On the Vending Machines of Japan
Tirragen Vixie, Staff Writer
October 6, 2011
Filed under Travel
They stand throughout the country, quietly humming as they transfer heat and feed on electric power to light their multicolored displays. One type, bright red and emblazoned with brand names, shamelessly advertises the corporate giants who made it. The distinctive feature of another might simply be the products it sells – or the strange fact of a nearly identical twin next to it – or the row of triplets across the way, the one around the corner, the half-dozen populating a subway tunnel – or the five million-plus across Japan.
“In a Western-style hotel there are usually a few vending machines in the lobby,” I told my brother. “But we’re in a Japanese one, so there will probably be one across the street.” As it turns out, there are two vending machines in our hotel lobby aahand four across the street: a trio and one standing alone perhaps ten feet away. I quickly lost count of those we saw on our way to the hotel, but every train platform, every subway, and every street or alley has at least one vending machine, perhaps six or seven.
Why? How? The idea itself isn’t unfamiliar to the American mind, but the extreme to which Japan takes it is incredible. We have a handful of vending machines at Woodside High School, but the range of drinks offered is limited and only available to us at certain times. In addition, the country’s rate of petty crime may make some people reluctant to install unattended vending machines; and our consumer culture, which relies heavily on our cars and chain convenience stores, does not make them the likeliest of business ventures. Lacking Japan’s reliance on public transportation, we rarely gather anywhere; even in places where we do gather (such as professional sporting events, or places of worship), we don’t expect vending machines.
In these ways, Japan is a near-perfect antithesis of our country: there is very little crime, it is often unnecessary to own a car, and the entire country is a high-density gathering of people, which makes vending machines wildly successful. By most estimations, Japan has one vending machine per twenty-three residents, and they tend to gather multiple billions of U.S. dollars per year.
And yet one might wonder: even if our country rivaled the number and density of Japan’s vending machines, would we ever approach the culture it has developed around them? The vending machine in Sapporo that offers live lobsters suggests the answer “likely not,” but similar -and more normal- answers can be seen in almost every display. A research venture to the local triplets revealed “Aloe and White Grape,” “Fruits Mix,” and all manners of “Wonda” coffee including “Wonda: Body Shot.” Another classic case is “Pocari Sweat,” spoken of in whispers and pondered warily by Japan’s visitors. Your loyal reporter has tried it for the purpose of this write-up, but politely refuses to comment on its nature. The mystery lives on.
It seems almost absurd to conclude this by urging readers to experience Japanese vending machines for themselves; those who are in a position to visit Japan will, without doubt, do so. But it is my hope to provide a glimpse of this world to all of you, on the familiar, backlit screen of your laptop: the thick, humid September air, the contrast of a cold, hard drink can in your hand and the beads of condensation on its colored aluminum. Japan lives in its automatic vending machines as much as in its temples, shrines, cherry blossoms and tatami matresses; and the taste of automatic ¥120 iced coffee – or perhaps even Pocari Sweat – is one of the many tastes of Japan.
Other stories in Travel