Japan's Wacky Gadgets: 10 Affordable Options to Bring Home!

For decades, Japan has always had its fair share of quirky gadgets meant to help out consumers in their daily lives.  While always well-intentioned, they ranged from must-haves to "what the heck were they thinking?"  Case in point: the Sony Walkman was a Japanese invention and revolutionized mankind's relationship with music.  The products you see below?   They're something else altogether...
Photos courtesy of the following sites: Ameba.jp; Zakzak.co.jp & ne.jp/asahi/gomasio
On the far left were instruments meant to help people sleep on the train, but one looks like a strangling hazard and as for the other, who is going to carry a hard hat around if not going to a construction site?  

The tool in the middle is self-explanatory, but completely eliminates the need to slurp the noodles.  That alone would kill its chance of breaking into the Japanese market, but of course, being completely over-sized and looking ridiculous did this one in.

Finally, the product on the far right is one that came out in Japan when I was a child.  I guess the inventor and manufacturers assumed it would be considered less offensive to pick your teeth if you used a tool to cover your face.  Never mind that nothing could draw more attention to yourself at dinner than pulling out a fake hand and waving it around in front of your head.

The Japanese have created a term for these sort of wacky gadgets: Chindōgu.  The natural translation is "gadget," but the literal translation is "strange (or curious) tool."  While there are still plenty of crazy inventions like the ones above floating around Japan, this article is going to introduce you to ten modern chindōgu that are actually quite clever while also being affordable enough to bring home.  The basic criteria is that it has to be something that can be found either in any of the large electronics or department stores in Japan (Ito Yokado, K's Denki, Bic Camera, etc.) or on Amazon JP and it has to be small enough to fit into a suitcase.  

So without further ado...

1) Fingertip Mittens

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Cost: 276 yen
Description:  Have you ever tried to take a plate out of the microwave only to find that you have accidentally gone nuclear with your reheating?  These rubber fingertip mittens were designed to give you enough grip and thermal protection to be able to remove those pesky overheated plates and bowls from your microwave sans the fingerprint removal.

2) Spatula Tongs

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Cost: 980 yen
Description: Have you ever tried to pick up a hamburger with a spatula only to have it slide off?  Have you ever tried to pick up fish with tongs only to have it fall apart?  Well, apparently enough folks over here have had the problem that someone went out and invented these clever rubber spatula tongs.  It makes grilling fish a cinch, and you won’t ever have to be “that guy” who accidentally drops a burger at a barbeque.

3) Takoyaki Maker

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Cost: 1280
Description: Simply put, Takoyaki is octopus coated in dough and pan fried into a ball.  I know that many of you readers out there will balk at the notion of eating octopus, but it provides a nice textural contrast to the doughy shell.  For any who have tasted takoyaki before, you understand that why it is one of those quintessential Japanese street vendor foods that leaves you craving more.  But Takoyaki can be hard to find outside Japan, and it is near impossible to cook without the proper tools.
Fear not, Japan has you covered.  For just over 10 bucks, you can bring home this kitchen appliance that makes cooking takoyaki a cinch. Just be sure to pick up some of the takoyaki flour and sauces before you head home, and you’ll be ready to cook up some authentic takoyaki for your friends and family in no time.

4) Electric Nabe

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Cost: 2,980 yen
Description: It is sumo season again with the September Basho (tournament) in full swing.  Sumo tournaments always make me crave chanko nabe, a meal where you basically throw a bunch of meat, veggies, tofu, etc. into a pot, boil it up, and eat it with some sauce and rice.  This handy appliance gives you the opportunity to make your own chanko nabe at home with ease.  The fact that it is electric means it is a minimal fire hazard and makes it extremely versatile in where you can use it (at home, the office, a dorm room, etc.).  Of course, you don’t just have to use it for chanko nabe—it’s perfect for sukiyaki, shabu shabu, or any other type of meal you would cook and serve in an earthenware pot.

5) Sake warmer

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Cost: 3,980 yen
Description: This is one of the pricier options on this list, but for good reason.  Many people who enjoy sake (nihonshu) prefer it served warm, but there is both an art and science to heating sake.  Heat it too much, and you alter the flavor.  Don’t heat it enough, and it will just taste like you left it in a stuffy car.  Also, the utensil you use to heat it could affect the flavor based on any minerals or residue on a pot or other vessel you may use.  So what do you do?

Enter this sake warmer.  The earthenware kettle is designed to be a sake vessel, so you don’t have to worry about it inadvertently affecting the flavor.  Also, the device heat the sake to the perfect drinking temperature, so it takes all of the guesswork out of it. So if you really enjoy quality sake and prefer it served warm, do yourself a favor and get one of these.  It will make sure that the 50 dollar bottle of sake you picked up tastes as a 50 dollar bottle of sake should and can make a 5 dollar bottle of sake taste a lot more expensive than it really is!

5) Carton holders

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Cost: 475 yen
Description: When I first saw these things, I thought to myself, “What a ridiculous device?  Come on—how hard can it be to hold on to a carton?”  Then I remembered that I have kids.  Not only does something like this help them out immensely, it gives me the extra leverage to pour without spilling I need when I am on daddy duty juggling a toddler and a tot and trying to get everyone fed and hydrated.  Trust me when I say that these things are handier than you might think, and for just a shade under 5 bucks, they may earn their keep in no time based on the amount of milk, juice, etc. they prevent from being spilled!


6) Hair Dryer Holder

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Cost: 2,980  yen
Description: If you’re like me, you looked at this thing and thought, “Wait, why wouldn’t someone just hold the hair dryer,” and then you looked at the price and thought, “Wait, they’re asking how much for this?”  So here’s the thing, I don’t need a hair dryer--I’m at a point in life where I’d be too worried about it blowing all my hair away anyway.  But I do see why this thing can actually be pretty handy. First of all, it’s actually pretty sturdily constructed, meaning that you can clip your hair dryer to just about anything (a door, a pipe, a post, the edge of a mirror) and it will stay unless you move it.  Second, you only have so many hands, and if you are trying to style your hair and need the dryer on at the same time, you’re out of luck unless you have this thing.  Third, it lets you get parts of your hair that may not be as easy if you’re trying to wield a big old dryer and blindly point it somewhere behind you head. Finally, it gives you a place to put the dryer if you are confined to a really small space.  I know that won’t be a problem for a lot of travelers, but if you’ve ever had to live somewhere where space is at premium, gadgets like this can come in handy.

7) Port Plugs

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Cost: 500-1500 yen
Description: When you’re on the go with your smart phones, it won’t take long for all of the plugs to get filled with lint, dust, dirt, or sand.  Once that happens, it becomes a pain to have to clean out to make sure all of the connections are still solid when you need to use that port.  Instead of letting it get to that point, Japan offers cute and fun options for keeping your ports clean while helping you customize your personal device even more.  The ones I’m showcasing are some Disney-inspired options from the Plug Apli line, but they have all manners of options available ranging from Disney to Japanese anime to charms to well, just about anything you can think of. 

8) Microwaveable Instant Food Dishes

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Cost: ~800 yen
Description: When I was growing up, multiple studies in Japan came out suggesting that consumption of instant foods from Styrofoam containers could have long-term health impacts.  Also, microwaving Styrofoam is hit or miss depending on the type of Styrofoam, so it is better not to assume that the container will be microwave-safe.  As such, one of the solutions to these two problems for folks who eat instant foods daily (or close to it) was to create microwaveable dishware.  Over time, the dishware has been perfected to the point where you can take non-instant food and cook it in the microwave.  The two products pictured above are perfect examples: one is for cooking and serving noodles, and the other is for cooking rice from scratch using just the microwave.  Disclaimer: it’s never going to be as good as using the real cookware to make it, but if you are limited on appliances or eat a lot of instant foods, these can be absolute lifesavers.


9) Bug Vape Machines 

Photo courtesy of amazon.jp
Cost: 809 yen
Description: No, these have nothing to do with tobacco vaping, so if you just got excited to see the word “vape” for that reason, settle down.  There is another reason to get excited about this product, however, and that is that these little devices use cartridges to emit bug repellent vapor.  All you have to do is add the cartridge and some batteries and strap it to your wrist, arm, ankle, etc., and you don’t have to worry about fighting the mosquitoes or other bugs.  Trust me, as a guy who has spent a lot of time outdoors slathered in standard-issue DEET, these things are lifesavers.  They are great for kids (like this Hello Kitty option), but there are subdued adult versions which are good for outdoors or even just transiting to a inner city destination (you’d be surprised how many mosquitoes a Japanese parking garage can hold).

10) Sandwich Shapers

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Cost: 899 yen
Description: Okay, so these aren’t life-changing gadgets, and they may be a little on the impractical side, but did you notice that they can turn a standard sandwich into a 3D Panda, frog, or bear?  So they may be a little unnecessary, but it is the perfect souvenir for being able to bring home Japanese “cute” culture with you and sharing it with friends and family.  We all love to instagram sandwiches like these when we hit up cafes in Harajuku or Koenji—why not make your own creations like that at home?

So there you have it...

...10 wacky gadgets to get you started on a quest to find the perfect chindōgu for you!  If you are heading to Japan, I say zehi, find yourself that perfect, zany, crazy useful tool to bring home.

(Do you have any other examples of  funny or interesting chindōgu?  Tell us about them in the comments section below!)

Mike B