Books / Reviews

Tips from Japan that really work

Thrifty advice on everything from stuffy noses to embarrassing coffee stains on the carpet

URAWAZA: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks From Japan, by Lisa Katayama, with illustrations by Joel Holland. Chronicle Books, 2008, $14.95 (paper)

Ever want to cure a stuffy nose, but nothing works? Try stuffing scallions up your nostrils. Your bedmate won’t stop snoring? Tape a tennis ball to her back. Bathroom mirror always fogging up? Rub it with a potato.

These are some of the imaginative homespun solutions to daily problems trotted out in Lisa Katayama’s “Urawaza.” In the age of Googled answers, this treasury of folk wisdom contains nuggets that aren’t on most search engines. If you need to junk sensitive documents but don’t own a shredder, for instance, stuff them into a stocking, tie it up and run it through a washing machine cycle. Minutes later: illegible pulp.

“Urawaza” literally means “hidden technique,” and initially referred to secret hacks in video games published in the 1980s. These days it also connotes secret tricks and tips that many Japanese obsess about — tens of thousands discuss them in forums on the Mixi social networking site, which has groups dedicated to iPod urawaza, wedding urawaza, cooking urawaza, Disney urawaza, and even Mixi urawaza. Tokyo-born Katayama, who now lives in California, links urawaza to the Japanese postwar struggle for survival, when hard-up housewives would devise innovative tricks like using water that had been used to cook spinach as a nutrient-rich facial moisturizer; today, thrift contests are still a recurring theme on Japanese variety shows. In a crowded, resource-poor archipelago like Japan, urawaza evolved out of the heightened sensitivity that Japanese have toward others and their environment.

Katayama’s own interest in creative remedies began in third grade, when she was punished for scribbling on a whiteboard with permanent ink. Forced to clean it, she tried everything from soap to a plastic umbrella until a rubber eraser finally did the trick. She still believes the best home remedies are original and organic. “In the consumer culture of today, it’s easy to not have to think up innovative uses for ordinary things,” she writes, lamenting the endless aisles of prefab cures and bottled solutions that manufacturers assail us with. “Urawaza can save you money, earn you style points, impress your family and amaze your friends.”

Many of the tips in this book address everyday annoyances that most of us would never even think of solving. Sugar that has become solid and lumpy can be pried from its container with a few spoon jabs. Effective, but primitive and not a real solution. The urawaza way is to insert a small piece of bread in the container for six hours — its moisture will loosen the sweet crystals until they run like sand through an hourglass. If you want to make an egg salad but loathe all that chopping, squeeze a hard-boiled egg through a plastic mesh bag that tangerines are sold in: It does the work for you. To repair broken lipstick, heat it with a hair drier, reattach the pieces and then leave it in the freezer for a while. The stick will come out as good as new.

Katayama delivers her fixes in spicy prose along with bonus explanations of why they work. Used tea bags are ideal for removing ink from skin (when hands serve as notepads) because they contain catechins that lift the ink pigments from the dermis. Ironing a moist towel over cigarette-scented clothing will scotch the stench because the steam melts the sticky tar. A dried banana peel makes an ideal leather jacket cleaner because it contains tannin, found in commercial emulsions.

Stuffed with practical intelligence, “Urawaza” is a must-read for do-it-yourselfers and creative thinkers. Oh, and how to get coffee stains out of the carpet? A toothbrush, towel and that old standby, spinach water.

Tim Hornyak is the author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots.”

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