Holiday Gift Guide 2010: Made in Japan

Holiday Gift Guide 2010: Made in Japan


The holidays are upon us, so here are a few gift ideas for that special person who deserves something cool and interesting fit their unique personality. The Maker Shed is the exclusive US distributor of Gakken products, allowing shoppers to get high-quality kits from Japan without prohibitive overseas shipping costs. Gakken’s kits provide the perfect mix of DIY, science, and history for both young and old makers. Gakken’s popularity is certainly not limited to Japan, as their following has spawned tributes such as the Gakken Flickr pool where users are eager to show off what they’ve done with their kits. In addition to MAKE’s relationship with Gakken, MAKE has a Japanese version of the magazine and an active Japanese version of Make: Online. Make: Japan has also their own version of Maker Faire (the highly successful Make: Tokyo meetings).

For your gift-giving guidance, here are a few of my favorite Gakken items from Maker Shed, as well as a few other Japanese products I’ve found in my travels.


Gakken Mini Electric Guitar (MakerShed, $59.99)
Perhaps you’re not ready to try the full-on guitar kits sold in the Maker Shed? Looking for something with fewer strings, or maybe something that’ll fit in your backpack? Try out this little bad-boy. It comes with a built-in speaker for portable rocking, as well as a ¼” jack for taking it up to the next level. This guitar only has four strings, but it’s the four strings that you use to play the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” so that’s really all you need, no?

“Grab this sweet mini 4-string electric guitar before they are gone! Features a built-in amp and speaker so you can rock on the go, and a standard 1/4″ jack to plug in to a real amp and really get loud! Easy to assemble, fun to play! Tunes to ‘Don’t Go Below Eleven’ as Spinal Tap would say.”

Tenori Robit Paper Robot Kit (Gizmine, $17.99)
Transform two dimensions into three and make cute little guys in the process.

EX-150 Electronic Experimental Kit (MakerShed, $129.99)
A great way to experiment with electronic circuits while keeping things neat, solderless, and on a grid. Built tough with a classic, rugged design.

“Great for learning electronics and circuit design! The Gakken EX System is a series of educational electronics kits produced in the late 1970s. The kits use “denshi blocks” (also known as electronic blocks) to allow electronics experiments to be performed easily and safely. More than 25 years after its original release, one of the main kits from the series was reissued in Japan in 2002 and now you can get it here!”

Elekit’s My Solar Garden (Gizmine, $44.99)
Grow herbs and sprouts on your desk with this miniature garden. It includes a solar house that lights up on the inside via a battery that’s charged by the solar panel on its roof. Includes two pucks of expandable hardened soil and basil seeds, so you can get growing right away.

New Edison-Style Cup Phonograph Kit (MakerShed, $36.99)
This cup phonograph sits proudly on display in my home, and pretty much everyone who sees it wants to give it a try. This replica kit uses the same technology that Thomas Edison used, replacing Edison’s waxed pipe and stylus with a plastic cup and a needle, but the end results are the same: You record your own voice on a plastic cup — and play it back! Here’s how it works: your voice vibrates the air minutely when it gets into the horn. Then the vibration is conducted to the needle and is translated into a wavy movement of the needle and carves a groove onto the cup. When replaying, the reverse is true — the waves of the carved groove vibrate the needle and the vibration is conducted to the horn and the sound is produced from the horn.

Building the Gakken Cup Phonograph Kit

Here I am, really crooning away for the cup recorder:

This is certainly no MP3 player, but that’s precisely what is so great about it. This plastic cup recorder is sure to pique the interest of everyone who sees it, so you’d better be sure to have some extra cups on hand for demonstration purposes. It’s eerily low-fi and nostalgic — making your voice sound like it’s a hundred years old. You can hear and see the medium speak, and that is what makes this kit so much fun! Clear some space next to your music collection: You might never throw away a plastic cup again.

Gakken’s Mechanical Animal Kit Series.

These no-solder kits allow you create lively, squirming creatures that teach about mechanics as well as the elegance of the lifeforms they emulate. The Maker Shed carries the Mechamo Centipede Kit, the Mechamo Crab Kit, ($69.99) and the Mechamo Inchworm Kit ($69.99). See the links below for detailed builds of all three of these kits with video.


Read more:
Build articles: Gakken Mechamo Centipede, Mechamo Crab & Halloween Hack,Mechamo Crab.

Wooden Humidifier (Gizmine, $119.99)
Humidify naturally and fragrantly, all with no electricity. These thin sheets of cypress soak up and radiate moisture and look stunning. “The Mast humidifier is beautiful and unique, designed to remind you of a sailboat on the sea. Crafted individually from cypress wood, the sail radiates moisture as well as a sweet, natural aroma into the room.”


Karakuri Tea Serving Robot Kit (MakerShed: $74.99)
The Gakken Tea Serving Robot is designed to be a replica of the karakuri zui, an illustrated manual written in the Edo period (1603-1868). This mechanical doll has a tray that holds a cup of tea, and it’s designed to approach the guest with the tea, bow his head, and then carry the empty teacup away. Using only springs as power, the term “robot” might at first seem a little strange, as there is no electricity used to make this doll do what it does. Nevertheless, this doll has been called one of the original forms of the modern robot, in that it does follow (rudimentary) programmed instructions relating to variables such as if, then, and when. Check it out:

You don’t have to be thirsty for a small cup of tea to see the appeal. Making the karakuri gives you a chance to experience what it was like for innovators and dreamers before the flood of modern technology, to see the trouble they went to as they carved their “code” into pieces wood, metal and other materials instead of uploading it onto microcontrollers like many makers do now. The karakuri is, by definition, a robot, but it is a robot that uses no electricity, and instead of using code as its instructions, it uses a series of mechanical processes to react to its physical environment.

  • Enjoy the beauty of Japanese craftsmanship from days gone by.
  • The instructions (see the “How To” tab for PDF English instructions) were written by Hosokawa Hanzo, more popularly known as “Karakuri” Hanzo, who was an engineer of the Tosa domain.

More on building the Karakuri Robot here.


SX-150 Analog Synthesizer Kit ($54.95)
The kit that started a minor movement, this analog synth has inspired more customizations than probably any other kit in the Shed. This cool little kit is easy to put together, requires no soldering, and is easy to hack (see links below). This synth features a “wand” to vary the pitch, allowing for portamento-style bends and dips. It runs on 4 AA batteries (not included) so have some on hand and be ready to make some serious (or not-so-serious) noises.


  • Size: 4.5 x 6 inches
  • Controls for LFO, pitch envelope, frequency cutoff, resonance and attack/decay
  • Slide controller (pen type electrode)
  • Output and external input 1/8″ Jacks
  • Small built-in speaker

Related Make Blog Posts:
Review by Collin Cunningham
How to Control via MIDI


Gakken Mini-Theremin ($29.95)
Everybody loves a Theremin, especially a little one that you can put together yourself. The Theremin, invented in 1919 by Russian scientist Leon Theremin, is one of the world’s earliest fully electronic instruments, and is also unique in that it was the first musical instrument designed to be played without being touched (perfect for flu season). Eerie, other-worldly tones are created by the proximity of the player’s hands to the metal antennas, with the resulting radio frequency interference being transformed into musical tones.

Even cats love playing it:

Here’s the build video:

Japanese Candy Gift Set (Gizmine, $17.99-$79.99)
Enjoy the wonders and bold flavors of the Japanese candy world with this massive sampler. Yogurt-flavored gum, blueberry or green tea KitKat, “salt caramel cream inside a pretzel pocket,” you will be surprised over and over again with this sampler. Colorful, cutely-packaged candy that is sweet to your mouth as well as your eyes.


Cross Copter EX Kit (MakerShed, $37.99)
Did you know you can personally generate enough power to make a helicopter fly? You can, if the helicopter is the Cross Copter EX. This kit allows you to built a helicopter in several different flying configurations that is powered by a hand-held dynamo. This light, spritely helicopter will freely fly around the room as long as you are able to crank the generator.


4-Bit Microcomputer Kit (MakerShed, $39.99)
“Features a 20-key keypad, a single 7-segment LED, and seven individual LEDs, and comes with 7 bits of software built in: an organ (basic tone generator), sound hit game, whack-a-mole, tennis, timer, music player, and Morse code generator. It’s a fun, retro kit, just begging to be hacked!”

Poulsen’s Wire Recorder Kit (MakerShed, $39.99)
“Use a wire and the power of magnetism to record your own voice! Record and play back sound on almost any metal that can be magnetized — a wire, scissors, a knife, an escalator? Try it!”

Vacuum Tube Radio Kit V2.0 (MakerShed, $145.95)
Delve into tube circuitry without having to trouble yourself with digging up old vacuum tubes or braving life-threatening voltages (9-volt batteries to the rescue!) This kit enables the construction of a real, functional, vacuum-tube radio. Pair this with one of those cheap radio transmitters that you might use to hook your MP3 player to your car stereo, and you can bring this radio over to the dark side with fun, unintended consequences. Warning: You’ll need to have five 9V batteries and one “C” battery on hand to make this bad boy run.

  • Includes a pin straightener for the vacuum tubes, a testing microphone so you can make sure everything is hooked up correctly to produce sounds, rubber feet on the fiber board to minimize “howling,” a variable condenser to allow for finer tuning, a recreation of 60-year-old circuits, and a more powerful transformer for better volume and sound quality.

Bio: Mike Dixon divides his time between trying to finish his doctorate in Japanese pedagogy at Indiana University, working as a recording engineer, playing guitar and touring with a few bands, tweaking patches in PureData while wearing a WiiMote strapped to the top of his head, and making and breaking his own musical instruments and audio recording gear.

In the Maker Shed:


Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.

Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:

15 (Wed) – Postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – Ground shipping deadline
18 (Sat) – 3-day shipping deadline
20 (Mon) – 2-day shipping deadline
21 (Tue) – Overnight shipping deadline

*Orders placed after these dates using these shipping methods may arrive on time; however, the dates listed are what we consider likely “safe dates.”

United States Postal Service (USPS):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, please order by Dec 15 if you intend to select this method. However, we have had increased reports of packages sent via USPS lost or delayed in transit during this high-volume period. Since we do not replace or refund any order placed using this shipping method, we strongly encourage you not to use this method in December.

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