Do you remember the mystique and excitement of vending machines when you were a child? They were full of candy, bubble gum and various toys, and utterly irresistible. You probably also remember the distinctive sound as you turned the dial and anxiously awaited, with your tiny hand under the spout, to receive your surprise treasure.
Vending machines are still around of course, but no other country has the same passion for them as Japan does.
In Japan, these vending machines are called gashapon (or gachapon), and they are absolutely everywhere. The name gashapon comes from the sounds the machines make as you turn the dial – gasha, gasha, gasha, pon!
Gashapon, or gasha for short, can refer both to the machines and the toys they dispense. The toys roll out in little plastic bubbles, or capsules, constructed of two pieces that fit together. Most of the Japanese gashapon vending machines and toys are from a company called Bandai.
So what’s the big deal, these are just cheap vending machine toys, right? Actually, the toys and gizmos from these machines can be quite high quality compared to what we see in North American vending machines.
The machines get changed out regularly, so there are always new toys to discover. Prices range from 100-600 Yen (approximately $1-6 CDN), and most of the toys are part of collectible sets. So once you find a machine filled with a gimmick you’re into, chances are, you won’t be able to stop at just one.
Many of the sets may also be part of a continuing series, or will have seasonal themes. Since we were in Japan for September/October, for example, there were several machines with Halloween themed toys. And by the end of our trip, some Christmas-themed gashapons were starting to arrive, like plastic crystal snowflake ornaments!
When Mark and I went to Japan, we already knew about the gashapon machines. But we really underestimated their popularity and sheer number. They were in every train station, airport, anime and comic book shop, and even in the Loft home store chain!
It wasn’t long before we both gave in to the urge to use up some loose change on these machines to see what the fuss was about.
And that mild curiosity quickly turned into a three-week gashapon-cranking frenzy.
When you walk into a shop and see this many gashapon vending machines lined up, that 5-year old inside you wakes up and starts doing cartwheels. Do you really need any of these things? No, of course not. But it’s not about need, it’s about want. And a pocket full of 100-yen coins can take you pretty far into the land of excess.
I feel like gashapon machines are the Japanese gateway drug into hardcore gambling. There are a ton of pachinko parlours in Japan, and I’m sure this is where that urge to spin the wheel (or dial) all stems from – these innocuous gashapon vending machine toys.
As you can see, some of the machines have seen better days. These machines look so banged up and mangled!
Gashapon Toy Selection
So what sorts of things can one find in a gashapon vending machine? Everything from anime cartoon character swag (stickers, keychains, and figurines) to the most bizarre and whimsical thingamajigs imaginable. We aren’t so familiar with anime cartoons. So we just aimed for the items that most caught our eye. And trust me, these aren’t even scratching the surface of some of the weird and bizarre items we saw!
The capsules look like this:
Some are transparent, telling you right away what you got. But some are tricky, giving out opaque capsules that are way more mysterious!
Let’s begin with a few of the more tame items we discovered.
Plastic food, like this tray of sushi made into a keychain:
These little keychains were pretty cool. They both light up, which could be very handy!
I’m a squirrel lover, so Mark found me this squirrel wearing a toque (the toque is removable!)
I found these rubbery goldfish for a friend who was fish-sitting for us while we were away. They came in 4-5 different colours, but these were the two I ended up with. I was hoping for a purple one, but beggars can’t be choosers in the world of Japanese gashapon (unless you’re willing to take the chance of getting duplicates in order to snag the one you really wanted)!
This little creature was getting into “I have no idea what it is” territory. It felt squishy to the touch, but when you shook it, it lit up and flickered. Not sure the purpose of that…
These were one of my favourite discoveries. I LOVE bubble tea, and when I saw these keychains I just about squealed with delight. Again, these came in several colours, including milky white and light green. I really didn’t know what colour I wanted the most, so I got two, an orange one and a pink one. I kept the pink one for myself and gave the other to a friend. There’s real liquid inside, and the tapioca pearls float around. You can’t tell in the photo very well, but there are even tiny “ice cubes” inside! I love these SO much, I can’t even tell you.
This gashapon vending machine was the most expensive one that I tried my hand at. 500 yen, but I could maybe get a precious stone out of the deal!
Or, I could get a speck of a stone that can barely be seen. Is this the smallest garnet in the world or what? It made me sad that I couldn’t jam it back in the machine and get my money back.
You’d think that we would have learned from my foible. My love of shiny things had betrayed me. But no, we found another gashapon vending machine that dispensed semi-precious, rough stones. Maybe we could get an amethyst or something cool to polish and make into some souvenir jewelry?
Instead we got…gravel? A hunk of decorative landscaping rock? This was probably the biggest dud of the batch.
And the weirdest Japanese gashapon toys we picked up? These beauties (???) –
Yes, those little girl figurines have snail shells stuck on their heads. Why??? I’m not sure. The paper insert said “you overestimate me too much”. We overestimated them too much NOT to get their heads stuck inside snail shells I guess? I did a little Google search and discovered that these creepy things are collectors’ items! Who knew! They are called Kaikaburi, made by Panda’s Ana x Takara Tomy. I really tried to talk Mark out of spending money on these, but he couldn’t resist!
But we did manage to find some other collectible Japanese gashapon toys that we both fell in love with…which I will talk about in Part 2!
As an addendum to to this piece, my husband and I recently visited Antwerp, Belgium. It was a lovely and interesting city. But the last thing we expected to find there were gashapon vending machines.
Yet, when we walked through Central Station to purchase our train tickets for the next morning, there they were. This is Akiba Station, a Japanese-themed shop. Here you’ll find Japanese snacks, anime characters, and yes, gashapon vending machines.
These are the real deal, too. Note the little characters you can try your hand at collecting. These aren’t quite as eclectic as the selection in Japan, but it still made my little gashapon-loving heart happy.