Big Chuck’s Japan-o-rama 2014: Tokyo, Akihabara, Robots, and Vans

Update! I’ve been notified that seg-thingie was featured as a new product at CES 2015 [1] [2] [3]. Hurray! But you saw it here first on Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse!

Continuing my tour of East Asia beginning with Shenzhen and stopping over in Beijing, Tokyo is the last stop on the way home. Originally, as I said, this trip was only going to be a Beijing stay, but I decided to take the opportunity of being in the neighborhood (for very, very broad definitions of neighborhood) to finally see the two places which I will allegedly never return from.

this is it

The place everyone and their thrice-removed Facebook friend has told me I have to go. The place I’ve been told is full of My People™ and that I will never want to leave. The origin country of Miku, vans, and mikuvans (and by extensions, Chibi-Mikuvans) alike.

Needless to say, I’m really hamming it up there for dramatic enhancement, but I was deep down quite excited about visiting Tokyo to get the ‘on the street’ story for myself, past the  “Weird Japan” websites and stories from friends. Not only that, but I tend to avoid tourist traps or the ‘usual stops’ on international trips – though there will still be some of it here because it’s friggin Tokyo – and try to get the story of the local maker scene and tour some of the industry instead. That’s just my personal preference, and I think reporting on what maker environs are like the world over will help us all gain some more appreciation of the unifying force that is making, hacking, & building.

I’m going to make no pretense of this report being some kind of review of or introduction to Japanese culture. It’s going to be shamelessly specialized towards maker folk with otaku tinges who are more into vans than they should be.  So perhaps, in a way, this is my own “Weird Japan” page that will join the ranks of others’ trip reports and photo albums on the matter, but hopefully with my own personal twist and much less hexadildopods (Don’t say I didn’t warn you…)

This is most definitely going to be another one of those ridiculously long posts that I will have to split into parts beforehand so it can be navigated. I have no less than 120 photos lined up for this page. That’s more than I typically take for an entire project build, spread over five days of running all Gaijin Smash like around the city.

  1. Day 1 (12/29): Visiting Tokyo University; a backstreet run around Akihabara; DMM.Make
  2. Day 2 (12/30): Comiket 87!
  3. Day 3 (12/31): Tokyo Sky Tree
  4. Day 4 (01/01): the Meiji Shrine; Harajuku
  5. Day 5 (01/02): Tokyu Hands
  6. Vans. Thousands of them.

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Big Chuck’s Chinapalooza 2014: Week 2, Beijing – Hardware on the Street, Beijing Makerspace; Resources Section Reshuffle

Giga-Totoro welcomes you to Beijing.

I’m actually writing this from back home – I landed back in town yesterday evening. My desperate attempts at keeping the site up to date with my travels was foiled by the complete sensory destruction that was Tokyo. This is going to be its own post, which might end up being its own book. See, I said I might have to write a book anyway.

(By the way, I’d like to give a shoutout to Ted Dilliard for writing up my three previous Shenzhen posts on InsideEVs. Go check it out – as usual, I welcome discussions and shenanigans in the comment box.)

Anyways, besides family business, I also took a journey around the maker scene of Beijing. I had contacted Beijing Makerspace about visiting. I also pinged Beijing Tiertime (makers of my favorite flavor of lollipop, as well as the Up 3d printer), but got rebuffed away with “We do not give factory tours”. Insiders, help me out here.

On my own, though, I visited the old ‘hardware streets’ I had first seen in 2005 when I was but a wee bunny. Back then, I went through the areas with a family friend since my Chinese ability at the time was around ‘zilch’. During that trip, and a following one in 2007, I took many photos (as I tend to do), but as I mentioned previously, these predate the current version of the site… and precisely captured snapshots of this site before summer 2007 and then after fall 2007. Oops. And I must have removed them from the Facenet since during those starving times, you could only have small albums of limited size, that didn’t even take 10 minutes to load page-by-page as you scroll! Now that my Chinese ability is around ‘one iota’, I wanted to go back to some of these places and see their current state.

So if you’re ever in Beijing and can 1. speak Chinese or grab a buddy who does, and 2. can stand the stench of cheap cigarette smoke, make sure to check out….

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Big Chuck’s Chinapalooza 2014: Day 5, A Visit to SZDIY

On Thursday, I finally had to stop freeloading off Amy Qian, and shifted over a subway stop to a less swanky hotel for the last two days. I decided to spend the day roaming the neighborhood and also just taking a break from the last four days of action. I did, however, establish contact with some folks at SZDIY, a makerspace in the western half of the city proper, so I planned on dropping by their weekly meeting on Thursday night.

The first matter of business was getting there. Like many places in Shenzhen (or China as a whole for that matter), it doesn’t have an “address” in the Western sense. Instead, once you get to the neighborhood, you start counting blocks and buildings. They’re located here:

Believe me, those  buildings were hard to tell apart in the dark, and none of the intermediate streets have names or numbers. I just told the taxi driver to drop me off right past the dumpling place on the corner and I’d figure it out. Fortunately, it didn’t take long before our mutual telephone hollering bore fruit.

The space is roughly the size of MITERS – about 1500-2000 square feet or thereabouts (what’s that in Cultural Revolution units?), and not packed. Electronics tools and some 3D printers run along one wall, and behind me is a microshop of sorts. About 10-15 members were present for their weekly ‘official’ meetup.

The ‘shop’ portion had some basic hand tools, a drill press, and a little CNC router. Enough to get stuff done, I suppose! On deck in the future they wanted a small lathe (I, of course, became a tinylathe salesman, even though I am not sure if that model in particular is even available domestically).

This pretty sweet analog-ish clock made with LED bars adorned one wall. I was immensely curious about that window – the space came that way, so naturally it had to be made the centerpiece of something…

A conference room with additional bench space budded off to one side.

I was apparently made the main attraction of the night, so I gave a very brief presentation/shit-shooting session about the stuff I’ve done and tried to answer questions. This was probably the most Chinglish I’ve ever spoken.

Luckily, the majority of the members had taken English classes in school (kind of like how U.S. students have de-facto taken some Spanish or German classes – you won’t be conversationally fluent, but you get the drift), and many technical words don’t have convenient Chinese equivalents, so I got by on live Google Translating, asking people what some specific term is, or just saying the English and hoping the meaning carried on through context.

I don’t think what I did even qualifies as code-switching. It’s more like crude duct-taping together of two languages, a translator, and wild flailing and gesturing.

Nevertheless, people found it very entertaining – robot fighting videos were a huge hit overall. As usual, I left some links and my contact info should anyone have questions.

On Friday, I was planning on returning to Huaqiangbei for a final sweep-through, but apparently the stir-fried rice enoodles I had from a local street corner eatery in the hotel area was just a little too hardcore, and I spent all of Friday out of commission. So sadly, my shopping adventures ended there. Maybe this actually saved me a substantial amount of money…

Come Saturday, it was time to hit the high-speed rail to Beijing. China’s HSR network is brand new, fraught with corruption charges, forced village demolition and evacuations and questionable workmanship, but they shipped it. It’s a network which is still being expanded.

That’s a CRH380A, and since I’m writing this, it did indeed get me to Beijing in 10 hours and didn’t fall off a bridge somewhere. The ride the whole way was very smooth and comfortable, and since the trip was during daytime, I not only got to see the city cores and suburbs the track viaducts passed through, but also a good look at the countryside.

Oh, by the way… On the way out to the train station, I passed through a mall which had these for sale.

Believe me, the urge to buy one on the spot and trade in my distressingly non-motorized luggage was strong.

I’ll likely not have that much to report in Beijing, but I will make sure to visit the neighborhoods which had strong hardware presence in 2007 to see if they are still around. Many have been the victim of urban core redevelopment in Beijing. I’m also trying to see if I can bust into Tiertime (makers of my favorite small 3D printer, the Up) and trying to poke my contacts in the engineering department of Tsinghua University.

Big Chuck’s Chinapalooza 2014: Shenzhen, Days 3 and 4 – Seeedstudio and the Silly Seg-Things Factory

Guys, I found the local Mexican place. I can officially just settle down here now.

It wasn’t bad – at LEAST Taco Bell grade (and I hold Taco Bell in moderate repute!) but like many Western food options, is much more expensive than a noodle shack – three tacos here cost me about as much (converted back to USD) as if I just hit up Beantown Taqueria back at base.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s adventures involved some sightseeing. Not the touristy kind (is there such a thing as ‘industrial tourism’?), but visiting the facilities of a well known maker-oriented company – Seeed Studio – as well as that of a small vehicle manufacturer. My favorite!

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Big Chuck’s Chinapalooza 2014: Shenzhen, Days 1 – 2, Electronics Markets and Mechanical Streets

I am just beginning to gather my senses from the past roughly 80 hours of sensory overload. In fact, I’m going to spend most of today writing this instead of going on more exploratory and scouting missions, because I can tell that if I let this keep going on, I’m going to have to write a book in one sitting (not that I haven’t before).

For some backstory, I was supposed to visit family in Beijing this month, but decided to take the opportunity of being in the neighborhood (i.e. the same continent) to visit one of the premier locations for manufacturing, hardware, and making – Shenzhen, in southern China. In 2 weeks, I’m also going to be in Tokyo for a few days, which is going to be its own entire set of shenanigans.

Shenzhen is the direct result of a central economic planning bureau deciding that they really liked this small nondescript fishing village and that it should become a world center of manufacturing and industry, so let’s throw money and power at it. It appears to have worked for the most part. For the actual story of SZ, there’s Wikipedia.

Inspired by posts like bunnie huang’s and many others detailing the electronics marketplaces in the city, I decided it was worth my while to check it all out in person. Interestingly enough, I have had past experience with visiting electronics/mechanical parts markets in China. In 2007, I was once again on a family visit, and I ran around a few of the neighborhoods with high concentrations of this kind of industry. Sadly, that was all on a previous version of the site which did not survive a server move a few years ago. Maybe I’ll put those pictures back up when I dig them out of my storage drives later.

Since my interests are primarily in the mechanical/fabrication side and overlapping into electric vehicles as well as pure electronics hardware (boards, fab, enclosures, packaging), one thing I’m trying to do is a bit of scouting for those who want to build more hardware. Needless to say, I’m a little weary of the term “hardware” being co-opted to basically mean stuffing a printed circuit board, but I understand that to what was mostly software people, that’s hardware. My hardware tends to weigh more and have higher tensile strengths.

What I’ve noticed in the past two days of shifting around the market crowds is that the infrastructure of both procurement and mentorship (the hardware startup accelerators, the makerspaces) is well-established for those making electronic hardware. Like in many parts of the world, I suspect the mechanical side is hidden away in dedicated industrial spaces, so part of my own mission in the short time I’m here is to scout those places out a little, and perhaps lay some groundwork for future explorers, a bit of a mechanopunk Roald Amundsen.

So we begin. I elected to not take my “big camera” for this trip, and instead rely on a Coolpad 7298D shanzhai phone that my partner in EV crime Adam brought back on his own trip to Shenzhen a few months ago. I call it “the cloud device”, and in general, besides the sheer Chineseness (Chinacity) and half-baked translations of the Android OS (a Coolpad company special, it seems), it is well-featured. What I haven’t quite gotten used to are the ideosyncrasies of the camera, so some of the photos are what I categorize as “eww” – that’s a photo industry technical term. But oh well..

To better split this post up into something readable, here are the current days selection:

1. Day 1 – Sunday, 12/14

2. Day 2 – Monday, 12/15

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