Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

The Wonderful World of Local Gachapon

Japan has had a long love affair with automated shopping. Whilst internet shopping may not be as popular in Japan as in the West, low-tech automation is booming with over 5 million vending machines nationwide, which comes to about 1 machine for every 23 people. With this national aversion to buying something from a shop clerk it is no surprise that automation has dominated the toy market as well. 

Massively popular toy dispensing capsule machines known as “Gachapon” can be found all around Japan. Named onomatopoeically “gacha” represents the sound that the machine makes when you put a coin in and twist the handle, and “pon” represents the noise of a little plastic ball falling out. 

Inside the ball you will find all sorts of fun and fascinating items ranging from toys based off of popular anime characters to hats for your cat. Many of these machines are aimed at an exclusively adult audience sometimes having an 18+ rating. There are loads of really interesting gachapon but a small company has just changed the game.

The small manufacturing company Kenelphant has launched Figure Miyage, a series of small models representing different famous things about the regions of Japan. Well over half of Japan has had models made to represent them and the company plans to expand, eventually covering the whole archipelago. You can chart their progress and check out the different models by using the interactive map on their website.

The original plan seems to have been to create a set of souvenirs for each prefecture. This has worked great for a prefecture like Hiroshima that has a lot to offer. The little trinkets are mostly based on the famous island of Itsukushima, it’s iconic floating Torii gate being the most desirable of the items. There is also the signature food of the island, momijimanju cakes as well as the contentious Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. As well as these, you can collect a miniature of the Miyajima ferry that goes to and from Itsukushima and a character from In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni), a popular manga series set in Hiroshima prefecture. These make for a fantastic set of little souvenirs to remember your trip by. There is also still plenty of Hiroshima left unadapted such as the historic Peace Park, Rabbit Island and much, much more. I would not be surprised if there is a second set of Hiroshima gachapon on the way. Figure Miyage has produced four different sets for Hokkaido so the sky is the limit with a cultural rich place like Hiroshima.

Whilst each region of Japan is fascinating in its own way, Kenelphant has discovered that not all regions are created equal. It is unknown if it was for reasons of expense or a lack of ideas but certain prefectures have been combined instead of getting their own individual sets. The entire region of Tohoku in Northern Honshu has been shrunken to only one collection of figures, as has all of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. 

The Kyushu set in particular seems like a real missed opportunity. The island has a fascinating history which has been condensed to just 8 figures, one for all 7 prefectures as well as a train that connects them together. Some of the models such as the Kumamoto Castle seem like a no-brainer but other items such as the archaeological site Yoshinogari in Saga, or the legs of a synchronized swimmer emerging from an Oita Onsen are a bit difficult to figure out without some background knowledge. Many of these sites are unknown to tourists and are not even the most famous sites on the amazing island.

The series of gachapon where Kenelephant obviously struggled the most though was the Yamaguchi series. It is odd that the often forgotten about prefecture of Yamaguchi, right at the southern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, got its own series whilst Kyushu was all combined into one set. Yamaguchi does have its good points, but it is hardly a mecca for Japanese tourists. The most famous sites are Motonosumi Shrine, Tsunoshima Bridge, Akiyoshidai Park, and lastly Kintai Bridge. Only one of these famous landmarks was chosen to be included, Kintai Bridge, the rest of the series is made up of quite strange choices.

There are three famous figures of Japanese history, none of which are internationally famous though they are mostly known in Japan. Hirobumi Ito, the first prime minister of Japan, Shinsaku Takasugi, a heroic general and Shouin Yoshida, an educator. As well as these odd choices, there is also a broken furnace from the ruins of Hagi Castle where some of the first ore in Japan was processed. This collection does not make for the most interesting line of trinkets, especially for children who are usually the main target market for small cartoonish models of this nature. I have no idea who these are aimed at. Many of these are unintelligible to the average foreign visitor and may even be confusing to Japanese tourists as well.

Despite running through how obscure and odd many of the company’s choices were when making these little local gachapon, I still love them. If you want a really unique souvenir and it doesn’t matter if you understand what it is or not, look out for Figure Miyage gachapon on your travels around Japan. 

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