Vending Machines
in Japan

Reference Pages Index -- Oniko Goes To Japan Main Page

Japan is chock full of vending machines... with so many people on the run at all hours, it's the best way to be sure they can always find what they need. Most machines carry four specific items: soft drinks, coffee, tea, and vitamin drinks for executives on the go. But the convenience doesn't stop there! Here's a quick list of some of the more unusual vending machines I've seen; and, in the case of the really unusual ones, where I found them:

Batteries: D, C, and AA
1998: I've only seen this in one place... a side street in Tsuruoka, in the Yamagata prefecture of Japan. This is such a good idea, I'm not sure why I haven't seen more of them.
UPDATE - Jul 99: I've now seen two more of these, both near electronics goods stores. I suspect they've become far more common.

Beer & Sake
1998: Yes, that's right... you can buy alchoholic beverages from vending machines. The sizes range from a cup-sized container of sake (pre-heated and everything!) to half-gallon cans of Asahi beer, with all the familiar American beers in between. Apparently, teenagers are on the honor system to not abuse these... though some newer machines include a camera that photographs the purchaser. Kinda common.

1998: No, these aren't usually near bowling allies (though Tokyo has several of those, too). Smoking is a common thing in Japan, and there is no such thing as a "no-smoking area". Many fast food restaurants will offer you an ashtray along with your order, in case you plan to light up. These machines are supposed to be on the same honor system with the teenagers as the alchohol machines are; but teenagers are teenagers, no matter where you are. Kinda common.

Compact Discs (Music)
1999: These have about fifteen compact discs to choose from, all fairly popular titles, and generally priced between 2000 yen and 3500 yen. I've seen two of these now, both inside JR train stations -- one in Tokyo Station, Tokyo, and the other in Ogaki Station, near Nagoya.

Cup Noodles
1999: Four different flavors. Choose your favorite; when you get the cup, pull the top back and put it back in the machine to add the hot water. Wait a few minutes and -- Voila! -- hot cup noodles! Uncommon. I've only seen these in hotels.

Disposable Cameras, Film, and AA Batteries
1999: Makes sense when you think about it. Common in big malls and near tourist attractions and amusement parks.

1998: I had to laugh when I saw this at a shinto shrine in Tsuruoka, in the Yamagata prefecture of Japan. Y'see, Most shrines and temples have a bucket of fortunes near the main building; you pay 100 yen and grab a random fortune. Of course, when the temple is closed, the fortunes are unavailable because the priests don't trust people to pay when no one is watching (they're probably also a little leary of leaving a pot of coins just sitting out). So this shrine in Tsuruoka has nicely bypassed the problems involved by putting the fortunes into a vending machine... it's the only one like it I've seen!
UPDATE - May 2001: Back in the July 1999 trip, I saw another of these at a very tourist oriented temple, Kiyomizu, in Kyoto... and as of my last two trips, it's official: the fortune vending machine is becoming standard equipment at all big temples and shrines.

1998: Your choice of a couple dozen different types, though each machine usually only has the products of one company. Uncommon.

Hot Meals
1999: I only saw one of these, near Matsunoodera's abandoned JR rail station. You get your choice of three different meals, all for 500 yen each: spaghetti with meat sauce, rice curry, or a sort of vegetable stew. You get the box and open it, mix the ingredients (all packed separately to keep them fresh), then re-close the box and pull the string. String? It activates a chemical pack on the bottom of the box that shoots a jet of hot steam through the box, instantly heating everything up (watch your fingers!). Comes with chopsticks. Rare.
UPDATE - May 2001: Now standard in most big hotels, and at a number of out-of-the-way train stations.

Ice Cream
1998: Your choice of pint or cone, with around eight different flavors available, including vanilla, chocolate, and green tea flavors guarenteed. Very common... and usually empty in the summer!

1999: Yep! Vends out a one liter plastic baggie of fresh milk, though I didn't get to see how much it cost. I spotted it from a bus while traveling through a small town in the Osaka area.

1990, 1998: This isn't one of those plunk-in-a-coin-and-grab-a-dozen-papers newspaper machines, like in the U.S.; this is the size of a standard soda vending machine, and gives you a choice of up to sixteen different newspapers (usually eight are today's, and eight are yesterday's). Drop in your money, choose your paper, and you get one copy of it... no cheating with these guys! Uncommon.

Pornographic Magazines, Comics, Videos, and Sex Toys
1998: Really! I've seen these in the red light district of Shinjuku and down a backstreet in Ikebukuro. They can be all in the same machine, or in separate machines for each type of item. oy.
UPDATE - July 99: I don't know how common these have become in Tokyo yet (I'll be there later this month), but Kyoto is chock full of these machines, and usually near major streets! There even appears to be a sort of franchise setup... several of the spots with these machines look exactly the same -- a separate alcove of machines -- as if one company is running them. Sorry, but... porn sells!

1999: Yes, rice! You select the type of rice and the amount you want, pay the fee, wait for the bag to fill, and then pull it from the bottom drawer of the machine. Very rare... the only one I've seen is in the shopping street in Ishiyama.

1999: Very rare... the only one I've seen is in the Metro Center mall in Nishi-Kasai ward. Of course, I don't enter ladies' restrooms, so maybe they're more common than I know... in any case, this one is in a more public setting.

Toilet Paper
1990, 1998: As I've mentioned elsewhere, in many of the larger cities near train stations and large department stores it's not too unusual to run into people passing out small packets of tissue paper with store ads attached; if you see this, and you don't already have a packet of said tissue, GET ONE! As I discovered in 1998, one use for this tissue is as toilet paper -- a lot of the public bathrooms in Japan have no toilet paper in them!
Given this circumstance then, it shouldn't be too big a surprise that some train station bathrooms include toilet paper vending machines... a packet of tissue paper (minus the store advertisements) for fifty yen... about fifty cents. Fairly common.
UPDATE - July 2002: I DON'T KNOW WHO MANUFACTURES THESE MACHINES; SO STOP ASKING!!! Buy a ticket to Japan and find out for yourself!

1990, 1998: Not really your standard big boxy vending machine... more like an umbrella stand that only lets you take one umbrella at a time, for a charge of between 300 yen and 500 yen. Umbrellas are extremely popular in Japan, in the summer as well as the winter; in the summer, they provide desperately needed shade from both sun and rain. I've only seen one of these machines, in the underground mall in Kyoto near Kyoto Station, but I'll bet they're more common than that... I like rain, so I only very rarely look for umbrellas, you see.

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All illustrations in these pages are copyright (c)2002 Garth Haslam, and shouldn't be used without his permission.