BASEBALL-LOVING Ken and pet-crazy Sakiko are the kids next door in Japan. Through Feb. 13, they become our Washington neighbors at "Five Friends From Japan," an interactive exhibit at the National Building Museum. Through engaging videos, Ken, 11; Sakiko, 8; and three other youngsters invite visitors into their homes -- and into the exhibit's life-size re-creations of their rooms, complete with tatami straw mats, comics and a kimono.

"We wanted to expose children to the rich culture and diversity of contemporary Japan," said Veronica Szalus, exhibit director of the National Children's Museum (formerly the Capital Children's Museum), which helped develop "Five Friends." "By including a variety of [Japanese] youngsters, we hoped children might find a friend they could particularly connect with based on shared interests and personality."

Certainly that connection happened quickly on a recent visit of D.C. kids. Sonia Schlesinger, 8, enjoyed Ken's poster of professional Japanese players and a video of the young shortstop's neighborhood team. Sonia's sister, Jane, 5, loved the dolls and models of miniature food in Sakiko's room. And my daughter, Christy, 6, happily served white foam tofu and accepted payment of pretend yen in the kitchen and tofu shop owned by the family of 7-year-old Aisa.

While discovering these shared interests, the girls also explored less familiar aspects of Japanese culture. Through hands-on activities, they tried Japanese calligraphy, drew Japanese-style manga comics and, thanks to Aisa, learned the pressing process by which soy beans become tofu, soy milk and soy chips. Other young visitors were drawn to the living room of Shoko, 10, where they played her keyboard and listened to recordings of traditional taiko drumming and Japanese rap and pop music. And in 12-year-old Yusuke's bamboo-enclosed garden, kids peered at his bug collection and practiced aikido, a Japanese martial art.

After examining these spaces, Sonia, Jane, Christy and other visitors returned to a classroom at the exhibit's entrance. They peeked at the chair cushions (they're also protective headgear for earthquakes) and orderly desk contents. Playing school involved an abacus and blackboard -- but also a mop and broom because Japanese students clean their own classrooms. Donning white coats and hair nets, Sonia, Jane and Christy took on another student responsibility -- serving lunch.

How were these five friends chosen? Very carefully, according to exhibit co-developer Szalus. Traveling to Japan, following up on contacts and conducting interviews helped the National Children's Museum and fellow collaborator the Children's Museum of Boston to narrow the field and finally select the young hosts to be videotaped. Both museums built on previous experience with Japanese exhibits; and Willamarie Moore, director of the Boston museum's East Asian program, brought the team her insights as a five-year resident of Japan. For the National Children's Museum, the exhibit is one of its first efforts as a "museum without walls" since the August closing of the Capital Children's Museum. From offices in L'Enfant Plaza, the newly renamed museum now spearheads outreach to schools and collaborates on traveling exhibits while planning its new building, to open in 2008.

The National Building Museum, with its emphasis on architecture, seemed like a good host for this exhibit of large physical spaces. But the museum does just as well by small spaces, as demonstrated in "Origami as Architecture," which runs until Feb. 20. This companion exhibit celebrates the Japanese art of paper folding, with creations on display ranging from tiny cranes to pop-ups of the Washington Monument. Visitors inspired by the displays can try their hand at nearby tables stocked with origami paper. Though unable to fashion whimsical pigs, such as those by Kazukiyo Kurosu, my daughter and husband still had a great time following wall-hung instructions and coaxing forth paper houses and boats.

FIVE FRIENDS FROM JAPAN AND ORIGAMI AS ARCHITECTURE -- Through Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, respectively, at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW (Metro: Judiciary Square). 202-272-2448. Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5, Sundays 11 to 5. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Family activity booklets available free at the information desk at the museum entrance. Free family programs every weekend from 2:30 to 3: "Bridging the Gap" on Saturdays and "Arches and Trusses" on Sundays.


Sunday, from 11 to 4 -- Learn about model airplanes and watch them fly in the Great Hall in a free program for all ages. From 1 to 3:30, create a taketombo (Japanese flying toy) in drop-in workshop for all ages; $3.

Nov. 28 from 1 to 4 -- Create gifts from decorated concrete in a drop-in workshop for all ages; $5.

Dec. 4 from 2 to 4 -- Gingerbread house workshop for all ages. $40 members, $50 nonmembers. Advance registration required at 202-272-2448, Ext. 3305, or

Dec. 11 from 2 to 4 -- Ornamental origami for ages 8 and up. $7 members, $10 nonmembers. Advance registration required at 202-272-2448, Ext. 3305, or

Jan. 9 from 11 to 4:30 -- Japanese New Year celebration, a drop-in program for all ages, with musical performances, Japanese games and activities. $5 suggested donation.

Jan. 12 from 5:30 to 8 -- CityVision program, with D.C. middle school students presenting their ideas for improving their Anacostia, Brookland and H Street corridor neighborhoods. Free. RSVP by Jan. 7 to 202-272-2448, Ext. 3556, or

Jan. 15 from 1 to 4 -- Calligraphy creations, a drop-in workshop for all ages. $5 members, $7 nonmembers.

Jan. 30 from 11 to 4 -- Learn about model airplanes and watch them fly in the Great Hall during a free program for all ages. From noon to 3:30, create Japanese bird kites at drop-in workshop; $3.

Feb. 6 from 2 to 4 -- Japanese house-building workshop for ages 8 and up. $7 members, $10 nonmembers. Advance registration required at 202-272-2448, Ext. 3305, or

Feb. 12 from 11:30 to 2:30 -- Japanese animation drop-in program, free for all ages.

Ken, one of the five children featured in the "Five Friends From Japan" exhibit at the National Building Museum, practices calligraphy.Kazukiyo Kurosu's Statue of Liberty in the exhibit "Origami as Architecture," with the U.S. Capitol dome in the background.