For those of you who are fascinated by the quirky culture of Japan, you are not alone. Whether it's their elaborate tea ceremonies, the mesmerizing tradition of Sumo wrestling, or the strictly upheld code of etiquette that can quickly make you a social outcast if you fail to follow - there is so much to know!
Japan is a land of paradox because while it is so deeply rooted in its tradition it is simultaneously on the cutting edge of almost all technologies. Not least of all is a very particular technology we are here to discuss today - the vending machine.
The vending machine culture in Japan is unlike any you have ever seen before. These miraculous machines of convenience are in every town, every countryside and virtually every building. While we are frankly amazed by the many options available, with the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturer's Association disclosing that there is one vending machine for every 23 Japanese residents as of December 2017, a lot of us are caught asking ourselves, why are vending machines so pivotal here?
It may because in Japan anyone can own them and since it is a relatively safe country it seems perfectly normal to put machines out in parks or on sidewalks. It is most likely due to the intense work hours that Japan is famous for. This makes convenience king in larger cities like Tokyo where busy people don't have time to visit the shops.
Japan is also a cash-based society which makes it a no brainer to offer automated options that are available around the clock. Whatever the case may be for these machines, prepare to be astonished by the plethora of bizarre items that are made conveniently available to the masses and enjoy!
25 Flying Fish Soup
It's kind of like chicken broth....except it's a fish, inside a plastic bottle, in a vending machine. Becoming more popular in cities like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kyoto, this machine is run by a restaurant that is notorious for its udon noodles. Udon noodles are thick wheat noodles that are popular in Japan, often submerged in a broth featuring Fish broth (or dashi).
This particular broth made by the restaurant has become a favourite so they did what any self-respecting restaurateur would do - they bottled full fish inside what appear to be beverage bottles and made them publicly available for the price of about $6 USD.
24 Live Rhinoceros Beetles
Not the least of all randomness is the vending machine containing LIVE beetles. For bug collectors it's an amazing thing to have access to these creatures but for activists, it seems a bit cruel to keep these bugs locked away out of their natural habitat. It wasn't always that way, in fact collecting live bugs is thought to be central to the education for young children in Japan and gathering them was once an immersive way for them to learn about the bugs' natural habitats.
With the natural environments declining, these vending machines are thought to serve as a substitute, providing the same access to future generations. However, activists feel the very comparison of a live animal (by its existence in a vending machine) to a bottle of cola or an electronic gadget sends the wrong message. It's not hard to see why this has become a peculiar grey area for the vending machine scene.
Mmm... pizza. But pizza out of a coin-operated machine? Italians everywhere are dramatically sobbing and shaking their clenched fists at the idea of this but I guess you can't knock it until you've tried it? There is something comforting about knowing you can have a hot pizza available 24/7...
This machine has been routinely drawing and pleasing crowds in Hiroshima Japan since its inception in a local video and CD rental shop earlier this year. It's an incredibly economical and efficient solution for those who just want to get their 'za on the go after renting their favourite flick.
There are few things that go better together than pizza and a movie so it makes sense. Whether the pizza is actually good though could be a matter of opinion...
When it comes to items that are more convenient than weird, you might say it's a tie for first place! Considering that Japan is chock full of bustling businessmen, this vending machine offering actually makes a lot of sense. Especially if you've just slurped up a big bowl of Udon noodles and gotten some of the Daishi on your tie before a big meeting!
Rest assured you can zip down to the nearest embarkment of vending machines and snap up a tie for around 1000 Yen - that's less than $10 USD! You can't do much better than a bargain basement price in the lobby of your very own work building.
21 Honour-system Umbrellas
The climate in Japan can be a bit hit or miss with humidity climbing in the summer months so it's good to always be prepared. DyDo, a popular beverage company has decided to do a goodwill gesture by offering the people of Japan honour system-style umbrellas for rent along with their refreshing beverages.
It seems like a totally foreign concept to most of us from America, and a costly experiment since there is no purchase required. All that DyDo asks is that customers return the umbrella once they are finished with them!
This initiative focused on caring for fellow samaritans has been such a hit that they have extended the rental umbrella concept to 500 vending machines nationwide.
Did you forget something this morning? Your cell phone? Your keys? A dozen eggs? Don't worry because Japan has got you covered. These machines have become particularly beloved in more rural areas where there aren't 24 hour shops or the economies to justify them. Locals have depended on these machines to get their fresh eggs for decades.
It does seem totally ludicrous and suspect that you would find fresh eggs within a metal locker in a freestanding vending machine, but apparently the brand is very dependable and perfect for your latest ramen concoction or breakfast sandwich (for the USA folk). When in Rome!
19 Balls of Lettuce
This is just weird no matter how you look at it. We understand the prepared foods for people on the go or those business people who are living out of their office but unprepared vegetables seems like a stretch - especially one as unremarkable as lettuce. Strangely enough, where we would be more likely to selfie with a machine like the one pictured above from the sheer oddity of it, a person from Japan wouldn't bat an eyelash while walking past.
Vegetables in vending machines are totally normal here. Other items of produce you can find include bananas, potatoes, apples, broccoli, and other greens.
18 Canned Bread
Canned bread's primary selling feature may be the sheer convenience of it. It is portable enough that you can cart it around in your bag without risking crumbs and crumbles and the sealed can ensures it stays fresh until you're ready to pop it out! The main thing seems to be that it's easy to brand the bread with various novelty themes which makes it attractive to the Japanese who love their quirky collections. There's also the variety factor and we're not talking whole wheat versus sourdough.
The canned bread varieties in Japan include strawberry, chocolate, green tea, butter, raisin and milk. Mmm milk bread...
17 Bug Snacks
Who doesn't like to snack on a crunchy cricket once in a while? A salty silkworm? Okay, probably not many if we're honest but that hasn't stopped this novelty from making its way to the vending machine runway in Kumamoto this year.
Decorated with ladybugs, wasps, stink bugs and the phrase Entomophagy has begun - it is sure to pique the curiosity of peckish pedestrians! Entomophagy is the act of eating bugs, which by the way are full of protein and nutrients. This practice has already been made popular in other parts of the world so it was just a matter of time before it arrived in Japan.
16 Homemade Curried Rice
Eating curry from even a slightly unsavory food truck or dingy establishment is risky at the best of times, but some people will try anything once. Eating curried rice out of a vending machine just seems like a recipe for a very inconvenient disaster.
In Japan however, curry is a nationally loved food and this vending machine located at "Coin Snack Palace 24” in Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku tends to be on the rarer side. In a behind the scenes look at how it operates, the contents seem to be of pretty high standard seeing as the 75 year old owner Tadashi Yoshimoto grows the rice himself, refilling the machine twice daily.
He has been operating it this way for 40 years with many loyal followers - now that's devotion to vending!
15 Sushi Socks
Admit it, it's weird but it's darn cute!! Maybe you just stepped in a puddle, maybe you're hangry and you got bamboozled for what you thought was going to be some tasty maki! Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain, this is an impulse purchase you could never regret. These socks, dispensed by the vending machine come lovingly prepared to appear like piece of sushi - have your pick from Nigiri (shrimp), Tamago (egg), Tako (Octopus), or Surimi (crab).
Even if you happen upon socks by accident, these also make an excellent souvenir or gift for a friend back home. These socks are truly unique and emulative of Japan culture with a healthy side of kitsch.
14 Surgical Masks
When you've got Japanese folk sporting these in most metropolises you might assume they are germaphobes, but in actuality these are best worn when you yourself are feeling under the weather. You see if you wear a mask at the onset of a cold or flu, you prevent the further spreading of germs onto others.
In a place that's pretty obsessed with productivity, the last thing they want is a common cold dragging them down. Besides if you wear a mask, you can plow through your work day without your colleagues getting ill. Other studies show it may also be a way of decreasing the need to socialize with strangers since partially hiding ones face deters unnecessary interactions.
13 Dog Wigs
Well we weren't about to skim over this gem. Maybe your dog is having a midlife crisis or really admired the latest Lady Gaga video and wants to sport a similar look. We don't really know why these exist and honestly, it's probably the very last thing any dog truly wants to wear. Most pets don't like things on their head.
Regardless, if you should find yourself in a situation, in Japan, where you need a costume change for your canine, these machines do exist. Personally if we want to turn our pets into people, we'll stick with Photoshop- the good ol' fashioned way.
12 Floral Arrangements
Japan is no nonsense when it comes to a productive schedule. Every minute counts, which is the main reason why vending machine culture is such a huge thing. With these vending machines that contain fresh cut flowers you can pop in a few Yen and walk away with a professional looking bouquet in a matter of moments.
This could save you waiting in line, or god forbid having to compile your own creative masterpiece for that hostess gift. You can find them in hospitals, airports, or just about anywhere you may need to buy a thoughtful bundle in a hurry.
Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding to produce lovely little decoratives in the form of animals and objects often from multiple folds of a single sheet. Seeing as how origami is wholly Japanese, it's really no wonder that there's also a vending machine dispensing popular origami shapes.
Located in the touristy destination of Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, one can purchase a special piece of art that has been produced by residents with mental disabilities. The project is called Wings of the Crane and hopes to bring meaningful employment to members of the community and close the gap between understanding those with disabilities. Produced by 3 women, you can purchase a box with all 5 designs for 200 yen or less than $2 USD.
10 Canned Coffee Endorsed by Tommy Lee Jones
Canned coffee beverages from a vending machine? Not so weird... Canned coffee beverages from a vending machine in Japan plastered with the face of Tommy Lee Jones? A little curious.
It would be hard to miss his face plastered all over the 'Boss Coffee' machines on nearly every block. His notoriety seems to be less to do with his extensive film career and more specifically the character he plays as Alien Jones in the television ads.
He is supposedly paid a whopping $1 million dollars for every 6 month run of his commercials - talk about a cash cow. If you're curious you can catch a compilation of the ads lovingly compiled on YouTube here.
9 Hot Meat
If someone offered you a fresh 50 dollar bill to spend entirely on hot food produced by a vending machine, you might politely decline said free money and food if you sat and thought about the mechanics of it long enough. However, in Japan, hot food from vending machines is preferable and that includes hot meat. Hamburgers, gyoza (dumplings), hot dogs and Takoyaki (minced octopus balls) are among some of the favourite savoury options on offer from the local vending machine. For about 300 yen (about $3 USD) you can have an instantly prepared, filling snack on the go.
8 Canned Tshirts
Canned t-shirts, you know, for freshness? Well, whatever the reason for the cans, this type of vending machine is pretty common. Available in all sizes, colours and for both men and women, t-shirt vending machines are real. Perhaps it helps to avoid the crowds in busy shopping centers when you just need your daily basics at relatively affordable prices.
I guess with streets that are lined with affordable clothing options, it makes it difficult to complain that you don't have anything to wear, but you may have to compete for the 'who wore it best' title with the hundreds of others who have also purchased their t-shirts from that very machine on the street.
7 10kg bags of rice
It's not just a stereotype, rice is central to the diet of the Japanese. This is perhaps why there is a plethora of rice dispensing machines that provide an output of 10kg of rice in one g0.
This makes it easy to get your rice when needed without having to worry about shop hours but poses the question of how, if convenience is key, are these folks getting a 10 kg bag of rice home with them? Especially for the machines that are located in desolate rice fields!
Perhaps the most attractive feature is that you know that rice is being freshly harvested nearby by the farmers.
6 Your Future or omikuji
As we mentioned the Japanese are very much into making the most of their time so why bother going to see a psychic for a 30 minute tarot card reading when you insert a few coins and receive omikuji from a mechanically operated wizard onto a small piece of paper.
The insights you receive could be related to a great blessing or a great curse! This style of premonition paper has been used as early as the year 794 and can be often found at shrines or temples all over Japan. After receiving omikuji you can hold onto it as a souvenir or tie it to one of the many designated areas.
In the past, many would tie the fortune paper to a tree as it symbolized connection to God or Buddha. More recently, it has been noted that this isn't healthy for the tree so there are now designated areas meant to host the paper decor instead that will still do the trick.
5 A Personalized Seal Stamp
Wax seals are so last century... in Japan these Hanko or Inkan stamps are just the ticket. In fact, in Japan people do not use their written signatures to sign documents at all but rather these personalized stamps bearing their name in kanji instead. Almost every person in Japan will have one of these stamps that they use as their form of signature so it makes sense (given their commonality) that there would be a vending machine providing this amenity to those who are without!
Often made of plastic or wood these machines can personalize your stamp in a matter of minutes. Definitely convenient for any newcomers who are in need of a stamp to finalize their documents while living in Japan.
4 Transforming Cola
TRANSFORMERS - colas in disguise!
Okay maybe they're not quite as cool as the ever-popular transforming robots from the popular sci-fi series but c'mon a cola that can be made instantly into a slushy? The 11 year old in all of us is screaming out with pure, unadulterated JOY!
We're not sure what the active ingredient is in these self-freezing slushies but let's not ruin it by finding out. Japan has been known as a hotbed of beverage innovation for ages and these tasty treats that go from regular cola to sherbet-like goodness in seconds are no exception.
The Coca-Cola website states that the research and development was 8 years in the making and worth every minute.
3 Board Games
Because the only thing worse than hunger when you're out and about, is boredom. Why not sidle up to this vending machine and get a game of Uno for a few Yen. It tends to be a crowd pleaser so it can be handy on your way to a party. Just us? Okay, yeah it's kinda strange but it all depends where the vending machine is located!
If this machine of games is in an airport or say, a train station well that makes a lot more sense. Keeping entertained when WiFi isn't an option is key and card games tend to pass the time a lot quicker than twiddling your thumbs. So even if it's a bit weird, Japan wins this round.
2 Business Cards
If you know anything about business in Japan, business cards are not tossed around willy nilly like they are in other parts of the world. They are instead treated with a sacredness that emulates this culture of ritual, etiquette and honour. When meeting for the first time in fact, business cards are presented in a customary tradition known as meishi koukan in which a formal exchange of business cards allows the relationship to continue.
No cards means no dice and also that you've likely offended someone. Other important notes include the more powerful person giving the first card, face down, and with two hands.
Business cards, in other words, are a big deal so maybe this vending machine could be a saving grace for anyone who failed to scoop them up before leaving the house. Phew!
1 Miniature food... and maraschino cherries
If you have some extra money that you would like to waste or just find tiny things irresistible then this is the vending machine for you! Not only does it provide you with micro sized (seemingly useless) renderings of food, household items, and other everyday objects but it also provides you with perhaps one of the most arbitrary snack choices of all time - a small can of maraschino cherries.
This two for one special makes it seem endlessly pointless considering a maraschino cherry has almost zero nutritional (or flavour) benefit but then again, tiny cute useless things beckon. A truly puzzling concept but one that exists in Japan nonetheless.
References: dw, soranews24, coca-colacompany, kotaku, businessinsider, theguardian