and take pictures with kids. Even more surprising were the kids' shy smiles and excitement at meeting the rocket person.
I love space. I love rocket science. But wow, what a crazy hard field. How do we get things to fly? It still amazes me.