Why Japan Has So Many Vending Machines

by Azra Syakirah
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Have you ever had a late night or early morning craving for a specific drink — or even a random snack — but there are no shops around you that are open at those ungodly hours? I bet you wished there was a vending machine nearby. If you’re in Japan, it’s almost a done deal to have one just footsteps away.

If you’ve been to The Land of the Rising Sun or read it somewhere online, you probably would know that the country is vending machine heaven.  There are so many of them — it is even said to have one vending machine per 23 people! Available twenty-four hours a day for seven days a week, these vending machines are reflections of the local consumer society — not to mention the Japanese’s reliability. The most standard vending machines offer drinks, but don’t be surprised to come across some unusual and unique ones that highlight the Japanese charm.

Push aside that nostalgic memory of fierce competition of tug of war with the vending machine for a bag of chips or a chocolate bar — Japan’s vending machines are much more peaceful than that. Read on to discover all you need to know about the phenomenal vending machines in Japan, including the various types of them as well as the unique products they offer.

The Number Of Vending Machines in Japan Is…

Before getting into it, let’s get this question out of the way: how many vending machines are there really in Japan? I bet you could never guess the exact number. This island nation undoubtedly has the highest density of vending machines in the whole world!

There are 15 million vending machines in the whole wide world, and Japan takes about a third of that — the numbers are just slightly over 5 million in just Japan alone! I personally took a while to process that fact. With so many of them in just one country, you’ll be surprised at where you can find one — there’s even one on Mt. Fuji’s summit! 

Did you know: sales from just these vending machines exclusively are more than $60 billion annually.

Vending Machines Are Now Part of the Japanese Culture

Let’s give a little background to the beginning of the vending machine in Japan and how it evolved to be an essential part of the Japanese culture. 

Vending machines were used as early as the 1960s. When it all started, there was an increase in the supply of 100 yen so that citizens can use vending machines easier. Vending machines became so successful in Japan due to the local people’s need for convenience — and with the high population density, the demand became bigger. 

A lot can be said about the Japanese culture from just the obvious existence and high usage of vending machines in Japan. How the country as well as the people function brought about the implementation, expansion and ultimately success of vending machines in the country. 

Cash-based society

Japanese people rely heavily on physical cash. While most countries in the world are moving on to being a cashless society, Japan is slow to catch on and is rather stuck on being a cash-based one. Not all restaurants, shops, and public transportation stations accept credit or debit cards — the more traditional and old-school ones as well as a handful of other places only accept cash. If you’re not used to carrying around lots of cash, I strongly recommend getting yourself a slim portable wallet here.

Not only do the people in Japan only carry paper bills but they carry coins as well. In Japan, the coins come in high denominations like 50 yen, 100 yen, and 500 yen. That’s equivalent to about USD 0.50, USD 1.00 , and USD 5.00 — who would’ve thought that a five-dollar bill comes in coin form in Japan! 

Because of the abundance of coins that everyone is carrying around — my wallet can get quite heavy from the piled-up coins of change — it’s much more convenient to pop in a coin or two into the vending machine. It gets rid of the jangling change while at the same time rewarding yourself to a refreshing drink!

The high cost of labor

Japan is facing some serious declining birth rates and an aging population, and because of that as well as a lack of immigration to Japan, labor is costly and scarce. The vending machines offer a big-time solution that eliminates the need for sales clerks. 

Not only that, it’s also cheaper to set up a vending machine because they only need periodic visits for replenishment, emptying the cash, and occasional maintenance instead of a monthly wage.

Fascinated by automation

Japanese people are obsessed with automation. I think it’s rather obvious with the amount of automation in the country — no other country has as much automation as Japan. Just give “Robot Restaurant in Tokyo” a search on Google and you’ll understand what I’m on about.

The Japanese heavily rely on and trust in their automated systems. Because of this fascination, vending machines are so popular among the local citizens. Even their cash registers are now automated with slots for the coins and bills so the cashier staff doesn’t have to count them — the machine automatically does this! (There are some slight hiccups with this automated cashier system, though; sometimes, it doesn’t detect the extremely light 1 yen coin — I personally experienced this myself and ended up getting a ton of change back because of the lack of 1 yen!)

Types of Vending Machines In Japan

You can bet that there’s an evolution of the vending machines. It was and still is extremely popular, so the constant improvements cater to the market demands. As the vending machine industry in Japan expands, so does the technology used to create these types of machinery. 

Let’s look at the types of Japanese vending machines you can find in Japan.

Classic Vending Machines

Of course, we have the classic Japanese vending machines that are pretty self-explanatory. They are the most common kinds of vending machines that you find in Japan. You can easily spot one of these anywhere in the country. Most of the time, they give off a retro vibe and only have coin slots — sometimes, they even have a design on them. If you’re in one of the busy cities in Tokyo, then they’re most definitely having some sort of advert or animation design on them as a form of promotion. A neighborhood street vending machines are more often than not plain.

Touch Pay Vending Machines

An upgrade from the classic vending machines includes not only a note slot but also a reader where customers can use their IC transport cards to pay. These readers are not even the ones you have to slot in the card — they are touch payable! That means all you have to do is tap your card onto the reader and it automatically deducts the amount instantly. That saves you the hassle of rummaging through your pocket or bag for change to get a can of refreshment — talk about convenience! Plus, you won’t be piling up a stack of 1 or 5 yen coins (like me). In Japan, you’ll quickly become a collector of many cards that’ll you’ll use for transport and purchases. Japan is obsessed with touch pay, so I highly recommend getting yourself a slim portable card carrier here.

Touch Panel Vending Machines

The latest generation of Japanese vending machines are the ones with touch panels for the product options. This type is the most recent type, only being around for just over a year, and is not that common. They aren’t widely available even in big cities, let alone ones outside of them — check out big stations in Tokyo and Osaka to find them.

Some of these touch panel vending machines even have CG displays. Messages according to season or events like Halloween or spring cherry blossoms are often shown to highlight what’s coming up. Other times, TV-like commercials or weather forecasts for the day or week will be broadcasting. Regardless of what it shows, there will always be something on these touch panel vending machines.

That’s not all for these touch panel vending machines. They even show the details of the drinks they offer including descriptions of the drinks, volume, calorie count and not just the price.

Interesting Vending Machines in Japan

Japan is known for their uniqueness and originality. Of course, that has to include their vending machines. There’s always the classic drinks vending machines that offer all sorts of beverages — trust that the drinks are also pretty intriguing — but there are also all sorts of unusual products sold in a vending machine.

Here’s a list of some of the more common, and interesting, products offered by Japanese vending machines!

Alcohol Vending Machines

Alcohol vending machines exist — everything from a local beer to a flavored Japanese vodka are some of the options you can choose from. Some might say that this kind of vending machines aren’t that common, I personally have seen alcohol vending machines more than other kinds of vending machines on this list.

Where you can definitely see alcohol vending machines are in hotels. Just for the sake of convenience for the hotel guests, instead of having to walk all the way to the convenience store, they can just pop down to the lobby to get a can of Asahi. 

Cigarette Vending Machines

Cigarette vending machines are the second most common kind of vending machines I’ve seen. There used to be a whole lot more of them, but it has been decreasing over the past few years — maybe just in Tokyo; I’ve heard that there’s more in the Kansai region. Japan has quite a big population of smokers, so that explains such a need for cigarettes at your convenience. 

Only in Japan, you don’t even have to pop into a store for a pack of cigarettes — just get your convenient pack of cigarettes on-the-go. 

Natto Vending Machines

If you need a little pick-me-up in the morning for breakfast, natto — a type of Japanese fermented soybean — is your best bet. And the greatest part of it is that there are vending machines that are specially for selling natto! This power-packed breakfast is full of all your nutritional needs and it’s extremely popular among the locals — so that explains the demand for natto vending machines. 

If you don’t want to look around for one, there’s a natto vending machine in Ikejiri-Ohashi Station in Tokyo.

Oden Vending Machines

You’ll soon realize there are quite a few vending machines in Japan that are dedicated to selling Japanese essential foods — like oden. Even though some would argue that oden isn’t essential, others might say it’s a pretty solid part of the Japanese culture. Oden usually consists of a few ingredients like boiled eggs and processed fish cakes stewed in a light soy-flavored dashi broth. 

You usually eat this hot pot dish in winter because of its piping hot serving, but the ones from an oden vending machine are in cans and are offered all year round.

Dashi Vending Machines

Dashi — an umami-rich stock that’s made from dried kelp and bonito — is an essential ingredient in most, if not all, of the Japanese traditional dishes. What if one runs out of dashi while cooking? Not to fret — just head down to that nearby dashi vending machine for a quick solution. 

This genius idea to sell dashi in vending machines is by vending machine manufacturer called Dashidouraku, so we have them to thank for this ultimate cooking convenience.

Fruit Vending Machines

Everyone will need a quick energy boost once in a while — whether it is a morning one before school or in between work meetings — and what’s a better natural energy boost than a quick fruity bite? Head over to a vending machine that sells all the various types of fruits. There are tons of them including ones that offer bananas, apples and even strawberries — if they’re in season. You get to pick from a range of serving options, from peeled to unpeeled, ready-to-eat slices to the whole fruit. 

Some of these vending machines even offer dippings like honey — what a treat! If you’re keen to see a banana vending machine, Shibuya Station in Tokyo has one; Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki Station has an apple vending machine just for your reference in case you don’t feel like strolling aimlessly in search of these tasty treats in machines.

Umbrella Vending Machines

You wouldn’t want to be caught in the rain, especially in Japan’s unpredictable weather. Even when the weather forecast says it’s going to be sunny the whole day, it can suddenly start pouring with no warning!

When that happens, pop by the nearest vending machine that sells umbrellas! These umbrella vending machines are often conveniently located, often in major stations like the one at JR Suidobashi Station.

Mystery Vending Machines

Need a little bit of excitement combined with a cultural experience on your Japan trip? A mystery vending machine is definitely going to give that to you! You’ll be able to find them just about anywhere and of various kinds. There are those that are fully mystery — you have no idea what it’s going to give — and there are others that are partly mystery — so you’ll know it’s going to be a beverage or toy, depending.

While it exists, there’s not usually just one specific vending machine that offers surprise products. Even some regular vending machines have options of a product wrapped in white paper and have a question mark on it. A relief or anticlimactic — either way, it’s a joyous mini roller coaster ride.

Vending Machine Galore

Who would have thought that these convenient automated machines take up such a significance in Japanese culture — especially with the wide range of products that they offer. In fact, if you’re in the country long enough, you’ll realize that there are so many more kinds of vending machines, offering products you would never have thought to be selling in a vending machine! So on your next trip to Japan, make sure to keep an eye out for these phenomenal vending machines!

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