If there’s one country that knows how to do impersonal shopping properly, it’s Japan. With the highest per capita rate of vending machines in the world, it offers far, far more than your average press-and-go experience.
Don’t expect to just see drinks and junk food – you’ll find almost all your human needs catered for, from piping hot soup to comic books, booze and umbrellas, all just a button away.
ALCOHOLIC AND NON-ALCOHOLIC DRINKS
When in need of an ice-cold drink in summer or a warming tea or coffee on a freezing cold day, take your pick and out rolls your choice at the perfect temperature.
For those looking for something a little more stimulating, keep an eye out for sake and beer dispensers. Whoever thought of putting alcohol in a vending machine was clearly a thoughtful person; since these are of course open in the early hours of the morning, even the hardest-working of salarymen can pick up a well-deserved drink on the way home after a late night in the office.
HANKO AND OMIKUJI
If you live in Tokyo or are a repeat visitor to Japan, you’ll probably know how a hanko (personal seal) is more widely used than signatures when signing off on documents and other important paperwork. Hanko machines can usually be found at ¥100 shops or even your local Don Quijote discount store, and it’s a great souvenir for tourists if you can find your name or kanji characters with the right meaning.
At some shrines you may see vending machines selling omikuji or random fortunes written on strips of paper, predicting your future in areas such as love, health and business. Allow us to predict your future: it involves pressing buttons.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
Incredible culinary variety can be found inside Japan’s vending machines. You can get everything from tomato sauce, tofu and corn chowder to dashi (fish-based broth) and natto. Of course, if that’s not up your alley, stick to the popcorn vending machines which serve up freshly popped kernels on demand. Once you’ve seen bread in a can (yes, honestly, it’s a real thing) you’ll begin wondering if there’s anything you can’t find in a vending machine.
BOOKS AND UMBRELLAS
Book vending machines are a boon if you want to find a good read without sneery bookshop staff judging your taste in fiction. Most machines are manga-heavy and the books are generally in Japanese, but it could be a good way to practice if you’re learning the language.
Alternatively they can double as a makeshift shelter should it start to rain. Although naturally you’re never too far from a vending machine selling umbrellas. Or earbuds. Or phone chargers. Or a small model train…
OODLES OF NOODLES
Even Tsuta, the first ramen shop to earn a Michelin star, has a vending machine by its entrance. And it makes perfect sense. Simply pop in your money, pick what you want to eat, hand your ticket to the staff behind the counter and in minutes your food will be served.
However, if you want to take robo-ramen to the next stage you can cut out the human chefs completely – there are some machines that’ll do all the work for you. Instant ramen vending machines will disperse a hot bowl of noodles right from the machine. Michelin judges are gently advised to go elsewhere.
Illustrations by Kento Iida