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.

Day 1

Following a mostly uneventful flight from PEK to NRT involving me having to live-demo Seg-thingie to a group of curious Japanese Customs officers, Cynthia and I met a friend of my aunt who I had been introduced to a week before, who (somehow) in the intervening week created a veritable textbook of how to get around Tokyo and including a Suica transit card for each of us and everything. This, coupled with the several pages of info compiled by Tomo, one of the Japanese How to Make (a mess out of) Almost Anything students this semester when I casually asked what he recommended visiting in Tokyo, confirms my long-held belief that the Japanese go full ham at everything they do.

Here, Cynthia receives training from said aunt’s friend before we leave the airport.

Despite these briefings, however, we were still not very prepared for things like this when it finally hit us:

Guys, that’s not a subway map. That’s modern art. You can’t fool me that easily.

An hour and a half of hauling seg-thing-laden luggage through train stations and several transfers later, we made it to the airBnB apartment I had booked a few days before. This was my first ever time trying airBnB, as I neither trust the cloud nor crowdsourcing, but I figured that because it was Japan, I couldn’t possible die that badly and if I did, it would be polite and clean. I’m glad to say it worked out well.

However, it is a patently bad idea to drag more than 66% of your bodyweight in luggage on the trains, because not all the stations are accessible and some escalator passages confusingly end in a very short flight of stairs, meaning I had to disassemble a gym bag and seg-filled suitcase assembly and individually truck each up the stairs. Nearing the end, I stopped caring and just brute force towed the whole mess together, resulting in one of the suitcase wheels breaking off. A luggage delivery service from the airport would be a better option in the future. I didn’t believe it, but now I do.

Our space was a full apartment (read: room and a half) on the 5th floor of this swanky new-ish building. It offered a pretty good view of the neighborhood, and there were 2 24-hour convenience stores close by – which would save our asses countless times. The location was in Nishi-Shinjuku, a few blocks west of the skyscraper cluster, and about a minute’s walk from the Oedo subway line. Being a (curiously incompletely) loop, it hit just about every destination or transfer thereto we could care about.

Now, this is a photo from the morning after we got in, since we pretty much died as soon as we got into the place.

On the books for Monday was a visit to the school of engineering of the University of Tokyo. I’d be meeting up with Yoshi, a friend of Tomo and also getting to meet Professor Niiyama, who worked at the MIT Media Lab for a while and would be showing what interesting things they were up to. Yoshi also arranged for a whirlwind tour of Akihabara’s back streets and a visit to a new gargantuan makerspace initiative nearby, DMM.Make. All basically by surprise.

Like I said: Full. Ham.

The University of Tokyo is like the combination MIT and Harvard of Japan, if we were, in turn, the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell of a Western liberal arts and sciences education. It’s very tough to get into, and highly regarded worldwide. Like how we have the Great Dome, they have the Sweet-Ass Gate (not actual name). We met up with Yoshi outside and went through a quick walking tour through the campus, which is very well tree-lined; I could tell it’s supposed to be pretty in the fall season, but we were here in the middle of the depressing winter, so everything was bare and destitute. No wonder everyone took off…

A listing of research going on in the engineering building. I’m looking for the “Department of Hardcore Sounding Engineering Names” – can someone tell me which floor they might be on?

Yoshi gave us a demo of a new silver nanoparticle based conductive ink they’re working on, which already has been commercialized through the company AgIC.

This material is supposedly more uniform, conductive, and flexible than current conductive inks, and can be fed to inkjet printers to make printable circuits. It works best on a specially coated paper they sell, but glossy photo paper works for demos and most general usage too.

Apparently it does solder, but the heat of course damages the paper substrate causing detachment and also renders the area inflexible. As a result, their preferred attachment method for components is silver conductive epoxy.

The next stop was Professor Niiyama’s office, whose research focuses on soft-bodied robots. They’re working on a flexible membrane actuator that can be quickly made from plastic film, which changes shape when inflated. Some demo objects included this self-flapping origami crane powered by a syringe, and a few other models like hands and robotic grippers.

More soft-shelled robots in another lab. Guys, make this inflatable and we’ve basically got Baymax.

The skin on this robot is filled with hundreds of capacitative and resistive touch sensors. What I personally found interesting was that all of the joints are electric servomotors that were custom designed and fabricated, with built-in gearboxes and controllers. I spent quite a while just fondling the joints on this thing.

Right next to it was this humanoid robot that used pneumatics and McKibbens-style air muscles on all of the joints.

And finally, we have….

I called it “Creepy-bot 9000”.

It’s a miniature of the larger electric humanoid, but just more… creepy. Though to be honest, deep down, I too would love to shop for baby clothing and when asked about my child, respond that it is a robot that my lab built.

“My child has 8 daddies, 3 mommies, and 2 grandpas if you count the Bridgeport too.”

AgIC headquarters are down the street some in this very narrow building. It’s more functional than it looks from the front – each floor is a different startup, and the topmost floor is a lounge area. So this is how they do startup nests…

I saw some pretty cool stuff at AgIC and I think I’m going to try to link them up with MITERS to see what comes about from the printable circuit technology. I’m going to refrain from posting publicly the internals of their office and stuff they’re working on, however – let me describe them respectively as “cozy” and “epic”.

Here’s a McDonalds counter. No room for dining here – it’s literally just a takeout counter.

From here, we hailed a cab to Akihabara….

We landed a bit short of the “main street” seen in postcards and splash images, Chūō-dōri, which comes from an ancient name for the area that dates from the Edo period and just means “main street”.

Yoshi (with Prof. Niiyama also coming along, since it’s the holiday season, and he also doesn’t come here often) gave us the runaround of the various small electronics shops that still populate the area. The further from the main street you get, the less people might speak or understand English, but I found this area more honest and tolerable than the tourist-oriented main road which is flock after flock of dazed European and American tourists and hawkers on loudspeakers yelling in your face, making it hard to distinguish from Harvard Square.

Just one of dozens of small electronics and electrical widget vendors lining the surrounding 2 or 3 blocks.

Another small side street scene…

A bigger store with some familiar names just inside, like Arduino accessories, Raspberry Pis, and even the new Intel Edison boards.

The single brightest store I’ve ever taken a picture of. It was broad daylight outside, and this was so bright it caused my camera to max out its shutter speed. LEDS!!!!!

One of several maid cafes! Unfortunately, I somehow did not find time during this trip to patronize one. Next time!

Not all places were foreigner, or even visitor friendly, however. This shop, for example, most definitely does not want your filthy gaijin money. I snuck a shot before the shopkeeper cut me down with one of said swords.

On the way to DMM.Make, here’s a street scene. It looks a bit bland during a cloudy day…

Down the other way, facing north. I didn’t mean to, but a distant cousin of Mikuvan is smack in the center of the picture.

A few blocks away lies the Akihabara branch of DMM.Make, on the 10-12th floors of a clean office tower. That sounds like a big money place to put a makerspace, right? Usually in the U.S. and most other parts of the world, maker/hackerspaces are found in dingy industrial zones or carved out of a residential area by sheer force of will and your weird friend who never stops collecting used microwaves.

Not this place. It is in fact funded by the adult entertainment industry, so right away you know that there is serious money involved. These are the same people who made the Internet popular and caused VHS to win over Betamax.

Let me explain this a little more. DMM is a company which specializes in the distribution of pr0n and pr0n-related products. They’ve recently been aiming to diversify out into things which are not pr0n-related, including the funding and development of mobile and browser games such as Kantai Collection (which is a series that pisses me off immensely for too-tangential reasons). And now they’re pouring money into the makerverse. I’m not on the ground in Japan to understand how much press or negative press it gets, but for sure in a western nation, if an adult entertainment company tried to do this, morality crusaders will be all over them in a heartbeat and the media probably wouldn’t ever stop pointing the fact out.

I have my own private conspiracy that they are really just securing the future of the adult entertainment industry because who else is more likely to invent real honest-to-Tennō sexbots than a cluster of Akihabara otaku? And when that happens, DMM will be right there waiting!

Enough hypothesizing about Playboy BunnyLabs (not to be confused with bunnie) and Maxim Makerspace, let’s go in.

We begin on the 10th floor, the “Base”. This is a coworking space and rentable small office space which is decorated vaguely in the fashion of an Old Western saloon or some kind of Old Western themed dive bar.

Yoshi tells me they actually went and dug out real American junk from real American junkyards to fashion these different bench legs. I don’t care if that was bullshit – the reproduction quality, if so, is enough that I’m satisfied.


This is the view from the 10th floor into Akihabara, facing a bit northwest, from one of the rentable office spaces. You can rent desks or whole offices for your startup or other hackable effort here.

One of the clusters of said desks.

Next, we moved to the 12th, floor, where they keep the juicy stuff.

Like this. What’s with Asian countries and labeling your secret rooms!?

The entrance to the fab shop…

We got this tour from someone who I can only describe as “DMM.Me” – plus or minus a few American pounds on my end, we both have the same stature, glasses, hairstyle, and taste in T-shirts, and I just need a shop apron to match. So this is my ro-bro right here.

Except his shop is way more awesome.

Seen above is the small manual machine section – a mill, a lathe behind that, and some presses, table saws, and the like in the distance.

Center work section, with…. are those…

…tiny 5 axis CNC machines? ;_;

This cost almost 350,000 dollars, according to DMM.Me.

One system that I really liked was their qualifications sheet that was attached to each machine. There are four icons possible on the sheet.

The first, S,  means supervision from a DMM.Make staff (like DMM.Me) is required.

The next one, the Yen symbol, means there is a cost associated that is billed to your membership account for consumables or machine time.

The third, R, means a reservation must be made in advance with the staff

The fourth, L, means a “license”, or special training, must be had before you can even do any of the above.

In a small research environment like the IDC, I do not need this kind of hardcore system, but I see this being very helpful in a large makerspace or MIT student shop. The systems in place at MIT right now are sort of disparate – either “no” or “lol k” is the general machine-use acknowledgement and permission structure, which I think does not scale effectively when a huge number of people with variable skillsets are working in the same environment.

Relatedly, S¥RL is a pretty badass DJ name.

Along the adjoining wall is an entire gallery of environmental testing equipment. This is serious production testing machinery here.

The machine on the very left (which is out of sight, but the control panel is visible) is a vibration tester meant for shipping/packaging, which can simulate anything from truck shipping jostling to the UPS guy punting your box across a lawn.

The huge purple box on the center-left is an environmental testing chamber that can hold different temperatures as well as humidities.

The white box is an ‘thermal shock chamber’ that can rapidly heat and cool whatever is inside from something ridiculous like -60C to +150C. If your product is susceptible to thermal stress damage, you’ll find it here.

The blue and white cabinet is an EMI testing machine – both your product’s susceptibility to EMI and capturing what it emits.

The big silver jug is an IPx8 tester – it will test how waterproof and dustproof your device is. It can be pressurized to simulate different depths of submersion.

This whole wall is WAY over my head – I’ve never built and shipped anything that’s remotely product-like which has passed any one of these tests. The thermal shock testing for RageBridge was turning it on and seeing if it worked after I was done soldering it!

It was here which I learned that DMM.Make isn’t catered exclusively to the individual maker – companies can also rent space and machine time to do product testing which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. I had to ask who they expected to use this equipment in the context of individual makers and hobbyists. This is, in a way, the next level up from a makerspace, a shop for established companies who are already shipping product, but that aren’t quite big enough to justify buying this equipment on their own. This is a novel concept I haven’t heard of up to this point, as most of the makerspaces in the U.S. which I’m familiar with tend to cater to individuals or very small companies/businesses.

In a back room, a few CAD workstations, some with attached Up printers for rapid-fire idea-shitting, live. The software of choice is Solidworks or CATIA – both Dassault products. Wait, you guys start new users on CATIA?!

Spreading out from the main hallway in another numbered room is a silkscreen printing workstation.

An entire room is dedicated to signals analysis. No, not just seeing if your Arduino PWM is working – multi GHz logic analyzers, scopes, and waveform generators live here. This is, once again, miles above my head. It was here where I finally met a piece of equipment that I have no clue what it was called, much less what I would use it for.

The way it was explained to me by DMM.Me (who doesn’t touch this part of the shop day to day) is that you can build from scratch, test, and produce modern cell phones and computing equipment using the EE lab.

Produce?? You mean they have a…

No, they have two.

These are production class pick and place machines that can handle 0201-size components. Another reel-cartridge-station-truck carrier-thing (This shit is so over my head I don’t even know what you call it in industry) lives by the wall.

At this point, once I walked in, I started mentally numbering off what other equipment they surely must have. For example…

…yes, of course they have an X-Ray tester for inspecting solder joints, for instance under large ball-grid array packages.  To its left was a professional hot-air BGA rework station looking a bit like these.

Behind the P&P machine is an oven to bake your cookies. Your delicious, delicious silicon and fusible metal alloy cookies.

Humph. Finally, something my size – their small hobbyist EE lab.

I quietly sulked.

On the way out, I just had to take a picture of this, since it was just so quintessentially Japanese.

We left DMM.Make, parted ways with Yoshi and Professor Niiyama, and I just sort of wandered around dazed for a short while, thinking over how hard I was just shop-smashed.

I only question the long term success of a space like this which has companies working alongside makers. DMM.Make is very new – it only opened a few months ago, and the membership is sparse but rising. The cost is rather expensive, but not outrageous, for the individual – $300 USD a month (30K yen and some) gets you basic access to the fab space, but of course there are some machines which need additional expense to use. There is often a tug of war between “nice things” and “accessible things” – the nicer the equipment, the less you want newbies breaking it. Perhaps their “S¥RL” system will help prevent this, if they don’t have a staff shortage so people can’t use stuff while they are not supervised. Maybe Japan really is the only place such a system can work and scale successfully.

In some ways, this is what makes me favor less-equipped but more accessible shops over the latest and greatest equipment with 4 people who ever use them. But this is just the academic model that I have to deal with at MIT, having run MITERS at the extreme other end of the grandeur scale which, so far to me, is terminated in the ionosphere with DMM.Make. With massive capital infusion to the level where your space doesn’t have to concern itself with the cost of upkeep, paying staff, and rent, perhaps it becomes moot. Everything becomes moot at that point. I can surely, with enough money, start DMM.Make on Mega-Chuckranoplan, and have a flying makerspace.

Again, like many things, I want to come back after A While and see how things are again.

But enough shop philosophy. By this time, night was falling on Akihabara, and the whole damn place was lighting up:

Hello, postcard!

How much do you guys spend on lighting each year?

I wandered into a few claw machine game shops to see if there were Miku plushies to be had. Claw machines are very specifically engineered to cause you to keep playing until you’ve spent roughly the retail value of the item anyway before they pay out, if at all. The claws are purposefully very weak, so you’re entirely reliant on maneuvering the item from slight bumps and nudges.

I won Miku-bunny after carefully tipping it over and rolling it into the payout box, somehow only spending about $8 (100 yen per try, 8 tries) in the process. The blue miku-bunny proved to be too top-heavy to maneuver in the same way, and I cut my losses.

The rest of the claw machines handily banded together to make sure I never won anything else that night.

If you look carefully, the rails on this machine are actually coated in a soft rubber tube, ensuring the package does not merely slip out. The machines are also designed such that you cannot use the claw as a wrecking ball – they move very slowly and out of the way, only allowing Z-motion when you hit the drop button.

Shinjuku station at night. We bailed out here and walked the < 1 kilometer back home to take in some more city sights, somehow missing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in the process. Maybe because it’s too serious to be covered in character billboards and lit up like J-Vegas, so I didn’t see it.

Day 2: Comiket 87


Short for Comic Market, it’s the largest gathering of doujin publishers and artists in the world.

What doujin is to an uninitiated Westerner, I am not quite sure how to describe. The best way is probably Internet fanfiction taken seriously to the next level, if actual magazines, books, and music were made featuring your favorite series, by fans, for other fans, all under the slightly awkward shuffling gaze of the copyright-owning company. Perhaps the Artist Alley at a convention grown to Godzilla-proportions.

In Japan, at least, most of the big media production companies allow and even encourage this sort of activity, as it boosts the popularity of the series, even though it’s technically copyright violation. I’m not in deep enough to know if there are actual laws governing doujin and copyright, nor am I in tune with any similar phenomenon in the U.S. and Europe, which I am sure must exist.

It’s also well over half a million people in total attendance through the 3 day event. We in the U.S. get super excited if our conventions hit 50,000 people over the weekend.

In many ways, Comiket is like the end boss of fandom, and I’m about to wander into the battlefield with a broken twig and a Miku-bunny plushie.

To reach the destination, we took the Oedo line into the waterfront area and transferred to a private waterfront train service called the Yurikamome (which I kept calling “Yume wo Katare“). This line makes a loop under the Rainbow Bridge before crossing it on the lower level, so all pictures from here on of the ride just failed miserably.

The Tokyo Big Sight, a.k.a the “Wait, we read these plans upside-down… shit” Building.

On the Yume wo Katare line, the “Kokusaitenjijoseimon” or “The longest possible way to say Front Door” station is the quickest walk. The Yurikamome line is expensive, however, but not much worse than the other option (Rinkai line)

A few meet-up sculptures. “Meet by the giant-ass saw” is probably the most positive way of finding your party… unless everyone else happens to also meet up there. In that case, ditch to the pile of cubic rocks!

Too bad it wasn’t a Big Blue Saw instead.

A portion of the people-ocean… and this isn’t even remotely bad. There’s at least open space here, unlike this example photo. We purposefully went almost after noon, on the last day, so the crowds were only a little thinner. Once we got inside though, it was people everywhere.

But first, a quick trip through cosplay row. I can’t even begin to compare with the obsessiveness of some photographers, so feel free to look up your own Comiket 87 albums. All I ended up doing is a few mostly overview shots.

People actually do form lines to take photos; or, if you’re fine with the current pose the character’s striking, you can join the lead photographer and form a cloud instead! The lines can get ridiculous for more popular cosplayers, so much that they block traffic.

Lots of these cosplayers have signs or tattoos with their Twitter and other social media usernames.

Looking away from the venue at a different corner of cosplay row…

I would at this point add photos of the inside, because it has to  be seen to be believed. However, photography is strictly forbidden inside due to the aforementioned traffic-blocking problems, and artists being collectively sensitive about their works being photographed. To not use up too much of my Gaijin Smash allowance, I kept the camera down.

There are many, many “guides to surviving Comiket” that you can read through if you ever want to attend. I went through almost all of them since I like pre-strategizing. The one I found most helpful was this one.

So all you get is a photo of the outbound tide of the people-ocean.

Comiket is really a get-in and get-out event. I think it’s above the Monkey Threshold of a navigable event – you have to be into something hard enough to get there, find it, and leave. Cynthia and I had no agenda, so we started browsing. Somewhat bad mistake – By the end of 4 hours, we’d gotten through about 25% of one hall out of four: East 1-3, East 4-6, West 1-2, and the Company booths. So that’s 1/16 of day 3? Wait, the East and West hall booths change hands each and every single day – that’s how many doujin circles sign up for this thing. So now, I’m down to less than 1/40 of the event…

Like I said, I am still entirely convinced the Japanese never half-ass anything, they only go full-ass. Some times literally, but with pixelization where needed to not fall on the wrong side of obscenity laws.

Hitting the Yumekamehameha line on the way home, I caught this very improbably photo of a sunset exactly tangential to this building, exactly while the train window was between two bridge trusses of the elevated line. So there, at least I have something to be proud of today.

> goes all the way to Japan and attends Comiket

> just buys furniture

Success! I bought this Miku miniature folding table as my first and only random purchase. It’s about big enough to put my laptop on, and for me to fit under after doing so. I believe this is why it was invented.

The real haul for me, though was CDs.

Let’s be clear here – I never CD now. I haven’t CD’d for years. But it is still common practice in Japan for music to be released on CD, and the doujin artists are no exception.

The observant will notice that practically all Vocaloid music is community-created, which means it’s basically entirely doujin. I was pleasantly surprised to see artists whose songs I had jinked on Youtube in attendance. As a result, those that I was able to meet in person or at least see their albums for sale, I cleaned house and got one of each. Like buying real CDs back in the day, there might have been exactly 1 song I cared about, but at an event like this, it’s more the symbolism that counts.

Cynthia purchased a dazzling array of artbooks and doujin manga, many for her own reference. It’s like how I hoard McMaster catalogs and photos of vans and ekranoplans.

By this point, we were clearly beginning to accept that we’d only be able to do 1 thing per day due to the amount of travel, walking, and waiting in line everything involved. If there is anything the Japanese have gone beyond full ham, full ass, or any other metaphorical entirety, it’s being good at standing in line.

Day 3: Tokyo Skytree

At this point, it was New Year’s Eve, and heeding many stores’ year-end holiday notice signs, we decided to go do a Tourist Thing.

The Tokyo Skytree is a Really Tall Shiny Object with a very high observation deck, so we figured getting some good views of the city would be a fun distraction for the day. It was about 30-45 minutes subway ride away, like everything in Tokyo proper.


Here’s what it looks like when you pop out of the station and turn the corner. We took the Asakusa line to Oshiage station, though there are many other combinations.

This is when we realized the plan to visit this famous city destination at the eve of a new year was somewhat flawed. We got there at around noon and entered a queue to purchase tickets for the lower observation deck (the top was another $30 each, which we decided wasn’t worthwhile).

The queue ticket told us to come back at 6pm.

Oh boy… Time to go doodle the afternoon away.

On the way back to the subway station, we passed through this gigantic digital mural in the shopping center and plaza at the bottom of the tower. This was cool – the whole wall, over 150 feet long, was a mural of the city as it might appear in some twisted version of Sim City. The three to five screens lining the center of each segment were animated – trains, cars, people, everything.  This is the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba – incidentally where we had come from yesterday. Tokyo Big Sight is a small icon at the bottom edge here.

Continuing clockwise from that….

Akihabara is represented as, of course, a network of electrical components and glowy lights, fully animated.

Speaking of which, that’s where we ended up doodling all afternoon, visiting more figure shops and department stores. We visited Don Quijote, a huge multi-floor discount and variety store, the (big) Animate store, the Kotobukiya, Melonbooks, and a handful of other large hobby stores. Still somehow didn’t go into a maid cafe.


Here, Cynthia is accosted by Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) cosplayers. I recommend SnK/AoT if you enjoy watching humans being eaten like biscuits and people flying for impossibly long stretches of time while in deep angsty philosophical conversation. Sorry, Paige.

I really wanted to stop by the Akihabara UDX parking garage, which is so much of a local itasha nest it needs its own blog. Sadly, there was nothing planned for New Year’s, and the action happens mostly on the weekends, which I was not going to stay long enough for. Next time… Chibi-Mikuvan will be there.

Alright, it’s almost 5pm. This means time to book it back to the ‘tree, lest we get caught last in line for showing up on time.

It does look better at night, yes.

The line was roughly 1 hour to get into the elevator queueing line which was roughly another 40 minutes as 2 of the elevators stopped working and had to rebooted or re-zeroed or something. But the end results were worth it.


I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I had to make do with the railings or shoving the lens against the glass to stabilize it. It worked okay, and I do not profess to being a photographer in any sense.


The tall buildings of Minato with Tokyo Tower sticking up to the left. Those buildings being almost as tall as Tokyo Tower was why they built the ‘tree.

Another tall building cluster, this one of Shinjuku. Hey, I think I can see our place from here!

Alright, enough tall things and couples blocking the way to take selfies literally everywhere. All the restaurants are closing for New Year’s Eve, and we’re hungry. What to do?

New Year’s 2015 Dinner, brought to you by Your Convenience Store, Family Mart. In all honesty, this was spectacular for convenience store grab-and-go food. 7-Eleven in Cambridge, you need to go way harder now to get my attention back.

Day 4: The Meiji Shrine, Harajuku

Merry 2015. I solemnly swear to be up to no good this year. All year.

The Meiji Shrine is one of the biggest shrine complexes in the Tokyo area, and relatively nearby. The day was chilly, and most stores and attractions we figured would still be closed, so why not do something cultural and laid back?

Hey, let’s go see the Meiji Shrine… on the same day that everyone tries to go repent for their sins and wish for good fortunes!


Oh, dear. The multi-folded line going into the park was the first sign that we went horribly wrong. This is the main entrance to the complex.

A large wall of sake barrels lines one part of the path. These are yearly offerings to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken for their badassery in conquering Proto-Godzilla and locking him forever in the magma chamber of Mt. Fuji, among other highlights such as initiating the Westernization and industrialization of Japan.

Please, please do not use me as an authority on Japanese history.

After about 45 minutes of… you guessed it, waiting in line, we reach the main temple complex.

I am positive that genuinely refreshing and heartfelt spiritual exercises happen here 364 out of 365 days of the year, but I am certain New Year’s Day is the odd one out. There’s so many people that police were everywhere busting out full crowd control – cones, barriers, megaphones, and mobile traffic signs. It really did sort of spoil the place a little, I think. A huge white tarp was set up in front of the traditional wooden offering box to catch people’s oshogatsu lucky coin throws.

I wonder how much money they collect on this day alone, and where it goes – I’m hoping to the upkeep of the shrine complex.

On the way out, I stopped by a snack stand and got some crepes, because nothing goes better with spiritual cleansing than a crepe filled with cheesecake, custard, chocolate, and whipped cream. My heart reported an abnormal high blood pressure excursion shortly thereafter, and I’ll have to visit an authorized dealer to get that code cleared.

After leaving the shrine, we busted across the street to Harajuku, walking east on Omotesando to check out the shopping scene there. It was very clear by this point that pretty much everything here was still open.

A SoftBank shop with a Pepper robot! To its right is a Nao robot, which now has my favorite robot derp face.

Nao is seen here very precisely and methodically breakdancing.

Pepper explains to Cynthia why being a Japanese robot is a miserable dead-end menial job with shitty pay and long hours that’s eventually just gonna get replaced by some robo…

…wait a minute.

Harajuku is known for being a fashion trend spawning ground, and Takeshita-Dori is probably the epicenter of that. I don’t even begin to fashion enough to understand “antenna shops” and related concepts, and figured I’d just Poorly-Dressed-Gaijin-Smash my way through here in my giant black cargo pants.

However, not even I could escape unscathed this time.

We stopped outside some kind of J-punk or visual kei oriented shop, and I could not resist this coat with some kind of miniaturized cathedral front gate latch system for buttons.  That sold me pretty quick, besides it actually being functionally warm and having pockets and the like. You know, standard coat stuff.

I’m not tall, pale, and lanky enough to pull off the Visual Kei look, but gate latches!

Have you ever wondered what a Pikachu slaughterhouse would look like?

A burger house advertising what I affectionately call “5S1Pburger” after the battery pack cell arrangement nomenclature. This is something I make on occasion from the McDonalds near MIT when I feel like my grease deficit is running too high – literally buying five (or more) dollar cheeseburgers, stacking them, and removing the intermediate bun layers. I was so curious about how the Japanese interpreted it that I had to try.

Result: I was actually not very satisfied. It was very soft and mushy for a burger – everything seemed to have less density than the American McDonalds kit version. I think it’s visually impressive to sell to a demographic which does not typically gorge themselves on hamburgers, but ha, I finally win at something! I can finally do the U.S. proud! We are still the undisputed leaders in obesity and diabetes!

5S1Pburger would, furthermore, exact its revenge the day after. I might have been better off actually committing seppuku instead of having it try.

Around the corner from Takeshita-Dori, I found an interesting tidbit of construction site wisdom.

Guys, I found what MIT has been missing all these years. We’ve been missing a stand. We have the Mind, and we have the Hand, but what good is it without a Stand to put it all on? Maybe I can waterjet one when I get home. Maybe we can scribble a little Latin label on the pedestal that says… standus.

After having enough of both burgers and fashion, we escaped one station northward back into Shinjuku.

Here’s another really good “Shiny Tokyo at Night” postcard, facing down Shinjuku-Dori. A brief excursion was made to the main store of Kinokuniya. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Kabuki-cho, being too tired by this point to care about those matters, and I was in no mood to accidentally Gaijin-Smash into a den of yakuza. NEXT TIME. 

Day 5: Tokyu Hands; The Escape

This will be an interesting Customs search for sure….

Before we left in the afternoon, we had to perform sanity checks on all luggage, or it’s off to Japan Post we go. My rolling suitcase was occupied solely by Seg-device and a half-dozen plushies I had won or bought over the course of the week. The CDs were packaged in a linear format and stuffed into the inter-Segway-plushie gap. Miku-table took up residence the front opening flap.

The last stop of this trip is the Tokyu Hands store back in Shinjuku – as you can clearly see by now, we were sick of taking the train for like 2 or 3 hours a day and just stuck it close to home for the last few hours.

Tokyu Hands is an interesting place. They quite possibly sell everything. I would say the closest thing in the U.S. is some kind of weird discount store like Big Lots mixed with a surplus junk dealer, a Bass Pro Shops, and a Michael’s, with some sprinkles of the local hardware store. All run by a train company. Seriously, I think I just about named every genre of store in that soup recipe. You just need to go to one to get what I mean.


Tempting? Yes. Space available in luggage? Sadly, not any more…

On the hardware and DIY level, we see some bins of discount outdoorsy oriented stuff, like pocket compasses and mult-tools and sketchy carabiners and… what the hell? Isn’t that what you use to tie battleships down in port?

Yup, on sale – 3300 yen. Not bad, but I do not have any battleships to moor right now.

In the “F Your Life” aisle…

Rather, it was the “Create Your Life” sign on one wall of the DIY floor. Yes, the DIY floor. I called it the “Home Depot Floor” because it was very much a compacted version of a Home Depot – not as many choices in brands, but more variety in small sizes and less in large sizes because Japan, and definitely enough to get things done. Their variety of plastics far outstrips anything I’ve seen here short of a dedicated plastics supply house. Principally sheets of ABS, acrylic, and PVC, there’s also PET film and sheets and HDPE mixed in, there’s also an aisle made entirely of small barstock and extruded shapes.

Cynthia is seen highly enthused about their selection of different aluminum shapes, probably for her next giga-scythe project.

The “really small and cute tools” aisle! You could make a tiny one-room makerspace out of everything here.

That’s the point, really. A significant part of the DIY floor is catered towards modelmakers and small craftsmen. The paint aisle, for instance, is mostly bottled, jarred, and canned artistic paint and model paint, not the fields of rattlecans often seen in U.S. hardware stores.

A chibi-chainsaw for pruning your bonsai trees?

Tokyu Corporation being a transit & rail conglomerate, an entire part of the store just straight up sells old bus parts and retired station signs. If only the station signs (lower right) weren’t so expensive ($50 each), I would probably have bought all of them and set them up in various places here to confuse people. On second thought, perhaps it is better that I could not afford many of them.

I ended up deciding against dropping $50 on such a novelty item – maybe later. The bus mirrors were even more tempting!

By the time we were done wandering through Tokyu Hands, our airport departure time was drawing near. So let’s grab lunch at the local Mexican place…

Local Mexican place, found. I can settle down in Tokyo now.

This place took itself much more seriously (because Japan) than the diner in Shenzhen, and I would say the quality is about 0.8 Beantowns, my standard unit for Mexican food deliciousness. A little bland for my tastes, but perhaps more than enough for the locals.

Time to ship out to Haneda Airport for the return flight!

For one last kick, and to dump the remaining money on our Suica, we took the Tokyo Monorail along the coastline to the airport. There wasn’t really a good place to take a picture on it, so here is some nondescript train photography.

The Tokaido Shinkansen pulling into town from some other far away land.

I got back into the U.S. Friday night, just before midnight Saturday, after a 4-hour layover in Toronto where the connecting flight to Boston changed gates no less than three times.  Sadly, I did not have to give a live demo of Seg-thingie to a U.S. border agent, not that I would have wanted to…

I’m sure I could say a lot about everything I learned or saw on this trip, and it was definitely eye-opening in many ways – not from just the makery perspective, but from my perspective as an outsider who doesn’t look like one in East Asia. It’s probably worth a dedicated blog post on its own, but in the mean time, I think I’ll slowly mull everything over. In particular, seeing three (of many) international maker scenes in Tokyo, Shenzhen, and Beijing, from the rag-tag (SZDIY) to the fancy (Beijing Makerspace) to the near-corporate (DMM.Make) was a refreshing look at the different ways maker-oriented collaboration integrates itself into its local context. I didn’t find anything particularly life changing, but I think the experiences will be mixed into future decisions I make regarding where I want to end up. By which I mean, 2.00gokart in Tokyo some time?

On deck now for January is return to my (comparatively sad u.u) shop, where MASLAB has been invited back to party and several IAP classes are being run as part of a new MIT-SUTD winter program. There will be 20 or so Singaporean students working in the space, but none are my students directly. Hah, I get to watch you tropical islanders freeze. Also in the works is finally finishing (and posting about) Ragebridge 2, and the forthcoming revival of Candy Paint & Gold Teeth for Motorama 2015!

VANS!!! and other Interesting Vehicles

One thing which is noticeably missing from this novel so far is the part of the plot where Charles takes pictures of every single van he sees, because this is Japan. That is because it’s all concentrated right here, in its own section!

This is presented in rough chronological order, so it is actually well interspersed with the daily summaries up there. One cultural custom I tried to adhere to is the common practice of censoring license plates on cars in your photo. This seems to be done very consistently by the Japanese inter-car-webs, and since I am going up close and taking photos of people’s rides in great detail, I’m going to be respectful of it. It technically also applies to people you can clearly see in the near background of a photo, and you do see the treatment in many Internet galleries and blog posts, but it is not as consistent. Either way, enjoy your Windows Paint white boxes and scribble marks!

Without further ado…

Not quite a van, but oh maaaaah gaaaaaaaaaawd itasha are real. They weren’t something the Internet made up just to fuck with me!

I was so happy to see this guy that I may have accidentally blocked traffic for a second.

More side detail.

A fairly vanilla (styled and colored!) Toyota Hiace in Akihabara. The previous generation of these were the subject of the glowworm-porcupine-starfish-Transformer mods that made them internet famous years ago.

A tastefully modified one across the street. Sadly, this one pulled out before I could zip across said street.

A more heavily modded Toyota Vellfire. Toyota, stuff this front end onto the Sienna and I’ll consider buying a new car made in this millennium.

Since you want to use every little bit of space the government-mandated size classes give you, so many Japanese kei cars and vans are more box-like than their American or European market counterparts. I find this much more appealing than bubbly UFOs, and I also think the styling of these JDM vans is more futuristic looking. Probably because they are also sharper/more angular.

Also, quad van pipes.

A small kei van in the evening at Akihabara. D’aaw.

You see older, exported models of these occasionally sold in the U.S. usually as utility vehicles, farm trucks, or other non-street-usage vehicles. They’re hideously expensive for being early to late 1990s models because they are expensive to ship overseas and then you have to sell at a markup to make them worthwhile. Sadly, they’ve been out of my reach as a result. But perhaps for the better, as if I had one of these, I would just drive literally everywhere.

The real big haul of this trip came as we were heading into Comiket and noticed a parking lot full of itasha at what I presume is an event parking location a few train stops away. Right afterwards, we headed back to this parking lot and hung around for a while – enough to escape the first massive crush of departing Comiketters.


I was sad (but accepting) of the fact that the glowworm-porcupine-starfish-Transformer vans are now out of style, and I didn’t see anything of the sort during the week (perhaps they’re too tall to fit under bridges and the like…), but there was this little thing. In fact, I’ve seen it on the Internet years before, as I found out going back through my old bookmark links!

That’s pretty crazy in retrospect.

A wild and domesticated specimen side by side?!

Anyways, there were many, many more itasha to be found, but to avoid too much redundancy I’m not going to post literally each one.

An old Honda Acty. It takes a lot more effort to keep old vehicles legally on the road in Japan than the U.S., so all of the classics here have very dedicated owners. As a result, they tended to be very clean. There was nothing I could really describe as a rolling heap, and I don’t think I ever saw anything worse than a small speck of rust on anything.

A tastefully modified Toyota Vellfire, which seems to be extremely popular with the weird van crowd.

A little pop-top camber made from a Suzuki Every. Most kei vans and former cab-over vans are now this short-nosed type called a “semi-front” design due to stricter crash safety laws. However, they are still mostly mid-engined.

I’m not sure how such a short hood makes it that much better, but I suppose something is better than nothing?!

Damn アメリカ人, always barging in and taking up more space!

Like how there exist weird people in the U.S. who fetishize Japanese cars, there are also conversely Japanese guys who are really into American cars. Like this:

This was spotted outside the monorail station on the way out of town. Japanese import laws make it way easier to go in that direction than the opposite – very few exceptions to the U.S. “25 year” law are made.

Anyways, back to Comiket…

Other means of transport are not spared the itai treatment. Hey, I could actually afford to do this…

Toyota Hiace mods have seemingly become less “Rolling Akihabara” and more refined and “VIP style” flavored in general. Maybe the latest generation is more difficult to replace body panels on, or maybe they just don’t look as good?

That was it for that parking lot. However, as we were heading back to the station, something caught me eye in an adjacent lot a few hundred feet away:


Yes, it is a van show! Still forming as I showed up, in fact.

This. I could have died here from an undetected brain aneurysm right this instant and I would have been very satisfied.

The primer and unfinished body job look is usually deliberate for some reason.



Cynthia and vans.

More were showing up as we headed back out…

Perhaps next time, I’ll come back at night or stay for the show, but this time, I just wanted to get home and fall over after a few hours of shoving through the Comiket people-ocean!

And a last one, on New Year’s Eve(ning) while we were in Akibahara waiting for our Skytree queue, an ita-kei truck.

Sadly, I was unable to run into Actual Mikuvan Guy, who attends the UDX Parking Garage shows. Again, maybe for the better, since I do not have a hypothetical upper bound on how much I would have fanboyed.

And now I have seen what I must aspire to…

2 thoughts on “Big Chuck’s Japan-o-rama 2014: Tokyo, Akihabara, Robots, and Vans”

  1. That is a LOT of vans. For some reason I didn’t expect them to be that common, given space. Did you happen to notice if any were electric? Need Leaf Batteries…. (see web site link for why… 500W/h at $130).

    As a tool maker, I now have to try and DIY a benchtop 5 axis mill.

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