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Insert Coin: Japan’s vending machine culture

Japan has an interesting love affair with vending machines. Not only do these metal fixtures carry the oddest of items, they are also at the forefront of the country’s culture of convenience.

Japan has a fondness for all things novel that has drawn hordes of travelers—from the curious to the whimsical—to its shores. Nothing escapes this nation’s devotion to quirk, not even the most mundane sidewalk fixtures.

When plans were made to visit Japan in 2018, I had all sorts of expectations coming from anime, Japanese horror flicks, and the accounts of friends who have opted to call the Land of the Rising Sun home. Ladies in kimonos, wooden homes, hole-in-the-wall ramen places, and an over-saturation of Sanrio products were the subject of reveries at the time.

That was the case until I finally disembarked in Tokyo and had my very first stroll in the country. And the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t any of the iconic buildings nor the sharply-dressed locale who filled the thoroughfares of Shinjuku at any given time: it was a vending machine. A standard unit that dispensed an assortment of cold beverages. Nothing out of the ordinary until I realized the staggering number of these machines in the area.   

Everywhere I went, I encountered these things: at train stations, at touristy areas, beside clothing stores, inside record bars, and even by the laundromat inside the hotel. Moreover, this vending machine trend isn’t exclusive to Tokyo. When I visited Kyoto and Osaka, it was more of the same; perhaps this goes for the entirety of Japan. And upon close inspection, these machines have more to them than what a mere glance would suggest.

Not just for cold beverages

Gachapon, which carry small toys and trinkets placed inside plastic balls.

Any traveler would assume that vending machines are strictly for cold drinks, and they would probably be right if they’re pertaining to any other part of the world. But not in the land where convenience is one of the pillars of national culture. Should one gather every type of vending machine that Japan has on offer into one space, the setup can probably be called a convenience store.

Since Japan experiences harsh summers and chilly winters, many of its vending machines carry both hot and cold beverages, with the hot ones marked in red. So when temperatures dropped to below 10°C, I wound up purchasing an ungodly amount of hot vending machine coffee. I used the cans as makeshift warmers before consuming their contents, which I can say was pretty good coffee considering the price.

Furthermore, the sheer range of brands carried by these machines is nothing to scoff at. Outside of the usual Coke and Pepsi, you’ll find products from UCC, Doutor Coffee, Boss, and Suntory. 

What’s even more remarkable is the fact that drinks are but a slice of Japan’s vending machine schema. Occasionally, there are unusual items sold in regular beverage machines like hot corn soup and minestrone. Head over to a toy store, a video arcade, or any busy thoroughfare and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of coin machines called gachapon or gacha gacha, which offer a wide range of toys and trinkets in containers that closely resemble the pokeballs in Pokemon. Meanwhile, smokers need not find a convenience store for a pack of cancer sticks as cigarette machines are found throughout any city. As for used clothes, coin-operated laundry machines are a dime a dozen in nearly all areas.

There is also a vending machine solution for heavy and bulky luggage—coin-operated lockers. These cabinets are found in key parts of major cities, affording convenience to travelers who are waiting to check in a hotel, as well as those who have a surplus of time prior to flying out of the city.

While I wasn’t able to encounter them, it has been reported that there are coin machines that sell even odder items, such as rice, flowers, fruits and vegetables, beer, electronics, condoms, and used ladies’ undergarments. Anything is a possibility, apparently, as long as it can be stuffed within the machine’s panels.

Convenient living

On average, Japan’s vending machines each serve about 25 residents per unit.

With the vending machines in Japan found in every nook and cranny, it comes as no surprise that the country has the world’s highest rate of vending machine per capita, with one unit serving 25.7 residents on the average. This means it is virtually impossible for any traveler to not encounter a plethora of vending machines should they decide to go for a stroll outside their hotel.

A lot of Japanese companies know this for a fact, which is why, as previously mentioned, one would likely find the products of premium brands in vending machines. And if we are going to go by the over $60 billion (US) in sales that the vending machine industry garners annually, more product variants and brands are expected to hop in on the bandwagon.

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This bodes well for both residents and tourists as Japan is known for its high cost of living. A friend of mine who moved to Japan told me that the price of rent is sky high; any means of maximizing time and minimizing costs could ease off the financial burden: The vending machine works wonders in this regard. On the other hand, active tourists can easily grab a refreshment at any time in a land where taking 20,000 steps per day is the norm. After all, who wouldn’t want to stroll daily in a place that was once described as “endlessly interesting” by the late acclaimed chef Anthony Bourdain?

Another layer of convenience that vending machines dispense is ample value to a coin-heavy currency. Not knowing this when I first visited Japan, I ended up turning a portion of my sling bag into a coin purse as every purchase led to a river of coins—well beyond the capacity of any wallet. This was a concern during the last few days of that trip as I looked more like a merchant than a tourist with the coinage I was carrying, and money changers in the Philippines don’t accept Japanese coins.

I decided to devote my coins to vending machine drinks and toys, food stalls, and coffee shops, and walked back to the hotel happy. I even snagged a cat coin purse from one of the gacha machines I came across for all my troubles.  

Always going the extra mile

The machines serve anything from drinks and cigarettes to meals and souvenirs, but there’s still a lot of room to explore as the country evolves.

Societies are ever-evolving and through every upheaval comes a different set of needs. The Japanese are well aware of this. In fact, they are always a step ahead of these trends as they consistently offer solutions that people didn’t even think they would need, from push-button toilet bidets with varying water pressure strength, motion, and temperature to bath mats that absorb water like cotton.

As such, the vending machine industry in Japan is gradually evolving, now severely limiting the number of those offering alcohol in favor of machines that peddle beverages more suited to the country’s extreme temperature shifts. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” in regard to Japan diversifying its already vast collection of vending machine treats. And with the industry raking in billions of dollars in sales each year, there are enough financial incentives to attract more players to the market  as well as a large enough wiggle room to build on the vending machine concept further. 

People might, one day, do their shopping in illuminated metal fixtures by the roadside or find full meals inside vending machines in the near future. Who knows? With the Japanese’s unyielding dedication to innovation, no idea is too far-fetched. They could already be thinking what you’re thinking of and have found a coin-powered solution for it.

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