Japanese Tea Robot
tHE Karakuri Ningyo

One spring is enough to make this tea robot serve and entertain your guest after a good dinner. The Karakuri Ningyos are Japanese robots that were created in the 18th century. These are not only tea serving robots, I have seen kanji writing robots, archer robots and many more.

All these mechanical dolls are incredibly detailed and ingenious. It was a pleasure to observe my own Karakuri Ningyo, and how all the wheels and gears work together to make a perfect movement.

1) Do you want some tea?

The Japanese Tea Robot

My Karakuri Doll is the tea robot type. Here is what it does:

  1. It waits for the server to put a cup of hot tea on his plate.
  2. It goes toward the person in front of him for about one meter.
  3. Still going on, it bows his head as a Japanese way to say "Please have a drink" (don't forget it's a Japanese robot).
  4. When you take the cup, the little home robot stops, and waits patiently for you to enjoy the drink.
  5. You put back the cup, the robot starts again and makes a U-Turn.
  6. And it goes on until it has no more power.

The robot works on a cycle 2-3-4 and if you don't take the cup, it will just go back and forth between the two people. It is powered by a spring, and can do up the 2 return trips usually.

OK, so it's not the tea serving robot that boils the water and pours the tea just yet. But think about it: it costs 201'000 USD to get robots that can bring you a beer (200'000 USD for the PR2 and 1'000 for the TurtleBot). This one can entertain your guests and be used as a nice decoration at home. And it cost me only about 50 USD... Plus, i it doesn't have to limit yourself to tea if your guests are more into whiskey...
More home robots over here...

2) Only one spring to do all that?

This handcrafted robot really is a piece of art
tea robot parts

The Japanese tea robot only uses one spring as actuator, and one switch as a sensor.

There are quite a few moving parts on the other hand.

  • First there is the wheel that makes it move
  • The head that bows when you should take the cup,
  • The feet that simulate a walking motion,
  • and finally the front wheel that can change direction.

These elements are all "programmed" to move at the right time to make the whole motion correctly.

The cup on the plate lowers the arms, which unlocks the main wheel. So you can see the cup as an on/off switch.

An original Karakuri Ningyo from 19th Century
Original tea robot

Then the main wheel can turn powered by the spring, and make the rolling wheel turn. Also, attached on the main wheel is a circle that has bumps at some places. When the bumps touch a lever, they can push the head to bow, or push the wheel lever to make it turn around.

I say "programmed" because it really feels like the wheel is program running in circles. You could easily change the bump wheel to make the tea robot bow longer, or turn sooner, etc... Plus you could even add a wheel or two to support new functions.

Some more complex karakuri dolls use a system of strings that pull the right part at the right time like a marionette without a puppeteer.

Do you like to know how home robots work? Check how the Roomba vacuum robot works...

3) When were they invented?

This tea serving robot and the other Karakuri Dolls were created during the 17th Century in Japan as a craft. They were used for entertainment but bigger models were used during religious ceremonies. These bigger traditional Japanese robots were mounted on hand-held chars that are used in processions.

tea robot archer

I wish I could have found this really cool archer robot that was also sold along the tea robot. But it was so popular that it was sold out in months. Today, you can hardly find this Japanese robot anymore, since they all were released in limited series.

tea robot at home

Me and my tea robot at home.

Other pages that may interest you:

Telepresence robots are being used more and more. Check out how you could use them to stay in touch with your family or work from home.

Japanese robots are awesome. Discover more of them: the funny ones, the big ones, and the most advanced ones.

Honda robot Asimo is the most famous humanoid robot in Japan. It can actually serve you tea too. Check it out!


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