Mari Takahashi doesn’t go to the convenience store when she craves something sweet. Instead of lining up behind other office workers in central Tokyo, she slips downstairs into Ginza Station to get some fresh-sliced apple–out of a vending machine.
“I get annoyed waiting for the person at the counter to ring up someone else’s items,” said the office worker. “Walking to this vending machine may not save me time, but at least I don’t get as bothered.”
The apples (which go for 190 yen a pop) along with bananas, bread and canned ramen are some of the unexpected items that can be had from Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines.
Along with the five apple machines are four banana-vending ones in downtown Tokyo (each selling out 50 bananas daily) pushing the envelope for machine-consumer transaction.
Japan is notorious for its vending machine fixation. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake drew calls to unplug at least some of the machines to save energy as the Fukushima nuclear disaster forced reactors elsewhere to shut down.
But operators have come bounding back to earn just over 53 billion yen in sales last year. There are more than 5 million automatic dispensers in the country, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturer’s Association, so theoretically there’s one machine to serve every 25 people in the country.
It’s possible to survive a day–or maybe even weeks–living off the city’s vending machine grid. You can reach for the day’s first coffee from a machine along with some bread (canned as well) or a warm burger.
At the Ebisu and Ikebukuro stations on the Yamanote Line, among other places, you can also pick up the latest novel or nonfiction book to skim.
Then there are toiletries, replacement stockings and even reading glasses to allow you to prep up for that afternoon meeting. After work treat yourself and associates to beer and canned appetizers, such as sardines and “oden” boiled food.
On the way home grab a bouquet of flowers (from a refrigerated machine last spotted in Shinjuku Station) or a toy for the little one. During a sudden rainstorm, rush to a machine to buy a plastic umbrella.
After the lessons of the 2011 quake, vending machines are prepared for the worst-case scenario: Some bear signs announcing that the machine comes with its own temporary power source.
An increasing number of vending machines are equipped with digital displays that show a picture of the can you’re going to get instead of an actual can itself, and age-recognition cameras to target products to the buyer. It sounds like a mechanical Eden, or the future imagined by early 20th century sci-fi writers.
Makoto Nomura, a 39-year-old system engineer living in Saitama Prefecture, has been gathering information on the wares and whereabouts of Japan’s most unusual vending machines for the past 15 years.
His website, Yamadaya, lists machines discovered by contributors throughout the country that vend such delicacies as thawed sushi (found on a ferry), tuna and onion toast, and items such as temple lucky charms and miniature Japanese swords.
But these offbeat machines survive today only deep in the hinterlands, such as unmanned rest stops, Nomura said. Once spare parts are gone, the machines get carted away, along with what unusual items they offered.
According to Nomura, during the heyday of vending machines in the late 1980s and early 90s, Japan’s engineers conceived and created contraptions in all shapes and sizes, for sellers who did the same with their stock.
“Back then, vending machines really reflected something about Japan,” Nomura said. “People built them just to show what could be done. But they cost millions of yen, so that you have to wonder how many years it had to operate to earn a profit.”
The choices may be fewer today, Nomura said, but the need for what vending machines offer is here to stay.
“Japanese people are basically reclusive. Given a choice of speaking to a clerk or pushing the button on a machine, a lot of people would choose the machine,” Nomura added.