Remember the last time you traveled to Japan during the hot summer season? The heat and humidity were unrelenting, and you were all sweaty, dehydrated, and in desperate need of refreshment. You looked around for a convenience store, but there were none in sight. But then, you found your lifesaver—a vending machine filled with all the ice-cold, thirst-quenching beverages you could ever want.
Vending machines or 自動販売機 (Jidouhanbaiki) are standalone box-like machines that automatically disperse products. All you have to do is insert cash, choose your desired beverage, and collect it from the bottom of the machine. As long as there’s a proper power supply, it will be there for you 24/7, all year long!
While the most commonly seen vending machines in Japan dispense drinks, you may also encounter those that carry cigarettes, packed hot food, or even toys, clothing, and other merchandise. Go exploring in Japan a bit further, though, and you might find some vending machines that sell products you could never have imagined.
If you ever go to the retro shopping arcade-style shop ‘Daiba 1-Chome Shotengai’ at Odaiba Decks Tokyo Beach, you might find some of the popular retro vending machines from the period of Japan from the mid-1920s to late 1980s.
These retro capsule toy machines were popular among kids in the Showa era (1926-1989). The toys are inexpensive and come with different designs such as miniature robots, aircrafts, insects, and more. Back in those days, these toys could be found almost everywhere, and were sold through vending machines at most candy shops in Japan. Now, it is difficult to find these kinds of vending machines elsewhere in Japan.
Although these vending machines are no longer functional, it’s fascinating to see all the older soft drink can designs displayed nicely on top of the machines. I even heard a few Japanese couples stop by and utter the word ‘natsukashii!’, a term used when something evokes a fond memory from their past.
If you’re in Japan and have a sudden craving for ramen or oden (a Japanese one-pot dish), the most natural thing to do is to visit a ramen restaurant nearby or buy your meal from a convenience store. But did you know that you can also buy canned ramen and oden from vending machines? If you happen to be around the Daiba 1-Chome Shotengai during the winter, give this canned oden and ramen a try! It might sound a little weird, but trust me, it’s one of the best things you could get from a vending machine.
Located approximately a 5-minute walk from Akihabara station, this strange alley is home to some of the world’s most unusual vending machines.
Get a sudden craving for popcorn while walking around the neighborhood of Akihabara? No problem! This colorful old-school vending machine sells freshly made, lightly salted popcorn at an affordable price of 220 yen.
While you’re at it, check out the other unusual items sold here like the canned yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), canned muffins, and more.
In the same alley, you’ll also find a few vending machines dispensing these plain-looking boxes wrapped in white paper lined with text for 490 yen. The content varies wildly from box to box, with everything from packs of Japanese snacks to short stories written by an anonymous author. The stories are random and often very bizarre, and no one can confirm whether or not these stories are fictional or based on real-life incidents.
For whatever reason, you’ll also find some machines selling oddities like slime balls, beetles, and hinokidama—balls made from the wood of the hinoki (Japanese cypress) tree. Pop them into your bathtub, and you’ll get a relaxing, fresh scent of a natural bath like you’re in a woodland. I’m not sure why things as random as these are available for purchase at these vending machines. Judging from the Japanese note, perhaps it might appeal to people who stayed at the hotel just a few buildings away from the vending machine alley.
The next time you are in Japan and have some extra coins in your pocket that you’d like to spend before heading home, why not seek out an unusual vending machine and experience this unique yet quirky culture of convenience. Who knows? You just might discover a rare item you’d never imagine could be dispensed in this fashion!
This post was originally published in September 2020. While we do our best to ensure that all of our information is correct, the content of individual vending machines varies by location and establishment.