This week:
Women who make heart-shaped cucumbers, the hacks of Carioca, a QR code magazine, Japan’s world of competitive rubber band shooting, extreme styrofoam PC case mods, and the makeshift mobile restaurants of Japan.

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Heart-Shaped Cucumbers by the Heartstick Group
While many people may be familiar with the square melons of Japan, here are some heart-shaped cucumbers (well, the cucumbers themselves are not heart-shaped, but when you cut them into slices, they look like hearts). These cute cucumbers are made to be used in decorative bentos, fancy sushi, and other edible art applications, and are made by being placed inside heart-shaped plastic molds as they grow.

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These cucumbers are produced by the Heartstick Group, which is a collective run by nine women in Chiba, Japan. On their website (Japanese only), the makers of these heart-shaped cucumbers document the ups and downs of the trial and error process involved in developing their product, first attempting to grow the cucumbers in hard plastic molds (the molds broke as the cucumbers expanded inside them), then with aluminum mesh molds (the molds left a strange “chameleon-like” finish on the cucumber skin, and were only strong enough for a single use), and then finally achieving success with smoother clear plastic molds which they had specially made by a plastics manufacturing service.

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The three stages in the development of the heart cucumber mold.

The two sides of the mold are held together with a pin that is then removed when the cucumber is ready to be harvested. Doing a brisk business with the product development process now out of the way, it’s nice to see that the Heartstick Group seems genuinely thrilled at the fact that they have achieved their vision of offering the world a “cuter form of cucumber.” Via Trends in Japan.

Carioca’s Laboratory
The prolific Japanese blogger and hacker who goes by the name of “Carioca” makes all sorts of interesting hacks using commonly available commercial items. For example:

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An air freshener/night light out of an old can.

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A lid holder made out of a coat hanger.

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An automatic plant watering system (these seem to be all the rage these days!) This one is cleverly simple: an electric light timer turns on a DC wall wart that powers a gearbox motor that rotates, pushing a soap bottle-type pump that sends water through a tube into the planter.

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An automatic curtain opener.

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A waterproof shower radio.

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One of my favorites: A “dummy” car security system which is actually nothing more than a box with a few blinking lights, deterring would-be thieves with its authoritative blinking.

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Various battery hacks.

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There’s even tips for fixing those darn headphone cords that always break. If all of my headphones worked in both ears… I would have lots more working headphones.

This site is all in Japanese, but as usual, a picture speaks approximately one thousand words in the language of your choosing. Most of these hacks appear to be done mostly with common dollar store (er… 100 yen shop) purchases. Carioca also has a penchant for showcasing how to cook tasty cheap eats using minimal cooking equipment. Aside from the DIY projects, the content of of the Carioka blog seems to focus on frugal living, although sometimes anything goes, as there is a recurring fascination in documenting eggs with two yolks, Gakken kits, 100-yen shop finds, and whatever seems interesting that day.

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Tada Gets – QR Code Magazine
You’ve seen these 2d bar codes before, (even here on this very website, the contributors’ names over there on the right sidebar are done in QR code). In Japan there’s a magazine that is composed almost entirely of QR codes. Tada Gets (meaning “get for free” or “free stuff”) is a rag jam-packed with QR codes that correspond to free downloads for ringtones, games, pictures, and other cell phone goodies.

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Japan is arguably the most QR code-heavy nation in the world, with QR codes appearing on signs, buses, business cards, posters or anywhere else where you can stick a code, waiting to be snapped up with cell phone cameras that then connect to data networks to retrieve addresses, URLs, or other types of data. Originally developed for tracking parts in the automotive manufacturing industry, the QR (quick response) code was created by a Japanese company called Denso-Wave in 1994, and eventually found wider applicability with the all-important Japanese cell phone crowd. Judging by the magazine layout, Tada Gets seems to be aimed at high school girls (let’s face it, they’re Japan’s most influential demographic), but the existence of this magazine is proof that QR code technology is truly ubiquitous in Japan. Via Trends in Japan.

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Japan’s World of Competitive Rubber Band Shooting
+ Ogg Craft’s Gun Locker
Perhaps you saw the amazing wooden rubber band gun featured in Vol. 2 of Made in Japan when I wrote about the Tokyu Hands Grand Prix. That gun, as well as many others, is made by Ogawa-san of Ogg Craft, who also holds the distinction of being the #1 ranked rubber band shooter in Japan in 2002. The world of competitive rubber band shooting is new to me, but it seems to be a pretty serious thing in Japan, as evidenced by the homepage of the Japan Rubber Band Gun Shooting Association which contains some great instructions on how to make your own rubber band guns, such as a gun made out of chopsiticks, one made of out coat hanger wire, a gun made for accuracy in target shooting, etc. What’s great about this competition is that almost all of the competitors make their own guns, so in their gallery there are hundreds of pictures of the different gun designs that competitors use. The Association keeps meticulous tabs on the yearly rankings in three separate categories of rubber band gun shooting: Matchbox, Fly Shooting, and the Coin Pendulum. For a real taste of the serious nature of the Japanese competitive rubber band gun scene, you can check out Ogg Craft’s YouTube channel for some truly amazing rubber band gun videos. Wow… An attack with one of these rubber band weapons would certainly smart. OK, who wants to go to Japan with me to make a documentary about this?

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The PC Case Mods of Katsuya Matsumura
Taking the art of the PC case mod to the next level, Katsuya Matsumura’s styrofoam creations actually go beyond being simply cases for PCs because they are often quite large, rendering the computers that are housed inside them as almost secondary to the sometimes life-sized statues they become.

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Gruesome crime scene? No, just some PC case-modding…

What is equally amazing is to see the working conditions that Mr. Matsumura appears to be working in: like most people in Japan, he has no garage or dedicated workspace to do his crafts, and so with newspaper laid down over his tatami mats, he appears to be sculpting these elaborate creations in his living room. If you have a garage, be thankful! If not, don’t let that stop you!

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Yatai – Makeshift Mobile Restaurants
While Japan is a highly advanced technological country, the world of yatai (food carts) seems to recall a much more primitive time. Although the food served from these carts is often exquisite, the vibe of these carts is refreshingly Third World in comparison to the ultramodern style found in so much of urban Japan. When it comes to constructing a yatai, DIY still reigns supreme. These carts almost have to be strictly makeshift jobs, as they are ever-evolving mobile prototypes that are typically held together by amateur metalwork, wooden panels, plastic sheets, and plenty of rope for tying everything together once it’s time to close up shop. Yatai are traditionally built onto carts or small trucks that are set up along busy streets and then wheeled off at the end of the day (often times they pack up to be small enough to be pulled in tow on a bicycle).

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Who needs Starbucks when there’s a yatai nearby?

PingMag recently did a writeup on the yatai of Tokyo, and even interviewed a yatai street vendor about how he made his mobile restaurant rig. Thankfully, the scourge of the International Chain Restaurant Disease has had relatively little effect on Japan’s thriving independent restaurant scene, and appreciation for regional flavor and family recipes makes the yatai dining experience in particular is a real adventure in eating. These mobile tent/restaurants can be found all throughout Japan and typically serve Chinese-style dishes such as ramen and yakisoba, although yakiimo (baked sweet potato), takoyaki (squid dumplings), and other traditional Japanese snack foods can be found as well, especially at summer carnivals and other outdoor events. Although the idea of eating food under a blue tarp that was made at a ramshackle cart may seem a bit crude, it is not unusual to see everyone from sweaty construction workers to well-dressed businessman alike cued up in long lines down the street waiting to get a meal at a popular yatai that has earned a good reputation through the all-important word of mouth. It’s a heartwarming site, a small triumph for DIY and independent business.

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