The Vending Machine Culture of Japan
If there's one thing visitors are flummoxed by when in Japan, it's got to be the sheer number of vending machines and the mind boggling variety of things that they're selling. They are everywhere - around the street, near store fronts, at apartment blocks, there's one atop mount Fuji too! At 5.2 million vending machines, that's one for every 23 people, the highest concentration of machines than in any other country. It's safe to say the Japanese like their shopping to be convenient.
It's not just the number which is so fascinating. What are some things you'd expect to buy at such a machine? Cold beverages, candy, perhaps some snacks. But in Japan you can buy everything from uncooked rice (up to 10 kilos, and have it polished!), clothes, slippers, pizza, even a real, live puppy. Let's take a look at what gave rise to Japan's unique vending machine culture.
Why are Vending Machines So Popular in Japan
- Convenience: in a culture where work hours are long and people seldom want to wait in queues to buy a few daily essentials, vending machines evolved as the obvious solution. Since they are found literally everywhere, a snack, drink or other essentials can easily be bought even at odd hours when stores are closed.
- Expensive real estate: real estate here is one of the priciest on the planet. That's because most of the country's significant population - over 90 per cent - is concentrated in the country's urban areas. Much of the island nation has rugged, mountainous terrain, pushing more and more people into it's cities and towns, thereby driving up real estate. In a place where land comes at a huge premium, compact vending machines that replace shops are bound to be popular.
- Anyone can own a vending machine: it's a popular side business for many since the process of setting up a vending machine is very streamlined and effective. Although currently all the available slots are taken up, there are diverse groups that own and run them apart from big corporations - farmers looking to sell produce to salarymen hoping to earn a little extra on the side.
- Safe country: an unmanned vending machine containing potentially valuable merchandise and plenty of money would be a cause for concern for any owner, but not in Japan. Not only are crime statistics one of the lowest in the world, these machines are seldom vandalised and can be found in dark, empty streets and corners as well. In fact, machines offering the more unique and unusual items will be located outside of very busy areas.
- Fascination with automation: robotics and automation hold a marked fascination for locals, more than in any other country. Automated systems inspire greater confidence of efficiency, and by removing salespersons, provide anonymity to people buying things they may be too shy to get from a shop, such as cigarettes, condoms and underwear. Yes, these are all sold through vending machines. We're not even getting into the urban legend of used underwear vending machines (they did exist but were outlawed and removed in the late 1990s)!
- Currency dependent society: For such a technologically advanced country, currency is still used predominantly. And everybody has coins, lots of them, because banknotes are available only from denominations of ¥1000 and up; everything below that is in coins—from ¥1 to ¥500, with ¥100 being very common. Hence, it's common to see people pay for things using coins and stores will have a coin tray for shoppers to drop their money in when making payments. With such a surplus of coins, paying for vending machine purchases is easy and convenient.
18 Japanese Vending Machines You'll Probably Not See Anywhere Else
Real, Living Puppies!
Have you ever felt the pressing, all consuming and sudden need for a pet? Why wait for pet stores and animal shelters to open at the usual time when you can go get a cute little puppy at a vending machine any time you want. That's right. Living animals kept in a cubbyhole like some kind of canned drink may make many animal lovers bristle but for those game to the idea it means pet on demand. Who would have thought man's best friend could come from a vending machine. Go figure.
Once you have your pet, through a vending machine or otherwise, there are automated machines to wash them as well!
Live Beetles and Other Dead Bugs
Collecting bugs as kids is part of growing up and learning about nature, some kids like furry kittens, others are more into catching beetles. You probably had at least a few of those kids in class who had a pet beetle they kept in a jar or hole ridden pencil box, diligently feeding it whatever they thought it ate in a bid to strengthen them for beetle fights. In today's modern and more urban environments, there aren't that many beetles to find and domesticate, even as beetle fights continue to be popular. Enter the beetle (and other bugs) vending machines. Childhood pastime delivered in a convenient can at a couple of hundred yen.
Did we mention there are loads of other bugs meant to be eaten as snacks also available at these machines? They are quite a hit in the case you're wondering whether we got the 'eaten as snacks' part right. Grasshoppers for one, are very high in protein and are touted as the food solution of the future in a world where other food supplies run low. Care to develop a taste now?
Hot Food: Pizza, Hamburgers, Curry Rice..
Movie and pizza night acquires a whole new meaning when you pick up the pizza at a vending machine on your way home while your partner shoves coins in another machine to get freshly made popcorn. Fancy instant ramen or perhaps a crepe instead? They're all being dispensed by some tin box in the vicinity or up the street. The food is hot, fresh, and may not always be the best, but enough people are eating from here to keep these in business.
Jihanki Shokudo, a Vending Machine Restaurant
In a world where vending machines are already peddling fresh and hot food, warm and cold drinks, a restaurant with no staff and only vending machines does make a lot of sense. Jihanki Shokudo is a unique restaurant with the usual tables, disposable cutlery and complementary condiments, but not a single staff in sight. Instead, three vending machines offer three types of food that are on the menu - burgers, sandwiches and noodles. If you run into trouble with any of the machines, call up the owner whose number is very helpfully listed on the machines and in the restaurant.
Otherwise, help yourself to what you want (the food is very reasonably priced and not half bad), sit, eat, read some of the magazines kept there, and clean up after yourself on leaving. It's all quite efficient.
Nothing like a delicious scoop of ice cream after a nice meal of curry rice. Why wait for someone to serve it to you or deal with the cashier at a store when you can simply get it from a vending machine. That's right, these pseudo-stores can do a lot more than keep drinks chilled. And you thought well placed candy dispensing machines were life savers.
The one downside of an ice-cream vending machine, at least for the owner, is they look lonely and unwanted during the long chilly spell that Japan's winter brings.
Soup Stock with a Whole Grilled Fish
This may sound like a strange offering to anyone not familiar with Japanese cuisine, so a little back story. You're not expected to drink this, though if you like it as a beverage there isn't a law preventing you from downing it neat. Dashi, a stock made from seaweed and fish is central to many Japanese dishes and that's what this essentially is. Remember, these vending machines are meant to be 'convenient' stores and you can dash out and pick up a bottle of these should your soba need a bit of flavour.
The most popular of these fish soups comes from a well known restaurant chain that decided to literally bottle the essence of their kitchens. The whole fish inside adds to the flavour and of course can be eaten. Still, a fish suspended in bottled brown broth is an odd sight for anyone used to seeing canned sodas and chilled drinks behind the glass.
Fresh Flower Arrangements
The genius behind a vending machine selling flowers can truly be appreciated only when you've been dumb enough to pick a fight with your wife or girlfriend at night and gotten yourself thrown out. At a time no sane florist will be open, these vending machine flowers can be the very thing that saves you a trip to the nearest motel or a night on the street. Or for a more cheerful event like the birth of a baby in the wee hours or some other happy event that demands flowers.
Besides, crowded cities like Tokyo don't often have sidewalks where florists can set up their delicate wares, and not everyone can afford flowers from a florist that can afford a proper store. A win-win all around.
Ties, Sushi Socks and T-Shirt in a Can
In a city like Tokyo the need for easy availability of such items is self-explanatory, but you're more likely a reader drawn by how exotic this vending machine culture is, so we'll explain.
The work environment is a formal one where everyone suits up, Barney Stinson would approve, and a used tie from a previous day when you couldn't make it home to change (that happens more often than you'd think), food spots, or just the lack of a tie are all unacceptable.
Next, socks. These aren't a type of sushi, just regular socks (maybe more colourful than regular ones) carefully folded and arranged to look like sushi. Why? Because it's cute! And the Japanese culture of cuteness, or kawaii, means everything is better when cute, even traffic and danger signs.
Which brings us to the t-shirt in a can. Well, because who knows when you need a new T. There are other clothing and accessories available too.
Vegetables and Fruit
Lettuce, vegetables, oranges, banana, apples and other fresh produce all have dedicated vending machines, often set up by farmers wanting to sell their harvest. Nothing particularly remarkable about the products themselves, but seeing them stacked inside a vending machine is a bit odd.
It's not just regular fruit that is available - for example, there's chopped apple for sale, chopped and peeled, chopped-peeled and with honey. Fruit like bananas and oranges tend to be popular and will often be found in and around public transport facilities. Can't have the locals missing out on their daily dose of fiber and vitamins.
Eggs, Milk and Bread
Find yourself wishing these vending machines were located near your apartment block? We don't blame you because we're wishing for the same! The most basic of essentials and typical breakfast items had to wind up in vending machines some time! There's another local version of bread in some of these machines, and it comes in a can. It may not be your go-to bread, but hey, there's bread whenever you want it!
Toy 'Gashapon' Machines
Gashapon, for the uninitiated, are toys in a capsule; the word also refers to the vending machines that sell them. A fairly well known concept around the world where you put a few coins in the machine and a surprise toy or collectible pops out from the dispenser. The machine will indicate the theme and what kind of toy you may expect. Only, where you'd find a few odd machines in front of stores or random public places in other parts of the world, in Japan they're something of a phenomenon and a quarter billion dollar industry.
It's not just the kids who collect them but people of all ages. In fact, people in their 40s and 50s will refer to these toy dispensers and figurines as 'gasha-gasha', the name from their own childhood. From cute and kawaii figurines, miniature manga and anime characters to key chains, these toys come as sets and collectors either try and acquire the whole set or look for unique pieces. The quality is also pretty high when compared to typical capsule toys. But what really sets the Japanese gashapon apart from capsule toys is the sheer number of machines there are. Don't expect one or a few machines, there will often be hundreds of them lining an entire wall. Arcades and sections at department stores are dedicated to these toy machines.
Sure, this makes sense. We've all had our bubble wrap emergencies where a 24 hour vending machine would've been extremely helpful. This one though, is unusual even by Japanese standards as it involvs first buying a toy capsule that contains the code to unlock a box to finally retrieve the roll of wrap. But intricate purchasing methods aside, several meters of bubble wrap in under US$ 5 seems like a pretty good deal.
Umbrellas and Bike Parts
Japan has found an ideal solution to unexpected rainstorms and bicycle breakdowns. Vending machines, that's right. Besides the rainy season in June and July and typhoon season in September, humid summer days can see occasional bouts of rain, and getting caught in the rain without an umbrella is common. So not only are there machines selling umbrellas for cheap (do not expect these to last you for years), an enterprising beverage company has started offering them for free on their vending machines - simply use and return at the next convenient machine. They're banking on people's honesty, but in a place where crime is low, returning borrowed things isn't a problem for folk.
What's more inconvenient than being caught in a rain shower without an umbrella is having your bicycle breakdown en route to somewhere important and no repair shop nearby. Thus vending machines selling bike parts is like a frustrated biker's prayers being answered. This gets full points for thoughtfulness.
Live Lobster and Fresh Seafood
Only in Japan will you find a claw machine with live lobsters as the prize. Practice your catching skills and you could walk away with a fresh lobster for as little as ¥100. The Japanese do love their fish and remove a mind boggling volume and variety of seafood from the sea each year, so a popular game around the theme is not very surprising. Our only question, what do you do with the lobster right after? Catching them from the sea only to be stuck in a box where they are turned into a claw game? That will put even the most mild mannered lobster in a foul mood. We hope there are provisions to cook them quickly!
There is other seafood also available, though not as alive and swimming. China, on the other hand, is competing with Japan on this front with living crabs being sold through vending machines. They're boxed in a neat cage that prevents their claws from breaking and which can be dropped directly into boiling water to cook them. The machine keeps them cold enough to be asleep but alive.
Sake, Beer and Cocktails
Not being able to buy beer or sake because stores are either closed, or past their sale of alcohol deadlines is clearly a thing of the past in Japan. Vending machines sell everything from beer, liquors, cocktails and sake, and since drinking in public places is legal over there, you can enjoy your drink where you like too. If chatting up the bartender while waiting for the next round isn't your thing, these machines are for you.
Although newer vending machines are being fitted with special card readers to prevent sale to minors. The legal drinking age in Japan in 20 years, and machines placed in the vicinity of schools will most likely be locked by these readers. An age verification card like a driver's license or sake cards issued by the city hall can make any of these machines accessible.
Rice is the staple food eaten across Japan so we weren't exactly surprised to find vending machines sell it. But 10 kilo bags of uncooked rice? Now that wasn't as expected. Different machines will offer multiple bagged options of 10 kilo bags of various types of rice, other machines offer to polish it for you too. So no matter what kind of rice you eat, there's a machine out there that will sell enough of it to feed you for days!
Wigs for Dogs
It's true that some of the strangest things money can buy are found in Japan, wigs for dogs being a very good example. Now a pet pooch may not have a balding problem but a completely wacky wig can sure make him or her look great for a costume party. Wondering how it fits on a dog's head, or how long before it is clawed out? You will just have to buy one and try it on a willing dog to find that out. On the other hand, these can be great to have on long boring days when you can't find a way to amuse yourself! Doggy photo shoot anyone?
Plastic Food Samples
It's standard practice for Japanese restaurants to display lifelike replicas of the meals they offer in shop windows. Made from synthetic materials, these enable diners to see what the food will look like. It's big business we hear, with good craftsmanship earning thousands of dollars to design a menu. We personally think it's great to be able to see your food before ordering.
What we don't get is why would someone want miniature replicas of such food at home. But apparently people do, because a vending machine is selling miniature replicas of set meals, egg on toast, broken pieces of chocolate and ice cream pops to wear as trinkets or to use as key chains. They seem quite realistic too and may be useful for pranking. Otherwise decorate your office desk with a seafood platter, or display a plate of wings at home, you know, just to remember what food looks like.