It can be because you’ve been to Japan or you’ve read it somewhere online, but there’s no doubting the fact that Japan is vending machine heaven. There is an abundance of them that it is said to have one vending machine per 23 people! Available all day every day, these vending machines are just reflections of the convenience consumer society as well as the Japanese’s reliability.
The most common vending machine you’ll see on the streets of Japan is the standard one that offers drinks. Don’t be surprised if you come across some unusual ones — that’s the charm of Japan. Some of us may have the nostalgic memory of vending machines being more of a tug of war to get a bag of chips or a chocolate bat out of the machine but rest assured the vending machines of Japan are as peaceful as they get.
The Japanese Vending Machines
One could never guess the number of vending machines there are in Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun has the highest density of vending machines in the whole world, just slightly over 5 million in the whole country! Sales from just these vending machines alone are more than $60 billion annually!
The use of vending machines started as early as the 1960s. In the same year, the supply of 100 yen was increased so that citizens can use vending machines easier. How are these vending machines so successful in Japan? It’s mostly because of the high population density and the need for convenience from the people.
With so many of these vending machines, you’ll be surprised at where you can find one. Even the most unexpected places, expect to see one. There’s even one on Mt. Fuji’s summit!
What Japanese Vending Machines Tell About Their Culture
Much can be said about the culture of the Japanese people from just the obvious existence of the vending machines in Japan. It is arguably part of their culture as well. The implementation, expansion, and success are all because of the people of the country as well as how the country functions.
While most countries in the world are moving on to being a cashless society, Japan is rather stuck on being a cash-based one. The people have such a heavy reliance on physical cash. Not all restaurants, shops, and public transportation stations accept credit or debit cards — in fact, quite a number of them only accept cash.
The people of Japan not only carry paper bills but coins as well. In Japan, the coins come in high denominations like 50 yen, 100 yen, and 500 yen. That’s equivalent to about USD0.50, USD1, and USD5. Who would’ve thought that a five-dollar bill comes in coin form in Japan!
Because of the abundance of coins that everyone is carrying around, it’s much more convenient to pop in a coin into the vending machine. It gets rid of the jangling change while at the same time rewarding yourself to a refreshing drink!
The high cost of labor
Japan is facing some serious declining birth rates and an aging population. Because of those factors alongside a lack of immigration to Japan, labour is scarce and costly. The vending machines in Japan are a big-time solution to this problem as it eliminates the need for sales clerks. It’s also cheaper to set up a vending machine as these machines only need periodic visits for replenishment, emptying the cash, and occasional maintenance.
Fascinated by automation
Japanese people are obsessed with automation. No other country has as much automation as Japan. You’ll definitely believe this fact if you’ve heard about the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo. The Japanese heavily rely on and trust in their automated systems. Because of this fascination, vending machines are so popular among the local citizens.
Types of Japanese Vending Machines
Because vending machines are so popular, one can assume there will always be constant improvements and upgrades to cater to the market demands. As the vending machine industry in Japan expands, so does the technology used to create these types of machinery. Let’s look at the types of Japanese vending machines you can find in Japan!
Classic vending machines
The classic Japanese vending machines are pretty self-explanatory. They are the most common kinds of vending machines that you find in Japan. You can easily spot a classic Japanese vending machine. Most of the time, they give off a retro vibe and only have coin slots. Depending on where you are in Japan, these classic vending machines might have a design on them If you’re in one of the busy cities in Tokyo, then they’re most definitely having some sort of advert or animation design on them as a promotion. If you find yourself in a neighborhood street or an extremely local town, chances are the vending machines there are plain white.
Touch-payable vending machines
An upgrade from the classic vending machines includes not only a note slot but also a reader where customers can use their IC transport cards to pay. These readers are not even the ones you have to slot in the card itself — they are touch payable! That saves you the hassle of rummaging through your pocket or bag for change to get a can of refreshment — talk about convenience. Plus, you won’t be piling up a stack of 1 or 5 yen coins!
Touch panel vending machines
The latest generation of Japanese vending machines are the ones with touch panels. This type is the most recent type, only being around for just over a year. These touch panel vending machines aren’t widely available even in big cities, let alone ones outside of them. Big stations in Tokyo and Osaka are the ultimate places to find them.
Some of these touch panel vending machines even have CG displays that show messages according to season or events like Halloween or spring cherry blossoms. Other times, expect TV-like commercials or weather forecasts for the day or week. Regardless of what it shows, there will always be something showing on these touch panel vending machines.
If you think that’s all for the touch panel vending machines, you’re wrong! They even show the details of the drinks they offer including descriptions of the drinks, volume, calorie count and, of course, price. Talk about high-tech!
How To Use A Japanese Vending Machine
You might think, “why would I need to know how to use a vending machine?” They are pretty simple to operate, but most of them do not have any English explanations for operation or drinks. While it may be straightforward for most, it’s best to generally know how all of the Japanese vending machines function.
1. Insert Payment
As with all types of vending machines everywhere, you will first have to insert your payment — bill notes or coins. Once you’ve inserted the sufficient amount, the lights on the vending machine will light up.
Vending machines in Japan accept only 1,000 yen bills, and every other coin except for 1 yen and 5 yen. This is a great tip so you can take a mental note when heading towards a vending machine. It’s not a great feeling to be already in front of one and not have change for a can. But if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a touch-payable one, just swipe your IC card and you’re good to go!
2. Choose your drink
After you’ve inserted payment, you have to select your beverage by pushing the lit up button underneath them. Most of the time, the names of the drinks are in kanji (漢字) or katakana (カタカナ), so it might be a bit difficult to find your desired drink. Even with the displays of bottles, some of them aren’t exactly clear what they are. Coffee can be a latte and plain water can look like a carbonated sports drink. Here are some useful Japanese words to keep a lookout when browsing through the selection at a Japanese vending machine:
水 — water
ジュース — juice
お茶, 御茶, 緑茶 — green tea
ミルクティー milk tea
麦茶 — barley tea
ココア — cocoa
砂糖, 微糖 — with sugar
無糖, ブラック — Coffee (black) or without sugar
3. Take your change
After you’ve selected your beverage, the can will fall into the hole at the bottom of the machine. Don’t forget your change! Quite a number of people do. The coins will fall into the change tray at the side, so take them before you leave the vending machine!
A helpful tip
Similar drinks can vary in price at different vending machines. The ones in the city centers are usually priced higher than the ones you find on residential streets. Keep a lookout for 100-yen coin vending machines, where almost all the drinks are priced at 100 yen!
Things You Can Buy At Japanese Vending Machines
So how are Japanese vending machines any different from vending machines everywhere else in the world? For one — and probably the most significant one — is that these vending machines not only offer beverages but also other sorts of unusual and interesting products. Here’s a list of some of the more common products offered by Japanese vending machines!
No, you didn’t read the title wrong — you can find a cigarette vending machine in Japan. And only in Japan! You don’t even have to pop into a konbini (コンビニ) for a pack of cigarettes, just get your convenient pack of cigarettes on-the-go. The country is still a major smoking country, which is why this is even an option.
While there are fewer of these types of Japanese vending machines, there are some still available in certain areas in Japan. Alcohol vending machines exist — everything from a local beer to a flavoured Japanese vodka are offered. If you’re really interested in seeing one of these in person but would prefer not to roam the streets of Japan for one, most hotels often have them.
Natto (ナット) is a Japanese fermented soybean that is one of the essential ingredients in a power-packed breakfast, complete with the required nutrients. There’s no surprise that natto is offered as one of the products in a Japanese vending machine due to its high popularity. One of the best places to have a look for yourself of a natto vending machine is at Ikejiri-Ohashi station.
Everyone will need a quick energy boost once in a while, and what’s a better natural energy boost than a quick fruity bite? Head over to a fruit vending machine — there are tons of them including ones that offer bananas, apples, and even strawberries. From peeled to unpeeled, ready-to-eat slices to the whole fruit, you’ll be spoilt for choices. Some of them even offer dippings like honey — what a treat! Shibuya station has a banana vending machine and Kasumigaseki station has an apple one — just for your reference in case you don’t feel like strolling aimlessly in search of these tasty treats in machines.
Most, if not all, of the Japanese cuisine, is defined and dependent on dashi (だし), an umami-rich stock that’s made from dried kelp and bonito. It’s the foundation of the local dishes. It’s no wonder this staple ingredient is offered in Japanese vending machines! A vending machine manufacturer called Dashidouraku is the one that came up with this genius idea, so if you’re ever running out of dashi, just a quick run to the nearest dashi vending machine will solve all your problems.
Japan’s weather can sometimes get unpredictable. When the weather forecast says it’s going to be sunny the whole day but then it suddenly starts pouring, pop by the nearest vending machine that sells umbrellas! These umbrella vending machines are often conveniently located, like the one at JR Suidobashi station.
The more unusual option of them all is an oden vending machine. An oden (おでん) usually consists of a few ingredients like boiled eggs and processed fish cakes stewed in a light soy-flavored dashi broth. Get yourself an oden in a can at one of these oden vending machines!
Need a little bit of excitement on your Japan trip? These mystery vending machines are definitely going to give that to you! There’s not usually just one specific vending machine that offers surprise products. Rather, it’s one of the options of a regular vending machine with an option of a product wrapped in white paper and has a question mark on it. It can be anything from chocolate snacks to a surprise drink. A relief or anticlimactic — either way, it’s a joyous mini roller coaster ride.
There’s no doubt that Japan is the King when it comes to vending machines. The Japanese people depend on them so much and it’s becoming one of the biggest highlights of the Japanese culture. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, keep an eye out for all the various types of Japanese vending machines! If you’re already living in Japan, keep a tab of the kinds of Japanese vending machines you’ve encountered — there are so many more that have not been mentioned here. The Japanese are so creative and innovative, so expect anything and everything in a Japanese vending machine!