PythagoraSwitch is an educational NHK TV show about science and engineering. It has inspired a generation of youngsters (and dads) to try building and figuring out how things work. It’s unashamedly geeky but also creative, since the contraptions showcased in its most famous segment are essentially “useless” Rube Goldberg machines.
Of course, PythagoraSwitch has spawned a thousand imitators at home: families and kids building intricate routes for balls to travel across.
But now you can add the official NHK touch to your homemade devices with the PythagoraSwitch Goal Machine No.1.
Happinet has teamed up with NHK to make this toy, which replicates the feel of the original show.
When the ball enters the “goal machine” the green PythagoraSwitch flag is raised and the iconic jingle from the TV show is played.
For the engineering buffs, here’s how the inside of the goal machine itself works.
And here it is in action.
The makers prepared more examples of the kind of elaborate contraptions you can create.
Here is one involving laundry pegs and a bridge.
This one has a tunnel, Jenga blocks and more!
This one has a mini whiteboard, chopsticks, and even a toy bus.
Finally, this ingenious design starts with a vibrating cellphone causing the ball to roll… and then keeps on become more and more elaborate.
Manami Okazaki has released a second edition of her book “Kokeshi, from Tohoku with Love”, featuring interviews with 23 kokeshi artisans as well as 200 photos documenting how the unique wooden dolls are made in northeast Japan.
Okazaki, the author of several books about aspects of Japanese culture, from tattoos to toy cameras, wrote the first edition as a charity project. It sold out in 18 months and now is available again in a new expanded version.
We spoke to her about her new book.
Q. Why did you choose to write about kokeshi?
Manami Okazaki: There are a couple of reasons. When I was interviewing people for a previous book I wrote on kawaii culture, many mentioned kokeshi as having the same design sensibilities as modern cute character design. Designers such as Bukkuro (known for designing the Taiko no Tatsujin game) find kokeshi designs inspirational. Traditional types of kokeshi, like a lot of kawaii characters, lack any facial expression (famously, Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth), and their simplicity leaves a lot to the imagination.
Since 3/11, the country began to focus on the Tohoku region, and kokeshi became a kind of mascot for the region. There were exhibitions at trendy places like Claska and PARCO gallery, events in Koenji, and a slew of gorgeously designed publications like “Kokeshi Jidai”, which all instigated a boom in kokeshi culture. I write a lot about kawaii culture in any case, and kokeshi aligned with the notion of shibu kawaii (subdued, old school cute).
Last but not least, my grandparents on my mum’s side lived in Onagawa post-war, and my mum grew up there. I am really grateful I experienced Japanese rural life there, and have great memories of visiting them. We also went to Naruko and kokeshi studios when I was a kid, so there is a sense of nostalgia for me as well. I should also add that my mum’s childhood home was swept away in the tsunami, and in an instant, many people died, and the town she grew up in disappeared. When I went up post-tsunami, the playground I used to play in was lined with coffins.
Nothing in life is permanent, but books leave behind a legacy that carries on for generations — it is one way to leave behind a culture. It is not the only way, of course, there is a scholar who did her doctoral dissertation on kokeshi, and there are also documentaries, but it is the way I am familiar with.
Q. Why do you think the first print sold out? Why is there a strong interest in kokeshi?
Manami Okazaki: I think there was just a hole in the market, there are some books which are beautiful, but have little to no text and, are a decade old, and expensive.
The book is in English, so it is intended for an audience abroad — a lot of people recognize kokeshi, and like them, but in reality, a lot of the items that are called “kokeshi” in English are plastic mass-produced products in the likeness of geishas. If you do a google image search for kokeshi in English, most of the images are not kokeshi, but kitschy cartoony toys. I met an owner of a kokeshi shop in Paris who had never seen a real kokeshi in his life, and was asking where he can get wholesale quantities!
I think people were curious to know what these well-known dolls really were. I think there is also a general interest in artisan culture due to things like the slow life movement, and influential taste-makers like Kinfolk and Monocle magazine celebrating crafts.
They are imperfect, as they are made by hand, and each one is different. Asides from that, they are very cute!
Q. What do you think the role of kokeshi is for Japan today? As crafts? Design? Toys?
Manami Okazaki: Mainly as interior decoration items and souvenirs. They started as a kids’ toy, and girls were dressing them up and carrying them on their back. During the Showa era, adults became enamored in them, instigating the first “kokeshi boom”. Tadao Watanabe, a kokeshi artisan in Fukushima told me, “Suddenly, these toys became a thing for urban intellectuals, and they would take dolls out of kids’ hands!”
They are also connected to tourism — they are a souvenir from the hot spring villages in Tohoku where they are made, and people would travel around collecting them. In the Showa era it was “collectors with big backpacks”. Nowadays it is Shimokitaza type, crafty and designer-y young females.
Q. What are the challenges facing kokeshi culture today?
Manami Okazaki: Primarily, the lack of successors and the aging demographic of the current artisans. The apprenticeship is grueling and lengthy, and there is little financial incentive to become a kokeshi maker. It is the same for all the artisans in Japan, across the board.
Q. What are some of the most unusual kokeshi you have encountered? And the most innovative?
Manami Okazaki: Prior to this kokeshi boom, a lot of young people thought that orthodox kokeshi with their demure expressions looked a bit creepy. In response, artisans usually make two types: the very traditional types that are true to their lineage, and ones that are hyper cute — with hats, in the shape of cats, sitting on beer barrels, with manga eyes, and so on. Recently, fashion retailer BEAMS collaborated with kokeshi maker Yasuhiro Satou, using both artificial blue ink, and indigo, as Japan has a rich heritage of indigo dying. Blue is never found in traditional kokeshi, so it was dubbed the “denim head” and they sold an incredible amount!
By and large, they are artisans, not artists though, and their main interest is in dutifully protecting their heritage. They try and “catch” new customers by making hyper kawaii types, in the hope that these some customers eventually get deeper into kokeshi culture, and go for the traditional types. This is something I also saw in the kimono industry as well; the casual, creative styles were seen as a bridge to the “real thing”.
Q. Have you made any significant changes/additions to this second edition?
Manami Okazaki: Yes. It is a second edition ,though, not a new book, so please keep this in mind if you have the first edition. The second edition has all the bells and whistles. It has a thick, textured hard cover, 100% FCS paper from sustainable sources in Europe, two times higher grade paper, larger format, 60 more photos, 3 more profiles, sections on how to buy kokeshi, and added information on Tohoku folklore.
Q. Why did you make the first edition a charity project?
Manami Okazaki: I think it makes sense as kokeshi are from Tohoku. Post-tsunami, almost everyone I knew was working on charity projects, and chipping in where they could, from making books to hosting band gigs and holding charity events. I felt there was a shift in consciousness amongst young people, and a reassessment about the way they (over) consumed. I remember around ten years ago, if you told someone to watch their water consumption, not use so much plastic or packaging, and whatnot, they would think you were a hippie (I’m exaggerating, but not by much). I don’t think many mainstream young people prior to 3/11 had even thought about charity, but everyone I knew, from fashion houses to underground artists were doing something.
It was a charity book, but mostly I am hoping it inspires people to visit these charming hot spring villages and to check out Japan’s artisan crafts. Kokeshi tourism is a really great way to experience rural Tohoku culture, and see craftsmen at work in their own studios.
Get your drawing skills ready, kids. Here is the perfect aquarium that doesn’t require any maintenance — only creativity!
The Picturerium is a digital fish tank. There are no live fish inside the “aquarium”. Instead you create your own fish by drawing them on special cards.
There are then scanned by your iPhone camera so that the fish appear inside the Picturerium. There are “food cards” too, where you can draw a cake and the snack is then “eaten” by the inhabitants of the underwater world. You can even insert your own photos onto the fish and other characters (mermaid, octopus, etc) so you or your friends appear to be swimming inside the tank.
You need to use the dedicated app with your iPhone 5 or iPhone 6 (available in different languages) but most of the hard work involves analog skills with drawing tools and paper!
Kendama have made a big comeback. The traditional cup-and-ball Japanese toy has been gaining in popularity in foreign countries for a little while now and in Japan too, the Japan Kendama Association is determined to milk this new-found following.
And so it is has helped make this Musical Kendama by DJ Koo, which combines the functions of the kendama with a musical beatbox.
DJ Koo might be a little long in the tooth but he’s a bit of a veteran figure in Japan. The Japan Kendama Association’s gamble might seem strange from overseas: if they want to make the kendama look cool, why did they use someone from a previous generation? That’s not ageist — just commonsense.
Well, frankly it doesn’t matter which DJ Koo first started spinning his tunes. The Musical Kendama is awesome.
This kendama lights up when you play it: every time you catch the ball on one of the cups, there is a sound. You can hear DJ Koo counting how many catches you have achieved, or there are record scratching sound effects or remixes of Koo’s famous tracks.
Other modes include dub and techno.
Playing a kendama is so simple anyone can enjoy it, just like the best of toys. However, it also offers a lot for players who want to build up their skills. The Japan Kendama Association administers 10 kyu rankings depending on your ability, and says there are 101 different tricks you can do with the toy.
All this encourages people with nifty hands. See the videos of overseas kendama aces if you really want to be impressed.
And it’s not just Japanophiles or hipsters who are getting their kendama groove on. It’s regular school kids too.
CBS News 8 recently reported that there is a “kendama craze sweeping the country”, while even Singapore is experiencing a mini book. “Kendamas are the latest schoolyard craze,” boldly declared The Sacremento Bee in 2013. It quotes a local store that has seen the demand for kendama swell since the 2012 holiday season. It was selling 200 kendamas a week at the time the article was written.
In 2014 The Japan Times also reported on the new popularity of kendama at home and abroad.
“Definitely, people who had never been associated with kendama, especially young people (in their 20s and 30s), have become hooked for a year or two, with fans forming kendama-playing groups across the nation,” says Tamotsu Kubota, head of the Global Kendamas Network, or Gloken, which promotes the game.
Kubota says kendama used to be enjoyed mainly by Japanese children and grandparents, while people outside of those age groups considered it “old and uncool.”
“Kendama can be enjoyed by anybody, regardless of age, gender and nationality. But preconceived notions discouraged people from enjoying kendama,” he says.
Interestingly, the current boom was spawned by new kendama tricks developed overseas.
“Many people began to rediscover the appeal of kendama after watching videos uploaded online from the United States, which introduced impressive tricks,” notes Kubota, 32, who has been playing the game for about 14 years.
He says Americans who saw kendama toys in Japan took them home, practiced with them and eventually developed original tricks. This trend started around 2007, Kubota estimates.
This is called gyaku-unyuu in Japanese — a “reverse import” — when something “native” gets taken and received overseas, and then makes a comeback at home.
In particular, with kendama is was international players and their freestyle tricks that sparked a Japanese surge. Once the preserve of specialists, kendama is back in parks and streets, and is apparently a frequently sight in Harajuku.
There have since been many new types of kendama released in special designs. The first Kendama World Cup was also held in Japan in 2014.
The rainy season is upon us: get ready for several weeks of rain around Japan.
Any visit to a major store in Tokyo will mean you are confronted with a mountain of products designed to help you combat the wet time of the year. From umbrellas to raincoats, boots and towels, there is no end to “rainy season” merchandise.
Here is our pick of some the most interesting umbrellas in Japan.
Designed by Hiroshi Kajimoto for +d/H-concept, the UnBrella Upside Down Umbrella is awesome as it name sounds. No one will forget you in the rain when you unleash this umbrella! It works brilliantly and is super easy to open up and protect you from the elements.
It can stand up on its own, ideal for when you have nowhere to prop your umbrella up against. It will also keep the wet part of the umbrella inside once you’ve closed it, meaning things don’t get dripped on when you put it away after coming indoors. Instead, the water runs off while enclosed by the folds of the canopy.
Made with special water-repellant coating technology by Komatsu Seiren, the unnurella (literally, the “un-wet umbrella”) by WPC and Kazuya Koike of Doogdesign can just be shaken once and the rain droplets will be all gone. Your umbrella will now feel dry and you can take it around without fear of getting your clothes or other people wet when you ride public transport.
One of the funnest and most eye-catching entries on this list, the Vegetabrella Lettuce Umbrella looks like a romaine lettuce head.
Japan is famous for its “fake food” restaurant displays and having a general obsession with cuisine. Perhaps it’s only natural that Yurie Mano (h concept) came up with a salad-like way to keep off the rain. Folded up and wrapped in its cover, this parasol could easily be taken for a romaine lettuce. Opened up, it protects you from the elements as well as shows the world you like your greens!
The Nippon-Ichi Fujisan Umbrella is a tribute to one of the most instantly recognizable symbols in the land of the rising sun. The design on the canopy forms the famous snow-capped Fuji shape as seen from above but (and here’s the really cool thing), it’s made up of mini triangular Mt Fujis too! The name in Japanese is also a clever pun, meaning both “Mt Fuji” and “Fuji umbrella”.
A really self-indulgent choice this one but we love it. The Shippo Tail Umbrella by MicroWorks truly makes rainy days fun. The umbrella canopy is tied up with the tail of an animal, who then accompanies you around as you ward off nature’s elements. Made using leftover materials, these colorful umbrellas are environmentally friendly too. There are several different colors and three animals: monkey, cat or momonga – the Japanese dwarf flying squirrel.
So now you know how to stay dry in style, folks!
We were already amused and surprised when Bandai celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Tamashii die-cast metal model series Chogokin (“super alloy”) last year with some spectacular tie-ups like Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun, Hello Kitty, and even Doraemon.
But even those did not prepare us for this: the Chogokin Miracle Henkei Hatsune Miku Rody.
It takes the Vocaloid idol and combines her with the rocking horse toy Rody. Yes, this truly is a “miracle tranformation” (henkei).
Hatsune Miku literally comes out of Rody’s body. This is one toy: Rody becomes Hatsune Miku and vice versa.
The virtual music idol has a keyboard and stand to play, while Rody has been reimagined in Miku-esque colors.
Miku even comes with an extra face so you can change her expression and her trademark Japanese leeks (also called spring onions) that she can hold like wands (these items have been part of a Miku “item war” for a few years).
Witness the transformation here.
As usual with these high-profile “collaboration” Chogokin releases, there’s a long wait between the product announcement and becoming available to buy. It’s currently scheduled to go on sale from November, so be patient.
The Bridge has shared a story about Tokyo-based Anicall developing a wearable device for pets called Shiraseru Am. Literally meaning “notifier”, Shiraseru Am is currently on pre-order via a crowdfunding campaign on the Makuake Japanese platform.
Anicall hope to raise ¥500,000 (around $4,000) by the end of July.
Shiraseru Am informs users of the behavior, feelings, and health status of pets. Integrated with a smartphone app, it will keep pet owners updated on how a pet spends its day at home while the owner is away.
The device stores a pet’s behavioral data in the cloud and lets an owner understand its behavioral patterns via artificial intelligence-based technology. Prior to shipping, Anicall’s team members have been studying cats and dogs to verify behavioral data, while the company’s neuroethologic scientists are conducting behavioral analyses.
We have seen many wearable devices for pets – but Anicall is outstanding because it allows the acquiring of data and verifying of behavioral patterns as a one-stop solution consisting of a mobile app and a wearable device.
Ostensibly aimed at dog-owners, Shiraseru Am uses sensors to monitor the pet and Bluetooth to communicate with the human’s phone. The app then analyzes calorie intake, emotional status, and health.
Mobile integration with many of these trends has never been lacking. We’ve seen several apps and products in the past that work with phones and apps, in much the same way as other health and lifestyle-tracking for humans. Perhaps the most unusual of these was the Bowlingual dog “voice translator” device that was both a standalone toy and an iPhone app.
Bandai Namco has announced it is offering individual customers a chance to their hands on their own Star Wars arcade machine!
Yes, if you’re a real Star Wars fan you will definitely want to step inside the Star Wars Battle Pod, a fully immersive arcade game machine.
There’s only one snag: it will cost you ¥4,560,000, roughly $37,000.
According to Kotaku, there is also a “premium edition” version that is even more: ¥12,000,000, or nearly $100,000!
The designs—a Rebel pilot’s helmet and Darth Vader—are unique to the premium versions. The pod’s movable seats are covered with real leather, the cabinet has exclusive carpeting, and the machine comes with a specially bound owner’s manual.
Each cabinet is numbered and emblazoned with the owner’s name on a plaque. And in the game, the owner’s name appears in the credit scroll. And so, a hundred grand price tag.
However, the Bandai Namco website says that currently there are no plans to sell the premium edition.
Orders are only being taken domestically for the regular Star Wars Battle from June 18th.
In the words of the official website:
Star Wars™: Battle Pod™ is a experiential arcade game that features a dome-shaped screen, transporting players into heated battles in a galaxy far, far away. In iconic locations like the Death Star, players will be able to take control of some of the most memorable vehicles and morments in the Star Wars universe and pilot them to victory.
The new interactive arcade shooter by Lucasfilm, Disney Interactive, and Bandai Namco has multiple games and locations, including Hoth, Yavin, Endor and the Death Star.
If you can’t afford your own Star Wars Battle Pod, you can check for arcade locations in America, the UK and Japan. There are currently two machines in Tokyo.
The Japan market frequently has exclusive tie-in merchandise that no one else gets.
The latest example is the Star Wars Interactive Bluetooth Snow Globe, which syncs with your smart device to create a “powder snow dance” effect in time with your music.
Past products include a holographic R2-D2 Original Sound Virtual Keyboard, the bestselling Star Wars English-Japanese Dictionary for Padawan Learners, the R2-D2 Talking Fridge Gadget, and the Star Wars Nestle Gold Blend Coffee Machine.
Star Wars is huge in Japan at the moment, including a massive exhibition in Roppongi.
Oh, and of course there’s a certain small movie getting released this December. We can’t wait to see what tie-ins that brings!
Japan’s pet trends are never anything but surprising. Sometimes they are a bit silly, sometimes they are incredibly innovative. Sometimes they are just plain indefinable, such as the Oppo Dog Muzzle Quack, which went viral a couple of years ago.
The latest to get a lot of attention, online at least, is the Mewgaroo Hoodie Pet Pouch Sweatshirt. This is a special item of clothing designed by Unihabitat to include a “cuddle pocket” so your cat will always be near, whether you are watching TV, working, or just relaxing at home.
Even better, the medium-sized version has nekomimi (cat ears) so you can really make your feline friend feel at home with some cosplay.
There are also cat paw markings on the sleeves and dangling balls for the cat to play with while nestling up to you in the pocket.
Don’t worry, if you’re a dog lover, small pooches should also fit in the Mewgaroo too.
The good news is that the waiting is over: after some days of frantic online buzz while it was still only on preorder, the Mewgaroo is now available for overseas orders.
The hoodie comes in two sizes and in a gray color — bizarrely the color choice is claimed by Unihabitat to be motivated by the color that “best suits” Japanese skin. We think that’s bosh but anyway, the Mewgaroo looks great.
Due to high demand, stock is limited so be sure to order your Mewgaroo as soon as you can.
It’s practical too: the pet pocket lining can be removed for ease of cleaning, since it’s going to get a lot of hair in there.
Unihabitat is a newcomer to the scene but has already established themselves very firmly with a series of bold and fun pet accessories: there’s the Katatsu Mobile Kotatsu Cat Table, the Hot Dog Canine Clothes, and the Extreme Cat Tunnel, to name just some.