Little capsules of history.

Japan’s capsule toy machines offer all sorts of different items, but the basic transaction is pretty much the same for all of them: you feed the machine some pocket change, and it spits out a prize.

On a recent walk in downtown Tokyo, though, we found a capsule toy machine in which you don’t exchange coins for toys or trinkets, but instead exchange your coins for other coins.

We found this unusual machine in the Okachimachi neighborhood, which has a large number of shops that specialize in second-hand watches, jewelry, and precious stones and metals. Specifically, we found it outside the store Shizendo, and the placard declared that it dispenses genuine Kanei Tsuho, a type of coin used during the Edo period of Japanese history, when the country was still ruled by the shogun and samurai class. The machine even promised that each coin comes with a certificate of appraisal, verifying that the coin was minted sometime between the years 1626 and 1869, the span in which Kanei Tsuho were produced.

The capsule machine’s asking price is a mere 200 yen (US$1.40), which seems like a bargain for an authentic antique, so we tossed in two of our modern-day 100-yen coins, turned the handle, and out popped a capsule with a Kanei Tsuho inside!

▼ A cord is threaded through the hole in the center of the Kanei Tsuho, so that you can use it as an accessory strap.

As promised, also inside the capsule was a piece of paper authenticating the artifact…

…well, kind of authenticating it. It might be a little hard to tell if you don’t read Japanese, but some of the text at the far right side of the paper is sort of cropped out. What’s more, there’s no mention of who performed the appraisal, and the document itself seems to have been prepared in-house by Shizendo, not an independent third party.

▼ One side of our Kanei Tsuho…

▼ …and the other.

The coin certainly looked old, but we wanted to be sure. Luckily, close by we stumbled across the Okachimachi branch of Kosensho, a store that buys and sells antique and rare coins, among other items.

▼ Kosensho

“Hi there,” a staff member greeted us as we walked in. We asked if they could take a look at our Kanei Tsuho and confirm whether it was a real antique or a modern fake. They said they’d be happy too, and were able to give us an answer almost soon as we presented the coin, telling us that, yes indeed, it was a real Kanei Tsuho! Wow, maybe we could now flip the artifact and make a tidy profit on our 200-yen capsule toy gacha investment!

That daydream was short-lived, though, as the staff then explained why they were able to complete the appraisal so quickly:

“They made tons and tons of these back in the Edo period, so there are a lot of them still out there, even today, and we see them frequently. They’re not worth very much at all…[so] we can pretty much be sure that it’s a real Kanei Tsuho, since there’s not really any money to be made by making fakes.”

Still, they said they could take it off our hands, but cautioned us that they couldn’t pay a very high price for it. In the end, after we’d paid 200 yen for our Kanei Tsuho…

…they gave us 5 yen for it.

▼ They did give us a really nice, shiny 5-yen coin, though, maybe because they felt sorry for us.

Thankfully, a 195-yen loss is a financial setback we won’t lose too much sleep over. In relative terms, though, it’s a pretty disastrous result, as we lost over 97 percent of our original outlay, proving, once again, that rare coin speculation really isn’t our thing.

On the other hand, the capsule machine hadn’t made any promise that the Kanei Tsuho it dispenses are valuable, just that they’re genuine, and there’s something undeniably cool about being able to own an actual piece of samurai-era history for just 200 yen.

Location information
Capsule machine located at:
Shizendo (main branch) / 自然堂(本店)
Address: Tokyo-to, Taito-ku, Ueno 5-10-20
Open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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