Convenience to consumers is a big plus of life in Japan, as evidenced by the many branches of 7-eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson convenience stores that are found on seemingly every street corner in the country. Even more ubiquitous are the vending machines.
In fact, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, Japan has over 5.5 million vending machines ー more than the entire European Union!
In the city, these convenient vending machines are on practically every block, often clustered into groups of two or three to give an even wider variety of choices. And while you are less likely to find them in big quantities in the countryside, they are still present, often in substitution of stores in areas that get low foot traffic.
Vending machines have even made their way into more surprising contexts as well, such as the machines that one uses to order at ramen restaurants.
I personally love finding these vending machines, especially on hot summer days when keeping cool and hydrated is important. Plus, Japanese vending machines are always reliable, as opposed to the ones I’d encountered in America, which, more often than not, are broken or malfunction after you’ve inserted money.
As with many things in Japan, vending machines here can vary from ordinary to downright wacky! Read on for a primer on this beloved everyday amenity, as well as a list of my favorites.
Japanese Vending Machines: The Basics
The most common vending machines you’ll see in Japan dispense beverages such as water, soda, sports drinks, and bottles of coffee and tea. While the majority of these are cold beverages, in the winter the machines are upgraded to include a row of hot drinks as well. Let me tell you, being able to easily grab a hot coffee or tea while waiting for a train or walking home on a cold winter day is the epitome of convenience.
Other advantages to vending machines are that the drinks are not too expensive (you can usually get water for ¥100-¥120 JPY, or $.92 to $1.18 USD) and there is almost always a bin for empty cans and bottles nearby. Seeing as how garbage cans are practically nonexistent in Japan, it’s good to know where you can properly throw things away.
Along with drinks, you can commonly spot vending machines selling snacks, such as cookies or candy, and ice cream, another great find during the summer months.
For more, ahem, adult tastes it is also normal to see vending machines stocked with beer or cigarettes. While these are certainly eye-catching, note that in order to use these machines you must swipe a Japanese driver’s license to get your booze or smokes, preventing minors from accessing these restricted items.
Japanese Vending Machines: Weird and Wacky
One particularly interesting vending machine that is cropping up in parking lots around Tokyo is the dashi vending machine. Although it’s sold in the same plastic bottle as water or tea, you don’t want to drink it straight! Dashi is a traditional fish-based soup stock that is used in countless Japanese dishes.
A closer look at these bottles yields a surprising discovery – an entire flying fish in the bottle! While dashi is commonly made with seaweed and dried fish shavings, it can have other ingredients, and flying fish supposedly adds a superior umami (flavor) to the broth.
The dashi vending machine scheme was developed by a company in Hiroshima prefecture, and the item proved to be so popular that it has spread all the way to Tokyo. Items in these machines range from ¥800-¥1,000 JPY ($7.35-$9.20 USD) and they can be found in Mitsui Repark Carparks all over Tokyo. For a full list of locations, click here.
Not Just Food and Drink
Of course, the fascinating world of vending machines goes beyond food and beverages. Recently, quite a few vending machines selling masks have appeared on the streets during the pandemic.
Machines with paper surgical masks can be found at Haneda airport as well as in DyDo drinks machines around the city. But on the fashionable streets of Harajuku and Aoyama there are some more fun and funky cloth masks to check out.
Another item necessary to daily life in Japan is a hanko, a round seal with one’s name on it that you stamp in lieu of your signature on official documents. Unless you have a common name, hankos had to be custom-ordered ー until, that is, the invention of the Hanko Jihanki!
Found in most Don Quixote stores, these machines can create a seal for you in about 10 minutes. The touch screen is multi-lingual and easy to use. And there are lots of options for the materials, such as wood or sturdy plastic, as well as add-ons, such as cases for your special stamp. Custom hankos from these machines run from as little as ¥500 and up to ¥2,500 JPY ($4.60 to $23 USD). For a full list of locations, click here.
Searching Out Interesting Vending Machines
While you can certainly spot vending machines all over, one great destination to go in search of them is Akihabara, a Tokyo neighborhood that is a mecca for electronics and niche collectables.
Of all the beverage vending machines I’ve found, the most niche one has to be the milk vending machine at JR Akihabara Station. Nestled amongst a long row of robotic vendors, this cow-spotted kiosk contains bottled milk drinks from all over Japan.
I tried the vanilla-flavored milk from Kumamoto, which is quite delicious and creamy. Also popular is the cafe au lait from Fukushima, an exclusive item that is not available outside of Fukushima – except in this vending machine! Drinks vary from ¥110-¥140 JPY ($1-$1.30 USD). You can spot this special milk vending machine only on platform 5 of JR Akihabara Station.
By far the strangest assortment of vending machines has to be the bizarre cluster on a street corner in Akihabara, which can be found on Google Maps by searching “Nido Distributori Automatici.” Browsing these somewhat tired and creepy vending machines, you will find plenty of drinks to be sure, but also a truly odd selection of items: toy trains and beetles, batteries, oden (a hot winter stew-like dish), curry, a jar of bells (with a Japanese label that translates to “bells for everyone”).
You will also see a number of boxes wrapped in plain white paper with Japanese writing on them. While I couldn’t read any of these, the word on the street is that the writing is a bit titillating, but that the items inside are ordinary.
Also located here is a retro popcorn machine, a photo booth that has surely seen better days, and a condom vending machine. The overall creepy and desolate ambience of the place adds to the experience.
Much more than simply trusted items of convenience, Japanese vending machines are stocked with an incredible variety of surprising and strange items, and they are a lot of fun to check out. Happy exploring!
Author: Mo Stone
Find other fun stories from Mo Stone’s explorations at this link.