Whenever I meet a new Japanese friend or acquaintance, I am always asked this curious question, “When you first came to Japan, what surprised/shocked you the most?”
Well… there were many things. In the first year alone, I think that more things caught my attention than I could keep track of. And as I locked up my bicycle in front of the Loft in the center of Umeda yesterday, I remembered what one of those first ‘shocking’ impressions was.
One of the major ice cream companies had just released a new flavor or two to their line of vending machine accessible ice cream cones. As a sweet promotional incentive – no pun intended – they had set up shop in front of the Loft, handing out FREE ice cream to a crowd of eager onlookers. At the end of the line there stood two vending machines filled with the regular flavors plus the new additions. It was at that spot where many excited people were given a free ice cream cone by the promoters of the event. As I watched the queue of happy people wrap around the Loft and head on up the stairs (who wouldn’t stand in line for a free ice cream cone?) I began to feel nostalgic.
Ice cream cones in vending machines! I never would have considered the possibility before coming to Japan. Nor would I have ever chosen such a dull topic to write an essay on… until I realized that these mechanical wonders have far surpassed their original designs. Sure, there are vending machines in North America filled to the max with carbonated beverages in cans and occasionally bottles (but always cold), candy, potato chips, and sometimes even toys. But in comparison to the outlandish items that one can purchase from a Japanese vending machine, they are rather tame.
And so, inspired by the impact of vending machines on Japanese society, as well as the implications for the future, I amazingly pulled off a 5 page essay with the information I gathered. When my Japanese teacher read my graduating essay title, in response to “What surprised you the most about Japan?” she looked puzzled. My title translated into something like “Vending machines taking over the human race”. The original title anyway. My sense of humor in English doesn’t translate marvelously into Japanese so I took no offense when the teacher requested that I choose a more comprehensible title.
23 people = 1 vending machine
This may come as a shock to some but did you know that there is approximately 1 vending machine for every 23 people? To better visualize such an incredible number, I just think about 1 corner of an overcrowded train car during rush hour. There have got to be well over 23 people jammed into that tiny space. Imagine if we added a vending machine. 23 people + 1 vending machine = chaos. Under normal conditions, the odds of all 23 people rushing to the same vending machine at once are virtually non-existent. Thankfully! These contraptions are highly profitable and bring in over $56 billion per year.
There are of course the ordinary vending machines that dispense regular cold drinks. Then again, cold tea only became ‘ordinary’ to me after I’d lived in Japan for quite a number of months. Add canned coffee and the option of having these drinks served piping hot during the winter and you get an astonishing combination of a hot/cold beverage vending machine. This feature was not achieved overnight, requiring the creation of a special mechanism which regulates the temperature, therefore containing hot drinks in the winter and cold during the summer. A large number of these crazy machines house both hot and cold drinks at the same time so you can shop according to your mood. For me, this is a great solution for cold fingers in the winter and keeping the humidity at bay in the summer.
At just about every major tourist site there are vending machines that sell souvenirs. One of the more widespread souvenir machines are the ones that sell coins that are unique to the place where you purchase them from. For example, if you buy a coin from the zoo it’s going to have the name of the zoo and an animal printed on it. Take that coin and place it into a second machine, enter your name and drop in some change and now your coin has been engraved with your name and the date. For a couple of bucks, it makes a really memorable souvenir.
A lot of the fast food noodle and rice bowl shops have vending machines where you select your meal and pay for it before you enter the shop. This saves a great deal of time and frustration if you’re like me and keep changing your mind on what you intend to order, even after reaching the cashier. All bus, train, and subway tickets are purchased from machines, scanned by electronic gates and at the end of the day, eaten by those same gates once you’ve reached the end of your journey.
All of the previously mentioned vending machines are extremely convenient and keeping in mind that Japan has the largest number of vending machines per capita, they are never hard to find.
If I put in xx yen, what is going to come out?
Now… onto some of the stranger vending machines, some of which I have seen and others I only learnt about as part of my research for my essay.
Beetles. What are beetles doing in vending machines? Whereas I spent my childhood catching grasshoppers for my younger sister to play with, the young children of Japan thrive on the existence of beetles. They are a popular trend that never has and probably never will die down. In some areas of Japan, kabuto-mushi (rhinoceros beetle) are sold from vending machines along the roadside. Since all of the young children that I know (in Japan) love scouring the mountainside in the hopes of finding these little critters, it isn’t too difficult for me to believe that these machines have got to be a popular attraction. A similar machine sells fishing lines, hooks, and bait for anyone who gets the sudden urge to fish.
There are also vending machines that sell eggs, rice, vegetables and flowers. I guess that these have to be closely monitored for spoilage and expiration dates but are otherwise an interesting concept. They work well in the more rural areas that don’t boast a convenience store on every second block. One vending machine that I came across really baffled me. A refrigerated locker to temporarily store your perishables while you… do what? Maybe for the people who shop backwards, buying their groceries before window shopping. I try my best to keep grocery shopping as far detached from window shopping and hanging out with my friends as is humanly possible.
For anyone who has had a hard day at work, and enjoys a cold beer or a pack of cigarettes, Japan has plenty of vending machines at your disposal. At one of the English schools where I worked during my first year in Japan, the staff used to huddle around a cluster of vending machines opposite the building after work. As soon as all the filing was done, they would rush over to the vending machines with their coin cases. The odd one or two people would purchase a pack of cigarettes, and the rest would decide between beer and sake. The vending machines made a cozy little area to loiter in, chatting away and sampling the local alcoholic beverages.
A common problem one of the company’s I worked for in Canada had was the shortage of toilet paper. We never discovered who was behind the toilet paper ‘theft’ but every day, large numbers of toilet rolls would go missing. This problem has been solved in a lot of the train station washrooms in Japan where toilet paper theft is also a regular occurrence. Instead of risking the toilet paper going missing, it is locked away inside a vending machine, ready for purchase for a reasonable fee.
Another popular form of vending machine is the type where you can buy plastic figurines/toys for 100-200 yen a piece. These flourish around kids’ stores, video/game rentals, train stations, and recently multiplied in number on Yodobashi Camera’s gaming floor. One of my students is constantly pestering his mother for money to drop into these machines. It isn’t a rare thing to find that some of these machines empty out pretty quickly before the end of the day.
Don’t miss a single call!
In today’s cellular-reliant society, we don’t want to be put into the uncomfortable situation of walking around with a battery-dead cell phone in our bag or pocket. Not only is it inconvenient – and nobody likes inconvenient anymore than I do – but it also raises the degree of insecurity that most of us keep under control. What if my family calls? What if I get lost? What if…? So thankfully, cell phone recharging machines are increasing in numbers, the answer to all of our ‘what if’ scenarios.
Universal Studios has a vending machine that sells plastic ponchos in front of their Jurassic Park ride. This is for anyone who doesn’t want to ruin their hair or get soaked on a cool day. I’ve been told that another vending machine elsewhere in Tokyo sells umbrellas. I’ve seen one vending machine in Mie that sold pearl accessories. Whether or not these were genuine I’m not sure. A couple of vending machines I’ve come across also offered batteries.
All in all the vending machines in Japan are just about everywhere you look, and have miraculously been untouched by vandalism up until this point. In order to protect the environment, a mechanism was installed into beverage vending machines in order to shut the power off during peak hours. In 2005, Fuji Electric Retail Systems began selling new CFC-free vending machines that utilize carbon dioxide as a non-combustible refrigerant. These models consume 40% less energy than the energy-saving models that won awards in 2004. So not only are these vending machines more technologically advanced than the ones that I’ve seen in my own country, but they are also taking measures to improve their designs for the future of the environment.
Convenience store vs. Vending machines
So, while these vending machines are incredibly popular and make an unimaginable amount of money, one must wonder how they coexist with the convenience stores. One day while riding my bicycle, I managed to pass four Lawson buildings in less than five minutes. In the same amount of time, I noticed a good number of vending machines as well. With the main bulk of the vending machine products focusing on drinks, where would you rather shop? Sometimes the prices vary as well. There might be a sale going on in the convenience store where you could save a bit of money on the drink of your choice. You might also get a free promotional souvenir attached to the bottle or can. Or sometimes the machines outside are cheaper and have drinks that aren’t available in the shops. What would influence your decision into choosing between the convenience store and vending machine? Which one is better or more convenient?
These are all questions that I sometimes ask myself when I notice a lonely convenience store and a group of kids hanging around a lone vending machine, gulping down a cold green tea beverage on a hot day. Or a convenience store surrounded by vending machines and not a single soul is paying them any attention, deciding to go inside where it’s cool instead.
And better yet… what would you be willing to buy from a vending machine. If an egg or fish vending machine sprung up in your neighborhood one night, would you select to purchase from it rather than your local supermarket? All I can say is that when I go on one of my tourist excursions in the middle of nowhere, I am very relieved knowing that I won’t collapse from dehydration thanks to the many competitive vending machines offering me just about every form of tea known to humankind.
*Although I have observed and looked into the various vending machines that are roaming about society, I do not necessarily approve of each and every one of them.