For the most part, Japanese vending machines are much like the ones you see in the West. In most Japanese vending machines you can buy things like soda, coffee, candy, and chips. Nothing too surprising, right? But, although most vending machines in Japan carry predictable items like these, there are some that carry things that fall a little more on the unusual side. For example, some vending machines sell edible insects and even underwear! This article will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about vending machines in Japan, and all of the things (sometimes a bit strange) that you can find in them.
How Many Vending Machines Are There In Japan?
There are a lot of vending machines in Japan. In fact, CNN reported in 2019 that there were “...over 5.5 million in the country – one for every 23 people, the highest ratio in the world.” That’s amazing, right? Well, when you come to Japan you’ll see that this statistic is no exaggeration. In fact, if there isn’t a vending machine near you at any point, you should probably be concerned. But why are there so many?
Why Vending Machines Are So Popular In Japan
It should be no surprise that Japanese people love convenience, and that makes vending machines extremely popular in Japan. But people all over the world love convenience, right? So, why don’t we see such a high number of vending machines in other countries?
Well, one factor to consider is population density. Because there are so many people living in Japan (especially Tokyo & Osaka) there is not as much space for shops. Vending machines don’t take up as much room as a store, and they can fit almost anywhere. For example, you might see a vending machine in a narrow alleyway, between some lockers in a train station or even under the ｓstairwell of your own apartment building.
Another possible reason for the popularity of vending machines is a lack of laborers in Japan. This is due to population decline. Business Insider has a very insightful report on this. With the declining birthrate in Japan, there aren’t as many people available to work, and laborers have become more costly. So, the vending machine partially solves this problem by not requiring an employee for items to be sold.
Lastly, Japanese people are familiar and comfortable with automation in many aspects of life. You can see it in the robot servers at restaurants, the touchpad menus at izakaya (Japanese bar-meets-restaurant establishments) and the ticket machines at ramen shops. Japanese people are generally very comfortable with automated things (like vending machines), making them a natural fit for Japanese society.
How To Use A Japanese Vending Machine
How do you use a Japanese vending machine? It’s easy! Let’s focus on drink vending machines for the sake of simplicity. There are basically two types of vending machines for beverages. The first is the type with buttons that you push (manually, not touch screen). The second type is the beautiful (and not as common) touch screen vending machine. The steps are almost identical, but differences will be noted:
- Look for the drink you want in the vending machine drink display
Note: There will be plastic or metal bottles/cans of the drinks you can buy in the manual machine. With the touch screen type, there are nice, attractive electronic images of the drinks.
- Note the price (listed right under the drink)
- Push the button for the drink you want (or tap the drink on the touch screen)
- Make your payment
Note: Depending on the machine, you can pay by cash or transit card (like Suica or Pasmo). Coins are always accepted, but bills larger than ¥1000 yen may not be. Other payment methods may or may not be accepted depending on the machine.
- Your drink is dropped into the compartment
- Reach into the compartment and get your drink
Weird Japanese Vending Machines
There are quite a few unusual vending machines in Japan, and one of the most unique has to be the one with edible insects (bleh!). This is something rarely (probably never) seen in the West, but you can find it in Japan. Okay, maybe not on every street corner, but they do exist! Here are some of the more unique vending machines in Japan.
- Edible Bugs - Yes, bugs you can snack on. Bugs you can eat. Insects are really such a treat. Munch on some crickets, grasshoppers or even scorpions! (no thank you)
- King’s Treasure Box - This one is interesting - you never know what mystery prize you’re going to get, but for ¥1000 ($7.50 USD) you might win a Nintendo DS. Or you might win some cheap sunglasses.
- Used Underwear - This is probably the most crazy Japanese vending machine - but it’s also a bit of an urban legend. The underwear only appear to be used (almost certainly - see more info on this topic below).
- New Underwear, Socks, Toiletries - These are vending machines you’re likely to find in a hotel, internet cafe or manga cafe (places you can stay overnight). Let’s say you stayed out too late, missed your last train and didn’t bring clean clothes for the morning. These vending machines really come in handy!
- Beer, Sake - Japanese vending machines selling alcohol still exist, but they aren’t seen often in public. You can still see them in some private establishments, though. Japan has been tightening down on alcoholic beverage vending machines due to issues with minors buying alcohol and the ready availability of alcohol in most convenient stores.
- Things of an Adult Nature - Um, yes, things like adult toys, condoms and other paraphernalia can be purchased via vending machine - but these are not usually found on the street (although they have been spotted). You’ll most likely see them in love hotels, bathrooms or other types of venues… Let’s leave the other types of venues to your googling skills.
- Ramen - Yes, a hot food vending machine! You can get hot, ready-to-eat ramen with the click of a button.
- Frozen Food - Maybe one of the coolest (ok, coldest) vending machines. A popular item in this category is gyoza (a type of Japanese dumpling). Buy a bag of gyoza and bring it home to pop in the frying pan. Tell your friends and family you made it from scratch! You can even find a machine with motsunabe (a surprisingly delicious stew made from animal organs) if you know where to look.
The Fabled Used Underwear Vending Machine
We’ve all heard of it before - probably because it sounds so crazy - there are vending machines in Japan that sell used girls’ underwear. Well, how true this is is debatable. It’s actually a long and twisted tale if you want to get right down to it (and this 2014 article by TechInAsia did). But in reality, the only vending machines selling used girls’ underwear are probably fake. Some Japanese underwear vending machines sell underwear marketed as used, but they are in fact new (just made to look used). On the other hand, there is a market in Japan for unusual used clothing and other controversial items, but these aren’t available in vending machines. So basically - this is just an urban legend.
Common Vending Machine Items
Not everything in Japanese vending machines is unusual. As you know, Japanese people are normal people with normal lives and normal needs. So most vending machines tend to be those selling typical items - items like beverages, snacks and even ice cream. Drink vending machines make up the majority of all vending machines in Japan. And, these vending machines can hold both hot and cold beverages in the same machine - pretty cool, right? Anyway, here are some common items you’ll find for sale in Japanese drink vending machines.
- Water - Especially nice during those hot, humid Japanese summers.
- Soda - You can often find carbonated drinks like Coca-Cola, Calpis soda (yogurt-like flavor) and melon soda (delicious!).
- Juices and Flavored Drinks - Apple juice, grape juice, orange juice - plus some good choices for hydration like Pocari Sweat or Aquarius (these are a bit like Gatorade).
- Coffee and Tea products - Get an iced latte or a hot latte - get green tea, oolong tea, black coffee, cafe au lait, milk tea and soooo many more.
- Candy and Cookies - So many varieties to choose from! You can find Snickers, KitKat and even good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies.
- Ice Cream Products - From ice cream cones to push-pops, temperature controlled vending machines keep these products frozen and ready to eat on a hot day.
- Chips - All kinds of chips - potato chips, corn chips and even traditional Japanese “chips” called senbei.
Restaurant Vending Machines
So, you may not think of this as a vending machine, but it basically is. There are many restaurants in Japan where, before you take your seat, you use a machine to order your food. You select your item (let’s say you’re buying ramen) and push a button. Next, you put in your money and you receive a paper ticket. You give this ticket to the staff and wait for your ramen to come to your seat. Voila! It’s that easy, all while saving the shop (and yourself) a little time and money.