Japan is known for its legions of vending machines, ranging from drinks to soy sauce to noodles. But there’s another species of unmanned dispenser: gacha-pon.
Gacha-pon, gacha-gacha, or gashapon are different names for capsule toys, a booming Japanese industry. They’re like the grown-up versions of the sticker and gumball machines found in dollar stores around the U.S. You may have seen them in anime or manga, and similar sorts of toys are often on sale at Asian markets and bookstores. But until you visit Japan, you can’t fully grasp just how many, and how mighty, the gacha-pon are.
The machines are usually displayed in several rows and columns, since they can be stacked on top of each other. And where there is one, there are many. Sometimes you’ll be minding your own business looking for the closest ramen shop but when you turn the corner, you’re suddenly confronted with a huge array of brightly colored machines. Each one displays a few images showing you the goods inside, and there’s a coin slot, a wheel to turn, and a door for the item to come out of. Each item comes in a round plastic egg and costs ¥100-400.
The items themselves are glorious. You can find everything from miniature houses to figurines to sets of animal-shaped food. Simpler items are cheaper, and the more complicated ones can get a little pricey. Still, it’s a steal compared to the price of these toys in import stores, which may be one reason tourists can’t get enough. The catch—the item you get is totally random. You can see the selection on the machine, which usually follows a theme like dogs with cigarettes or famous artwork or a certain anime. But which specific version of that line you get is up to luck.
Another thing that can come as a surprise is the regional differences in items. Often, the local mascot will make an appearance as a capsule toy, in the form of figures or tiny bags or stickers. Hikonyan, of course, shows up quite often in Hikone. You may also find toys shaped like region-specific food such as soki soba in Okinawa or kushi katsu in Osaka.
Near Hikone, there are some specific places to go to find the best gacha-pon. In Hikone, there are lots of region-specific ones around Castle Road, and at Hikone Castle itself. It’s a good option if you’re looking to buy a cheap souvenir of your visit there. A little further away in Nagahama, one of Hikone’s neighboring cities, is the real deal.
Nagahama is home to, among many other fun things, the Kaiyodo Figure Museum (it’s moved across the street from the location pictured, but still very much alive). The museum displays exhibits of figures throughout history, but also boasts an astonishingly large gacha-pon hall. Around a hundred machines line the walls, dispensing all the usual suspects as well as some rarer ones. There’s a whole line of equipment, furniture, and accessories for a line of posable skeleton figures, which you can also purchase at the gift shop. With gacha add-ons, the skeletons can become samurai, attack each other with weapons, or just relax at home.
This store also sells a number of more artistic items, like figures of the Mona Lisa, or plastic statuettes from Alice in Wonderland. The realm of gacha-pon is actually a lot like Wonderland—getting curiouser and curiouser every day.