In other countries vending machines are usually fairly mundane, primarily consisting of sodas, water and the occasional snack. Not so in Japan. Here you can find vending machines for nearly everything and almost on every corner of the country. Even rural areas have their fair share of vending machines though naturally urban sites have the highest concentrations and wildest variety.
It is estimated that 5 or so million vending machines are spread across the country, 5 million; this comes out to roughly 1 vending machine for every 20 people. So at a certain point we have to ask, why? Why is it that Japan has so many vending machines with such wide-ranging items on display? Part of it is perhaps the cost of labor because after all its easier to invest in a vending machine and pay for occasional repairs than have someone staffing a grocery store or convenience store throughout the day; plus vending machines are 24 hours a day thereby adding another incentive. Japan is also pretty well populated and with growing land costs, the compact but well-stocked vending machine is a good alternative to a large store. Occasionally you might find a machine that plays songs and usually you’ll be able to run into a few that talk to you as you make your purchase, with the most advanced models being fully equipped with touch screens.
The most common items found in vending machines here are sodas and coffee, the interesting thing being that by the time it is winter, many vending machines will also start to offer a hot can of coffee. This really comes in handy if you’re in a hurry or are just trying to warm up your hands in the blistering cold winds of Japanese winters. Another popular hot item is the can of soup, often it is corn chowder served in the same type of can as coffee; yes it is weird to drink soup as if it were a soda but it’s portable surprisingly tasty, for a canned vending machine product.
At a certain point, though, vending machines here start to get weird. Every now and then you’ll run into umbrella vending machines, selling them usually for the economical price of 500 yen or around $5 which does come in handy during those rainy Japanese summers or typhoon. Pantyhose vending machines are also fairly common, which I suppose cater to working women who might have accidental tears in their clothing though I can’t help but feel it may also cater to the weird fantasies of older Japanese men. There are entire vending machines dedicated to single products from eggs to cans of hot ramen and even fully stocked beer and sake machines, for when you need to get drunk on the go, I suppose.
But this only starts to scratch the surface of vending machines because some of the weirdest products range from full breakfasts to slices of apple, fermented soy beans and even milk. Wit the high cost of tropical foods, machines with bananas are quite popular, as are those stocked with t-shirts. With a dizzying variety of products that can be found just by inserting a few coins, Japan’s vending machine industry accounts for $60 billion dollars per year. As automation becomes ever more important due to the Japanese birthrate plummeting, it is almost certain that more and more of these machines will appear on the streets and corners of the country to make up for the deficiency of a labor force.
In the meantime enjoy a nice hot can of corn chowder and wash it down with some Boss Coffee but remember not to walk and eat because this is a no-no in Japan. Always stay in one place to enjoy what you purchase from vending machines and always, always remember to dispose of your trash in an appropriate manner.