There I was, about an hour into my evening trek up to the top of Mt. Inari upon which Fushimi Inari Taisha resides. As I steeled my resolve for the final few torii-lined steps to the summit, I was met with a rather odd surprise. Here, at the top of this peak, the stone stairway was illuminated by — you guessed it — one of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines.
Too Many Vending Machines to Count
Now, as anyone who has been to Japan before can attest to, vending machines are everywhere in Japan. In fact, I’ve read that with around four million nationwide, it means that there’s about one vending machine for every 30 people. That number is pretty mind boggling when you stop to think about it.
In contrast to the ones found overseas, the majority of vending machines in Japan tend to sell only beverages. That said, there are indeed a number that peddle snacks, as well as a whole lot more. From the common ice cream vending machines found in train stations to ones selling bags of rice and soup stock, the diversity is truly impressive.
Perhaps one of the best places to get a sense of the variety of vending machines available in Japan is the Vending Machine Museum in Sagamihara. Found inside a used tire store called Rat Sunrise, here you’ll encounter a number of retro vending machines. Of the ones on display, you’ll find your standard drink vending machines as well as ones selling hot food, like hamburgers.
Speaking of food, did you know that there are also vending machines like Shinjuku’s RAMEN STOCK 24 that sell dishes like ramen? That’s right, you can actually purchase a premade bowl of ramen from a vending machine in Japan. Though increasingly rare, there are also still relics like the Jidohanbaiki Shokudo (Vending Machine Cafeteria) in Gunma Prefecture that sell eclectic assortments of other hot food.
Coin-Powered Oddities: Strange Goods for Sale
If you think that buying ramen or a hamburger from a vending machine is unique, know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also equally odd selections littered about the country. For instance, a Kyoto pastry chef just recently started hawking his delectables in a vending machine as a means of social distancing.
In addition to vending machines that sell ready-to-go meals and snacks, there are also a lot of restaurants that also make use of ticket vending machines to take orders. This reduces the need for staff to handle payments and allows them to focus on cooking. You’ll often find these ticket vending machines at eateries that cater to customers on the go.
“Only-in-Japan” Roadside Stalls
As remarkable as all of Japan’s high tech vending machines are, however, their analog counterparts are equally impressive. You see, if you venture out into the countryside, you’ll often come across roadside stalls that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Typically, these work on the honor system and payment is made via a small coin box.
What’s remarkable about these roadside stalls is that everything operates without the need for someone to man the shop. The farmers who set them up emphatically trust that passersby will neither steal the produce nor pilfer the content of the coin box. It’s hard to imagine a system like this existing in a country that isn’t Japan!
Next time you’re in Japan, be sure to give one of Japan’s more unique vending machines a try. They are a lot more fun than your standard, run-of-the-mill beverage vending machines, and are worth going out of your way for.