There are so many things in Japan that it can be a bit of a sensory overload. You have neon lights, seasonal good flying off of shelves, and so many pieces of clothing and merchandise that it seems like you’re drowning in options. One small corner of the Japanese toy market is Gatchapon, or capsules toys, and they are as ubiquitous as they are addictive.
So the basics of gatchapon are thus: You insert the requested amount via 100 yen coins, spin the big crank on the machine until an egg/capsule dispenses, you push on the cover to retrieve your capsule, and then you pull out the capsule. Most machines will have some sort of recycle bin where you can deposit the spent capsule for later reuse, so make sure you look for that before you decide to keep the egg when you know you really don’t want it.
Gatchapon works via random chance: It’s very much like buying any sort of sports cards or loot box in games. It really plays on that arcade-like desire to press your luck: Will the gods of fortune smile upon you? Or will you get another stupid apartment crab?
Yadokari – Hermit Crab Gatchapon Saga
My journey began by looking at the gatchapon outside my local Village Vanguard, which is much like the American store Spencer’s, in that they have odd novelty goods with a sort of punk edge to them. Whilst perusing I spied a machine with hermit crabs that have donned various types of buildings as their new shells. I thought this was novel, but I really just wanted the crab with the castle on its back. I thought it was pretty cool looking, so I gave it a spin. Lo and behold, I got the castle crab on the first attempt.
Something unlocked within me at that moment.
A few days later, I went back and thought “hey, why not try again? Odds are I’ll probably get a new one, so why not?” I put in my money, but my luck was perhaps too strong: I received another castle crab. Satisfied with my curiosity, I stashed it with its partner on my desk in my home office.
I slept on this for a few nights, the seeds sprouting within my mind.
Determined now to see if I could truly get something other than the castle crab, I went once more with my amused wife and inserted another 200 yen. Success! This time, I received a yellow hermit crab with a small house/apartment on its back. I had successfully broken the curse. I felt euphoric, the endorphins of a successful hunt rushing through my brain. I carefully and deliberately unwrapped my new crab, attached him to his abode, and set him proudly between the two castles.
Soon, the same nagging came over me: There are five in the set, right? The odds are you will get a new one if you just try, man. Why not? It’s only 200 yen! I used to spend way more on beer when I was drinking, so why not spend a little for this harmless entertainment?
But woe upon my world! I got an apartment hermit crab once more. Dejected, I looked at my exasperated wife who shook her head. No, Adam, the time has come. The game is over.
Fast forward a few weeks and we had some friends come visit from America. After some ramen at our favorite local shop, I suggested we go to the station to look at stationary, since our friend visiting was really into stationary and we had a nice shop at the station for just that. I had been joking on and off with my wife about taking 200 yen and secretly buying another hermit crab behind her back. Hahaha, so funny! And what just happens to be next to the stationary shop at the station?
The gatchapon machines.
So, we go up, I try my luck with our friends watching, and what do I get? Another apartment crab. Three in a row. What are the odds? Am I just very lucky or very unlucky? I lamented my loss as we went into the stationary shop. Inside there, my wife gives me a gentle ribbing about getting the apartment crab again. I suggest that she try and see if she could do better. She agrees and we march back to the gatchapon machine.
What happened next was glorious.
She inserted her coins. Spin. Pull. Open. Surprise! She got the hermit crab with the ramen shop on its back. One of the most coveted of the set! I ask her if she wants to trade but she graciously gives me the hermit crab without any stipulations. I felt happy that she shared her good fortune with me so willingly. I then jokingly say to our friend that she should give it a go and get me the igloo hermit crab. My wife gives her 200 yen, she puts it in, and what comes out? That’s right! The hermit crab with the igloo on its back.
Everyone is amazed, for it was a truly blessed day.
Our other friend gives it a shot, but what comes out to end the streak? You guessed it! Another apartment crab! Always here to ruin a good time, aren’t you, apartment crab? We call it a night with our toy gambling and begin heading back to our apartment. My wife, now bitten by the bug, so close to hermit crab glory, announces that we have to get the last hermit crab: one with an old home that is very weak and often blows away in the wind.
She translated that from the informational slip in the capsule that comes with each crab. That’s true love right there.
Afterwards, I found my enthusiasm dwindling, tempered by my own expectations and running the numbers in my mind. Was I really willing to pay 200 yen for really unfavorable odds? Was the last hermit crab worth a potential pit of money to attain? I half-heartedly made jokes about going to the station but I didn’t feel my spirit in it. The cruel realities of gatchapon began to set in. The endorphin rush of beating the odds was fading.
One evening, at the behest of my wife, we went out for a walk and do get some groceries. I grabbed 200 yen from our coin jar and said we should try and stop by. I gave 200 yen to my wife as well in case my luck was not up to snuff. We ascended the escalator and up to the gatchapon area, which was rather busy this particular evening. I excused myself through the crowd and approached the hermit crab machine, now positioned a row down from where it once was. I inserted my coins. I twisted. My wife told me not to look through the holes in the top, and I did as she instructued.
I peeled off the tape, popped it open…
And inside was the final hermit crab I needed! My eyes widened: Was this really the end? Had I achieved this miraculous task of collecting all five? Dazed, I stood there for a moment examining my prize. I was in such a stupor that I can’t remember if it was me or my wife who recommended a commemorative photo to remember this moment. I crouched and the photo was taken.
And just like that, the hunt was over. We went to the shopping mall and life was normal again. I have my hermit crabs on my desk now, thinking of the most incredible ways to display them. I’ll definitely bring in a few duplicates to my office so that area is made a little more crabby. I’m thinking of a nice tiny shelf to display them, maybe with some plaques that describe them from the little paper insert they come with (along with an English translation).
But for now, my gatchapon thirst has been satiated. It’s a great thrill, popping those bad boys open, and once you complete a set you’ve had your eyes on, it brings about a great and blissful peace that only several dollars/yen spent on cheap plastic can summon.