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Every time I speak to a traveler in Japan, they never fail to mention two remarkable things: the country’s incredible cleanliness and the abundance of vending machines. You can find them in every corner of Japan, be it a bustling city, a beach, a remote mountain trail, or even amidst nature’s beauty. Since coming to live in Japan and seeing them everywhere, I can confidently say that Japan is undoubtedly the land of vending machines.

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What Kind of Vending Machines Does Japan Have?

The history of vending machines is relatively recent, but they have seen significant growth since their introduction. The first Japanese vending machine was installed by Coca-Cola in the 1960s as part of a marketing strategy to promote their products in Japan. This brings us to Japan’s most common vending machine, which dispenses cold and hot drinks. While cold drinks are common in most vending machines worldwide, it’s less common to find hot drinks available. In Japan, it’s possible to purchase hot tea or coffee from such machines, especially during winter.

A vending machine in the middle of the Japanese countryside
Even in rural parts of Japan, you are never far from one of these bright, red vending machines.

Something less common around the world but possible in Japan is the presence of alcohol and tobacco vending machines. These machines are restricted to adults, who must verify their age with an adult residence card before purchasing.

Even though there are many drink machines in Japan, they have been slightly decreasing these last decades since 24-hour convenience stores have become more prevalent. Instead, the market has seen more machines offering food items. During the coronavirus pandemic, these machines were particularly useful, allowing people to avoid contact with others. As a result, ramen, gyoza, cake, and ice cream machines have become more popular in Japan.

However, these machines in Japan are not limited to just food and drinks: Japanese society has been using automated machines for some unusual purposes. While they may not be as common, there are also machines for things like dating (where one can find information about potential dates after inserting 1,000 yen), dispensing insects, and even mystery grab bags. In fact, in 2022, a prototype for a medicine vending machine connected to a video call with a pharmacist was created. It’s clear that Japan leads the way with the most innovative and diverse uses for these automated systems.

Japanese vending machines also have different designs depending on their location or collaboration, with Pokémon-themed or anime-themed machines recently spreading across Japan. 

Japan is the second country with more vending machines after the USA, but in terms of population and land area, Japan is the world’s largest market for them. Can you think of the reasons why?

The first reason is that Japanese vending machine manufacturers fabricate the machines and are also responsible for restocking them with products. This ensures that the machines are almost always fully stocked, making them very convenient to use. They’re also user-friendly and reliable, rarely experiencing malfunctions. They accept coins, 1,000 yen notes, and even some travel cards such as Suica or Pasmo.

Besides the industry and practicality, vending machines are very popular due to the Japanese way of life. The country’s urban areas are home to most of the population, and the busy passengers using the excellent public transportation networks in these cities value their time, especially during rush hour. They allow people to quickly purchase tea or coffee, making them a perfect fit for the fast-paced lifestyle in Japan.

Vending machines also play an important role during extreme weather conditions. Japan is known for its cold winters and, above all, its hot summers. The country experiences cold winters and hot summers, so having access to these machines allows people to stay hydrated with cold drinks and warm up with hot drinks. If we think about a major natural disaster such as an earthquake, they would also be crucial: some are programmed to give free drinks in an emergency.

Lastly, Japan’s reputation as one of the safest countries in the world is another reason for the widespread presence of vending machines. The low risk of theft or vandalism makes it feasible to have many of them in public spaces or even in quiet areas.

What Do the Japanese Call a Vending Machine?

If you are looking for one of these handy machines in Japan, you can ask, “Jidohanbaiki wa arimasu ka?” (自動販売機はありますか.) Vending machine is written as 自動販売機 and pronounced as jidohanbaiki. Don’t be intimidated by this word; it’s simpler than it seems. It literally reveals what the machine does: 自 means oneself, 動 means move, 販/販売 means sell, and 機 means machine. So even if you’re in a remote place and can’t find a vending machine, you know how to ask someone about it.

So, after learning all these aspects about vending machines’ distinctiveness, remember to try them and experience them when visiting Japan. Who knows what you may find in your next Japanese vending machine?

Maria Peñascal

Maria Peñascal

When I was young, I kept dreaming of the Land of the Rising Sun. So, one day, I decided to move to Japan to experience the country firsthand. Currently, I live between Spain and Japan, and I'm willing to share its culture through my writing and photography.

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