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Tokyo vending machines

The Ubiquitous Japanese Vending Machines

It’s puzzling how such an array of vending machines exists in Japan. It seems like you can purchase almost anything from them. Of course, you might expect to get hot meals, cold and hot drinks, and train tickets. Some other practical and eco-friendly vending machines offer you charges on electric cars and a good selection of ebooks. But it approaches the realm of the bizarre to see vending machines for the unthinkable, such as live lobsters!

The omnipresent vending machine, or jidō-hanbaiki, is one of the reasons why Japan is a one-of-a-kind place to visit, where the meaning of the phrase “you have to see it to believe it” becomes apparent as soon as you step off the plane. It’s a whole new experience waiting for you to explore; the unique vending machines are just a warm up.


Gachapon vending machine.

Tawaraya Koshiki created the first vending machine in Bakan (now known as Shimonoseki), Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, in 1888. The machine used a mechanism for creating traditional Japanese wind up dolls (karakuri) to dispense tobacco. The popularity of vending machines in Japan grew in the 1950s and ballooned into the strange animal it is today. There is now about one vending machine for every 23 people, a staggering density.

Part of Japanese Culture

The popularity of vending machines in Japan compared to other countries is largely because of the low petty-crime and vandalism rates. The machines have become a convenient and affordable means to purchase almost anything, minus the cost of live employees to do the labor. Most vending machines accept 100-yen coins. Japanese are fascinated with mechanical creations that can do chores for humans. In 2008, an ID-card system was introduced as an age verification unit in vending machines. It dispenses merchandise that requires age restrictions among customers, like cigarettes and alcoholic beverages.

Woman in front Japanese vending machines

Need an umbrella, eggs, flowers, or sneakers?  Go no further than an adequate bank of vending machines.  If nothing else, what you buy is comparatively germ-free, often wrapped in plastic and handled by very few other people.

For many American students (and Japanese consumers) who are always on the go, a vending machine is at least an affordable, delicious, quick way to get a hot meal in their bellies.  What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve bought in a vending machine in Tokyo?


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Read all about Japanese immersion learning and studying abroad. Check out our eZasshi archives for more articles!