Japanese vending machine goes high-end with mini Hakata dolls

Next month, a vending machine in Fukuoka will dispense miniature traditional figurines produced by seven craftsmen for $120 a pop

A 5cm-tall prototype of a Hakata doll to be sold in a vending machine. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN

(THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Getting your hands on an encapsulated toy from a "gacha-gacha" vending machine will usually set you back several hundred yen. Next month, however, one such machine in Fukuoka will be charging rather a little more than that - a cool 10,000 yen (S$119), to be exact.

As the price tag suggests, the goodies inside this vending machine are anything but your typical gacha-gacha fare. Each of its 35 capsules contains an exquisite miniature Hakata doll produced by one of seven craftsmen.

Hakata dolls boast a history of more than 400 years. The craftsmen are aiming to promote interest in the traditional figurines they make amid a decline in shipments. The dolls in the machine, which at 5cm tall are about one-sixth the height of a regular Hakata doll, will be sold in capsules measuring 7cm in diameter.

Mr Yoichi Nishiyama is one of the craftsmen. On a late November day, the 38-year-old diligently laboured away at his workshop in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, moulding a small lump of clay into a prototype doll bearing the faces of three Buddhist gods.

The face of Daikokuten, the god of wealth, was at the centre. Mr Nishiyama was using a toothpick and a bamboo stick - items he rarely uses - to add details. "These dolls require more intricacy compared with making regular dolls," he said, adding that the project "tests my technique and motivates me to take on the challenge."

Hakata dolls are believed to derive from unglazed dolls created by the craftsmen who built Fukuoka Castle. Those dolls earned nationwide acclaim for their gentle curves and expressive facial features.

Hakata doll shipments totaled 650 million yen last fiscal year, down from a peak of 3.24 billion yen in fiscal year 1977, according to the Fukuoka municipal government. The number of craftsmen has declined by more than 90 per cent over the past 40 years - with just 195 remaining today.

Mr Nishiyama is the head of the younger group, aged in their 20s to 40s, within a local cooperative of Hakata doll businesses. The group, comprising the six other doll makers and a dealer, initially decided to produce dolls small enough to be sold in capsules to dispel the notion they are high-end objects.

With this in mind, the group set up gacha-gacha machines at an exhibition they put on for the Hakata Traditional Craft and Design Museum in the city in January. Among the items they sold were kabuki-themed flat disks.

Offered at 500 yen each, all 150 capsules sold out within two hours. The machines were stocked with an additional 300 items in February and sold out again within 90 minutes. The group's upcoming campaign will feature miniature versions of new works they will present at an exhibition next month. The mini dolls will be 20 times more expensive than the items they sold previously because they do not want consumers to falsely believe Hakata dolls are cheap.

"The miniature dolls will be expensive by gacha-gacha standards," Mr Nishiyama said. "However, we aim to offer products worth more than their price."

The seven artists are creating five dolls each in over a month. They will stock their vending machine with the dolls from Jan. 25 to 30, when the exhibition is held. They do not have any additional plans for gacha-gacha sales.

"I'm sure customers will be surprised by the sophistication of the miniature dolls, even though they're sold in capsules," Mr Nishiyama said. "I hope many people visit the exhibition and take an interest in the regular Hakata dolls on display, too."

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