But it’s not the number of vending machines that’s truly impressive; it’s what they sell. Beer and cigarettes are comparably common fare — Japan’s first vending machine, inaugurated in 1888, sold tobacco. Since then, their wares have become increasingly creative, convenient, or else totally bizarre, doling out everything from fresh flowers and fresh garments, to electronics and umbrellas. Many of them offer food — Japanese noodles such as soba, udon, and ramen are regular options, and often come in a can. But foreigners might be caught off-guard to find machines selling toasted sandwiches, French fries, and microwaved meals, too.
By all accounts, vending machines are a very normal part of Japanese society, whether they’re selling Buddhist charms or model cars. Generally, they’re seen as a welcome convenience, allowing customers to access goods anywhere, anytime; there are no store hours, no pushy salespeople. But the country’s noteworthy orderliness is what makes their prevalence possible. Japan has some of the lowest rates of crime in the world, which means the machines are seldom stolen from or vandalized. This unique social trust allows shoppers and sellers alike to use the automats in good faith.
“Sales from Japan’s vending machines total nearly 7 trillion yen yearly.”
In some cases, vending machines serve as a means for companies to garner publicity. Popular anime and manga characters grace many of them, making for great advertising. At last winter’s Comiket fair in Tokyo, fans of the Puella Magi Madoka Magica series formed massive queues to purchase limited-edition cans of coffee containing a collectible trinket. But this isn’t all that surprising; whether they trade in novelties or necessities, sales from Japan’s vending machines total nearly 7 trillion yen yearly.
So watch for all the varied vendors as you venture across these incredible islands. Whether you’re desperate for a drink as you crest Mount Fuji, or you covet that one-off souvenir from the latest craze in Japanese subculture, chances are there will be a machine specially made to answer the call.