This Japanese airline offers flights to destinations—not of your choice. Photo: Hanako Montgomery
Japan’s gachapon, or capsule vending machines, have long evaded practicality.
From miniature hamburgers and figurines posing in various swimming positions, to letters written from your “little sister,” the value of these toys are not so much the object themselves. It’s more about the excitement of turning the dial, unaware of what trinket awaits in a tiny plastic ball.
Peach Aviation, a Japanese airline that largely flies domestic routes, is cashing in on that fleeting exhilaration.
On Wednesday, the company installed its very own gacha vending machine in Tokyo’s buzzing Shibuya district, filled with round-trip mileage points to domestic destinations out of Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The process is entirely random, and only upon opening do customers find out where they’re going. The locations include cities in Okinawa and the northern prefecture of Hokkaido.
Chinori Ide, a 19-year-old college student, said she couldn’t believe it when she won a trip to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. “That’s the destination I really wanted because my grandmother lives there. I haven’t seen her in two years because of the pandemic,” she told VICE.
When asked if she had broken the happy news, she said she’d message her grandmother on LINE, a popular messaging app in Japan.
Mao Otani, another 19-year-old college student waiting in line with Ide, said he also got a trip to Hokkaido, but to the remote eastern city of Kushiro. “I’ve never been there and I have no idea what I’ll do, but I’m excited anyway,” he told VICE. He plans to make a week-long trip out of it, especially since the last time he took a vacation was two years ago, he said.
Each customer pays 5,000 Japanese yen ($44) and receives 6,000 Japanese yen ($53) worth of mileage points, which can only be used toward the destination they won. Using the code printed on a sheet of paper inside the capsule, people then exchange these points for airfare to book online. It also comes with a miniature pin badge and a “mission” for the flier for when they reach their destination.
For Otani, his mission was to assemble his very own katte don, a popular seafood rice bowl dish bought at Kushiro’s Washo Market. Other missions include dressing up as the famous Osaka clown and “eat until you drop,” and identifying a strange object while walking along the coast in Ishigaki, Okinawa.
According to Shuntaro Kosasa, the director of this project, all the mission ideas are generated by him and his staff. “So we’re furiously coming up with new ones, so that they don’t get too old or boring,” he said.
Kosasa and his team were surprised by how much social media attention the company has gotten. The goal was to sell at least one capsule a day, but he said that since opening their first vending machine in Osaka in August, they’ve sold over 3,000 of them—a famous Japanese virtual YouTuber has tried it too.
Although the company doesn’t profit much from selling these capsules, Kosasa said the social media buzz was good news for the airline. Like other companies in the tourism industry, Peach Aviation had to significantly reduce its flights during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the fiscal year ending in March 2020, the company announced a net loss of 9.4 billion Japanese yen ($82.6 million).
Even though it’s certainly easier to buy a ticket online through the company’s website, Kosasa said anticipation—a feeling that he felt was lacking in many people’s lives during lockdowns—is what people are really after.
“Not only is it new, there’s stimulation from the excitement of not knowing which destination you’d get. It was time to do something fun,” he said.
The vending machine in Shibuya will be available until December, though Peach Aviation is considering expanding to other locations throughout Japan.