When people travel to Japan for the first time, there are usually many things they are surprised about. One of them is without fail the number of vending machines they see. The machines are all over the city and even throughout Japan’s countryside. Also, the type of products that are available in these vending machines makes many tourists curious. Learn more about the history of vending machines in Japan. And what can you expect to buy from them if you’d come to Japan soon?
History of Vending Machines
It is said that the very first vending machine in the world was made in ancient Egypt, and it was created to sell holy water at a temple. The old Egyptians definitely had a good sense of commerce! In Japan, the first patent for a vending machine was issued in 1890. The oldest existing machine is for selling postal stamps. This vending machine was already equipped to reject any false coins.
The first big hit in Japan was the machines that sold packaged sweets in 1924. This type of machine started to spread rapidly in the 1960s and was very popular. One of the biggest events in Japanese vending machine history was when JNR (Japan National Railways) introduced machines to sell train tickets in 1967 in order to manage ticket sales more efficiently.
The arrival of these vending machines meant that the number of sales staff could be greatly reduced, cutting a great deal of expenditure for the management. Now, because of the invention of the automatic entrance gate, there is an even greater reduction of necessary human staff, which is good news for a society that faces a labor crunch amidst a rapidly aging population.
After the introduction of train ticket machines, the number of vending machines for other products also continued to increase and in 2000 there was a grand total of 5.6 million vending machines in Japan.
Drink Vending Machines
It is not possible to walk even one block on a city street without seeing at least one drink vending machine in Japan. Do you know how many drink vending machines there are in Japan? Nearly half of the vending machines in Japan sell drinks these days, so the number is about 2.5 million, which means there is one drink vending machine for every 50 people!
The drink makers distribute these machines throughout Japan because they want to have as many opportunities as possible to sell their products, and pedestrians love them for it. Japanese summers are notoriously warm and humid, making it almost indispensable to have plenty of opportunities to buy water or sports drinks while you are on the go.
And in the winter, people are also very grateful for the many vending machines. Because you can buy instant hot drinks in wintertime that feel very nice in your coat pockets. It is easy to recognize which drinks are hot and which ones are cold. There is always a red or blue tag below the products; red stands for hot, and blue stands for cold.
The newest invention is the machine that actually gives you a personal recommendation about which drink you should buy. How is this possible, you may ask? The machine has an interactive camera that registers your face and body posture and figures out how you are feeling based on what the camera sees. So, for example, if you look tired, it will recommend you an energy drink. Pretty cool, right?
Driving can be a tiring occupation, and sometimes you just need a pick-me-up in the shape of a nice cup of coffee. In Japan, there are drive-ins where you can find coffee vending machines that sell freshly ground cups of joe. After you put the money in, the machine starts to grind the coffee beans. Then they put them in a filter, and pour hot water to make real coffee. It may take 1 or 2 minutes. Most of the machines have functions that allow you to choose the amount of coffee beans, sugar, and cream. Ice is also often an option. Of course, you can also have a regular black coffee.
When the coffee is ready, the small door of the machine opens and the coffee is served in a paper cup with a lid.
Food Vending Machines
Most countries in the world are quite familiar with vending machines that sell drinks. But vending machines that sell foods, especially hot foods, are less common. In Japan, there are many machines that sell foods including hot snacks. The first popular vending machines sold sweets, but nowadays, there are machines that sell cooked food. Examples are hamburgers, pizza, and octopus balls called ‘takoyaki’, a favorite quick snack for many Japanese people.
On the other hand, you can also buy frozen foods such as ice cream from vending machines. Especially in places that are popular with kids such as swimming pools.
Cigarette and Alcohol Vending Machines
Can you believe that you can still buy cigarettes and alcohol such as beer and sake from a vending machine in Japan? In many countries, this is not possible anymore. Because it is too easy for underage individuals to buy products that can only be consumed by adults if there is no one to check the age of the buyer. In Japan, you only become an adult once you turn 20 years old. And they are becoming quite strict in trying to restrict underage kids when it comes to drinking and smoking.
Of course, they found a solution to this problem, although I have to say I don’t think it is infallible. Do you want to buy cigarettes or alcohol from a machine? Then you need to use an ID card called taspo which only adults can obtain. If you are a foreigner who is only in Japan as a tourist, you still cannot use vending machines to buy alcohol and cigarettes. So you’d have to buy them in the convenience store instead, where they can check your ID to verify that you are an adult.
Other Vending Machines
At many Japanese-style fast-food restaurants where you can eat things like ramen and gyudon (rice topped with stewed beef), you need to buy food and drink tickets first at a vending machine that is usually standing close to the entrance. After you buy your tickets, you only have to give them to the cooks and then you can just eat and leave, making this a very efficient way to order and pay in a restaurant.
You can buy all sorts of non-food things from vending machines, too. Newspapers, magazines, capsule toys, and even fortune-telling papers at temples and shrines can all be bought from vending machines in Japan. Travelers will often get their first taste of vending machines at the airport when they arrive; you can buy SIM cards and travel insurance from airport vending machines.
While you may think it is not safe to place vending machines on the streets, fortunately, there is only a very small chance that the machine might be vandalized or robbed. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Even if a machine is broken into, the thief would probably be disappointed because many people use e-money nowadays, so there is unlikely to be much cash in there.
This is at the same time one of the reasons that there are so many vending machines in Japan. Another reason is Japan’s love of automation ever since the post-war economy has made some parts of the Japanese tech industry boom, with the robot industry being one of the most forward ones.
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