Quick, what is the first thing that jumps to mind when you think about Japan? Well, I guess I’ve given the game away by the title squatting proudly just above this sentence, like telling someone to not think about pink elephants. But the point is, though folks may immediately pounce on the image of a leafy hillside Shinto Shrine or a neon-drenched skyscraper, everyone forgets that humble icon, the vending machine, like they forget the name of that guy in their favorite band.
But why is the vending machine so strongly associated to Japan? Well, for one, they are EVERYWHERE. I kid you not, there are vending machines on the top of Mount Fuji. And in temples. And on some trains.
And these are the weird places: in a normal place like, oh, a street, you are no more than a stone’s throw from one (I may have confused this stat with rats). Such is the sheer number of these things that if someone told you that there was one vending machine for every citizen of Japan, you would give it a serious second thought before you laugh in their face. Then buy green tea from one of the five machines that just spontaneously sprung up around you. (Incidentally, the actual ratio is 1 to every 23 people. I’ll leave the math to you).
And then there’s the technology. Whereas the average western vending machine looks about as well-maintained and presented as an abandoned portaloo, in Japan they are brightly lit, clean monoliths that look as if they are selling you pixie dust. A single machine houses hot and cold drinks, great for the height of summer or depths of winter. And that’s the old-style vending machines: the next generation have done away with showing models of the drinks and replaced it with a full-on interactive HD screen. These things can scan you, guess your age and gender and then recommend a drink for you. And when these machines are sitting idle, they tell the weather and pull faces at you. No, really.
But most infamous of all are those weird vending machines. Make no mistake, 95% of the machines out there are for drinks, but the strange ones are out there. And let’s clear something up right now: about the legendary dirty-lingerie vending machine. These things are NOT in the public eye. They exist in a small handful (if that) in the darkest recesses of otaku culture, tucked away in a dingy corner of a fetish-specialist store. And yes, I did just guess at all that, but that’s the point: nearly everyone in Japan has never seen one of these, and never will.
But rest assured there are vending machines out there that will make you do a double-take in the street and make all the office workers behind you trip over your heels. Let’s see, at last check, you could buy: eggs, umbrellas, bananas, instant noodles, beer, cigarettes, soft toys, balloons, fresh veg…and you know it is only a matter of time before there is a vending machine for vending machines. The days of shopping in a room with four walls are surely numbered.