Kit 29: Akari Origami

One of the interesting things about the publishing world is that a publisher has to announce some time in advance what their next book or magazine is going to be. In the case of Gakken, it’s when the next kit is coming out. When things become more amusing is at the point where one kit hasn’t hit the shelves yet, but the Gakken website has to announce the contents of the subsequent kit. What I mean is that kit #29, the Akari, had a Nov. 5 release. On Oct. 30, the official artwork was placed on the website. That meant that kit #30 also had to be placed on the website for the “Next Up” page. So, I can write up a short comment on kit #30 a week before I can get my hands on #29. It also means that I can pull up the PDF for #29 and see how difficult the assembly is going to be (short answer – there’s two parts: the stand and the lamp shade. The stand is about 10 parts and can be put together in a minute or two. The lamp shade is paper folded in any shape you want, so it can be as easy as a cylinder held in place with tape, or something that looks like the faces of Mount Rushmore. You can finish this kit in under 5 minutes, or over 5 days.)


Kit #29, Akari Origami, 3000 yen. Akari means “light”; origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. The kit itself is a circuit board driving a small holder containing a tricolor LED (red, blue and green). The board is in the base of the stand, and has connectors for wiring to the Japanino. This lets you set up any series of patterns for the LEDs that you like, if you also own the Japanino.

Now that I have the kit in my hands, I can say that there are 10 pieces, not including screws, plus sets of sheets of white paper for making the square-fold lamp cover (the Checker) and the curly polygon (the Celes). The suggested assembly time is 30 minutes. I completed the base in about 10 minutes. I’ll talk about the covers later. The only bit that’s even slightly tricky about the case is when you put the circuit boards into the base piece – it may not look like it but there is an orientation to the base. The small circular hole part at one side of the base needs to line up with the push button on the bigger half of the circuit board. You’ll probably have 2 or 3 of the screws in place before you discover that you did it wrong and have to start over again.

(Close-up of the LED.)

The Akari is very similar to the Aurorarium in that they both have switch-selectable display modes (single-color shades, or fading in and out pseudo-randomly) and the 3-color LEDS. The differences are that the Aurorarium bounces the light down on a motor-driven mylar sheet, and the Akari has 3 volume controls for individually making the LEDs brighter or dimmer. They’re both about as bulky, although the Akari is has a more stable base for holding lamp shades of various sizes. The base and light stem are 6″ tall, total. The base is about 3″ across. If you’ve got the Aurorarium, I’d suggest disconnecting the motor, and redirecting the LEDs upward and putting a lamp shade on that – it’d be cheaper because the Aurorarium is only 2200 yen (about $26 USD).

(Checker cover.)

Origami is the art of folding paper. Kirigami is the art of cutting paper. Amigami is the art of paper weaving. The mook suggests using any or all of the 3 arts for making the lamp shade. Some of the suggestions are a fish, a duck and a flower. The mook goes into a lot of detail regarding how to make single “units” – paper folded into specific shapes with pockets on each of the faces. By interlocking the pointy sections into the matching pockets, you can make polygons with 5, 6 or 30 “units”. This allows you to make lamp shades as simple and small, or as large and complex as you like. Or, you can just roll the paper into a cylinder and put that on the lamp.

(Celes cover.)

The mook starts out with photos of an art installation, where a number of Akari lamps are set up inside a cave. After this are several pages of lamp shade suggestions, examples of silhouettes in ukiyo-e and European artwork, examples of lighting used in different ways in modern architecture – including the LED illuminations on Tokyo Tower and the new Sky Tree. There are examples of polyhedrons in nature, and paper masks from a modern Japanese artist. There’s the requisite display of antique forms of lighting (from oil lamps up through carbon arcs and the incandescent bulb). Plus the theory of operation for LEDs.

Oddly enough, there’s a two page spread on the kinetic sculptures by Theo Jansen (see below) which are the featured project for Gakken kit #30. There’s also some examples of personal projects, including a racing bike that has solar-powered electronics mounted on it, a windbreaker with an 8×8 LED matrix on the back, and a Lego robot made for playing Othello.

The Akari has a 4-pin connector for running wires to the digital I/O pins of the Japanino (D9-11 and gnd). This connects the Japanino directly to the Akari’s LEDs. One sketch is to just write random values (0-255) to the PWM pins and pause a quarter-second, in a loop. Mio Izawa put a clear plastic globe around the LED portion and then spun little plastic balls around while the Japanino strobed the LEDs on and off rapidly, making for a “psychedelic worm” effect. Artist Julie Watai removed the LEDs from the Akari, connected them directly to the Japanino, and put everything into a clear housing for a “magic crystal therapy” effect. Finally, there’s a sketch for getting weather information from your Mac over the USB port in serial data form, and using that for changing the color patterns based on whether the weather is fair, cloudy or rainy.

Last, the mook has a manga describing the making of alcohol, and its affects on the brain. (“Everything in moderation.”)

About making the paper lamp covers: As mentioned above, the kit includes sheets for the square-fold (checker) and curly polygon (Celes) covers. The Checker consists of 6 sheets of pre-scored bond paper. The idea is that you fold each sheet into a “unit”, then interlock the units together to make the finished cube. I spent a lot of time double-checking my work, so it took me about 20-30 minutes. Having the paper pre-scored makes folding it a whole lot easier; if you drew out, cut and folded the units from scratch it could take at least an hour to make this one. You want to use heavy bond paper; anything lighter will rip or deform. Anything heavier will be too thick and and bulky when folded into units.

Naturally, after buying the kit, I had to make a visit to the Origami Center (Origami Kaikan) in Ochanomizu, a 20-minute walk from my office in Akihabara. I showed the kit to the people there, and they were surprised that it existed since Gakken apparently never contacted them during the research phase. The chairman of the Center was in the building, making origami rabbits for the customers in the gift shop, and I showed him the mook. He said he knew several of the artists featured, and was surprised by the complexity of some of the computer-designed shapes. At one point, he said that someone in New York had made the Checker using metal sheets, and he brought over one that the shop has available for sale. So, it looks like the Checker is a well-known pattern in origami circles.

The Celes (derived from “celestial” because of the star shapes) was packaged as 3 strips of pre-scored units per sheet, 10 sheets. It’s a deceptively easy shape to start assembling – you just pre-fold the 30 units and then unfold them to make “j” shapes. The “j” shapes interlock, and you fold the “pocket” tabs to lock the units together. However, when I got about halfway through, all of the loose ends got in the way of each other and I couldn’t tell where I was in the project. Near the end, the units were pushing away from each other, making it hard to pull them into a ball shape. The paper was getting damp from all of the handling with my hands, and the tension against the paper was making the units unfold. At one point, I got a glue stick out and was about to cheat and glue the pieces together, but I couldn’t figure out how to do the gluing without making things worse, so I started looking for my stapler. Finally, I tried approaching the assembly as two halves of a ball and stitching the halves together in the middle. That worked, and suddenly the tension of the two halves balanced out and the assembly took on a rounded ball shape all on its own. In the process, I had to completely disassemble everything 3 times, and had to unravel the ball halfway to backtrack another 5-6 times. In all, this one lamp cover took over 4 hours to make, and I finished at 4 AM. It looks way-cool with the Akari turned on, so it was worth all of the frustration. But I don’t think I want to do something this complicated again any time soon. The Celes was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to make in my life. (Note: I’ve since made over 30 of these Celes balls, and it does get easier with practice.)

Here are the URL links from the mook, if you want to check them out.
Byodin Temple
Japanese cave
Paper crafts 1
Paper crafts 2
Wood materials
Paper crafts 3
Paper crafts 4
Lego Robot plays Othello
Make Club in Japan

Summary: In short, if you have the Japanino, and can get your hands on a red, a green and a blue LED, you can easily make the Akari yourself. And you can find lots of origami patterns on the net. But, you’d be missing out on the fun of assembling the Akari kit, and all of the theories behind the creation of geometric shapes that are featured in the mook. If you don’t have the Japanino, then the Akari is a fun way of making a paper and LED lamp. Recommended.


As I mentioned above, as soon as I saw all of the origami projects in the mook, I decided that I’d go to the Origami Kaikan (Origami Center) about 1 mile from my office. Part of the idea was just to see if the people there had known of the kit in advance, and if not to tell them about it. Another part was to see if I could meet the chairman (who is generally in the third floor gift shop giving demonstrations to visitors) and ask him for suggestions for a project of my own.

While the chairman did act impressed with the mook, I found it hard to get him to give me ideas. But, as I was talking I noticed a box of key chains on one shelf, and one of them was a small wood and paper lantern shape. I was also trying to find good quality paper that wouldn’t collapse under its own weight, and the chairman commented that most of the paper is lighter to be easier to fold, and therefore not all that structurally strong. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of making a lantern. Finally, I noticed some paper that had rabbits on it (2011 was the Year of the Rabbit, so rabbit origami and rabbit-patterned paper were big then). I asked where the paper was, and was taken over to some other shelves where the Kaikan was selling its own washi (handmade rice paper) for 1600 yen for a square meter.

Back home, I grabbed some construction paper that I had left over from a previous art project, and experimented with making a box 4″x4″x6″. The result was strong enough to justify moving forward with the idea. By accident, I chose to use 1 cm-thick borders, which turned out to be a good choice, because the sticky-back tape I had was 1 cm wide. I tried looking for lantern frame patterns on the net, but nothing useful popped up right away, so I just tried some ideas that were more-or-less asymmetrical. After cutting out the frame pieces, I tried finding patterns on the rabbit washi paper that fit well inside the frames. Unfortunately, the washi seems to be designed more for wrapping paper, and most of the patterns are fairly spread out. But, I did get a couple pieces that worked out.

The final project took 2 hours to complete, and I think that it looks pretty good sitting on the Akari. I just wish that I hadn’t been told at the end that these lanterns are used primarily for Obon (the 1-week period in August when the Japanese set out to visit with the spirits of their ancestors).