The 2005 World Exposition opens on 25 March in the prefecture and brings together 121 countries that are operating pavilions and four international organisations, as well as companies showcasing cutting-edge technology.

Aichi is halfway between the traditional sites in Tokyo and Kyoto and its main claim to fame is that it is home to Toyota Motor Corp. None of which contribute to making the region one of the country's top tourist destinations.

Nagoya, its largest city, is a sprawling metropolis with a mixture of light and heavy industry, a castle and some attractive temples and gardens to lighten the urban load.

But four years after the last World Expo was held in the German city of Hanover, it is immediately clear that Aichi has pulled out all the stops to make sure this event surpasses its predecessors.

Nature's wisdom

The statistics are impressive: the Expo will run for 185 days; the venue covers 173 hectares on two nearby sites; and construction work alone cost a cool Y135 billion ($1.26 billion).

The Expo is expected to attract
15 million visitors

Another Y55 billion ($514 million) will be racked up in operating costs before the curtain comes down on 25 September.

The theme of the Expo is Nature's Wisdom, with the organisers aiming to teach visitors - especially the hordes of school children who are expected to come - the importance of global development in a way that is sustainable for the planet.

While much of the site is given over to national pavilions, transportation routes and impressive structures demonstrating companies' commitments to operating in harmony with nature, a good proportion is dedicated to lakes and woodland.

It is a far cry from the first Great Exhibition, which was staged in London in 1851 beneath the glass and iron of what became known as the Crystal Palace.

Initially a statement of Britain's leading role in the industrial revolution, subsequent expositions were held in Europe and North America.

Perhaps the most famous landmark associated with what was rapidly becoming a tradition was the Eiffel Tower, completed in Paris for the 1889 Exposition Universelle.

Woolly mammoth

The first expo outside its traditional boundaries was held in Osaka in 1970, although themes were beginning to turn more towards showcasing the need to combine progress with harmony.

On display will be parts of an
18,000-year-old mammoth

That thread is perhaps summed up by one of the main attractions at Expo 2005; the skull and foreleg of a woolly mammoth recovered from the permafrost of northern Siberia.

Behind thick glass and in a darkened and temperature-controlled room, the skull and the long, curving tusks are expected to be a must-see exhibit for visitors and have already attracted much attention during the preview sessions.

One of the corporate pavilions that has attracted the most attention is Toyota's. Underlining the company's commitment to mobility in the 21st century, a team of humanoid robots perform a series of brass band numbers, followed by future concept vehicles interacting with dancers.

The Hitachi Group pavilion brings to life rare breeds of animal that are threatened with extinction, while a magnetically levitated train - the mass transportation system of the future - is the focus of the Japan Railways Central pavilion.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers' Association is operating the Wonder Wheel Pavilion, in which its 50-metre Ferris wheel plays an integral part of the display, revolving both inside and outside the building.

Cultural showcase

Pavilions have also been set up by 121 nations in six regionally based Global Common areas. Asia and the Middle East are grouped together in Global Common 1, with pavilions provided by Yemen, Iran, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Mongolia, as well as a combined Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan pavilion.

Wisdom, harmony and hope will
be the Saudi pavilion's theme

The Saudi facility, for example, takes as its theme the concepts of wisdom, harmony and hope and aims to increase global understanding of the country's history and future directions.

Visitors are taken back in time after the entrance - disembarking from an old-fashioned sailing boat - and experiencing a traditional marketplace highlighting the Saudi lifestyle and architecture, before showing what the future holds in a 365-degree cinema screen.

Global Common 2 groups together 17 countries of North and South America, along with the pavilions of four international organisations, including the United Nations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, while the third area is dedicated to the Mediterranean region and Europe.

Variety of shapes

Global Common 4 is home to 21 more European nations, including united pavilions for both the Caucasus region and the Nordic countries, while the fifth area houses 30 African states. The final area, Global Common 6, covers 26 countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Transportation around the vast site comes in a variety of shapes and sizes; two gondola lifts link the very southern reaches of the venue, at Global Common 4, with the main entrance at the North Gate, while the second route runs between the entrance and the Seto area, an independent part of the Expo to the North-East.

Next-generation robots will be
among the many attractions

Alternatively, the IMTS (Intelligent Multimode Transit System) is an unmanned bus that operates on rails linking the North and South of the park, while the Global Tram makes continuous circuits of the 2.6km Global Loop that circles the heart of the site.

And while many of the exhibits may be of more interest to an adult audience, an area to the west of the site has been designed with children in mind and will allow them to play in a water park and tree houses.

One thing that will, however, get their attention is the Wanpaku Treasure Island and Robot Station, where they are encouraged to interact with a wide range of androids, ranging from humanoid guides and next-generation wheelchair robots, to machines that provide security, others designed to teach children and even some that look so human that it's tempting to try to strike up a conversation with them.