Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mechanical Merchants

Note in the picture above that the trash areas near the drink machines have a circular slot so that only drink bottles and cans can be put into them. This is so they don't become all-purpose trash receptacles (of which there are nearly none in Tokyo) and only recyclable garbage is put in them.

Given how fascinated foreigners are with Japanese vending machines, I'm a little surprised someone hasn't set up a web site devoted to nothing but these mechanical merchants. Actually, for all I know, someone already has but I haven't stumbled across it.

On occasion, I mention how foreign folks find Japanese vending machines curious to my students and they tend to be a bit baffled by this. They remark, quite correctly, that we have vending machines back home for snacks, drinks, and sundry items. This is a point, of course, but the Japanese have them in much greater quantity and variety than we do. This is the real point of interest for us. It seems that there's little that isn't sold in vending machines here in one place or another.

There are a great many extremely peculiar and somewhat unsettling items being vended through machines that I doubt one would find anywhere else. I'm not talking about the omnipresent condom machines selling comically-named and themed prophylactics but rather about machines selling vast arrays of "marital aids" including but not limited to artificial vaginas, buttocks, and various items that may be inserted into bodily orifices if one finds such types of interaction with rubber and vinyl items stimulating.

While the stranger machines are shocking, they aren't really all that common. They tend to be placed outside of manned establishments selling the same type of goods so people can make purchases after hours or anonymously. The ones that tend to be more common and almost equally curious are those that attempt to offer up goods related to the needs of daily life. The reason these things can strike one as strange is that there are certain food items that seemingly were never meant to be preserved and sold in a can or purchased with the insertion of a few coins and by the push of a button.

The machine on the right in the picture above is selling umbrellas which are certainly natural enough given the rainy seasons in Japan and the not unusual circumstances in which people find themselves caught unaware in a downpour. As an aside, I should mention that people sometimes find themselves acquiring copious numbers of cheap umbrellas because they drop 500 yen on one when it unexpectedly rains. The machine on the right is the more curious one.

The second machine is selling bread in a "can". The illusion that this is part of a nice homey breakfast that the picture on the machine attempts to create by showing the bread cylinders served on a cutting board and the bread itself served on a china plate with butter and a knife is rather undermined by the bizarre shape of the bread itself. While this may be tasty, tasty stuff, I can't shake the feeling that bread is one of those things that was never meant to be sold in this fashion. Of course, that assertion is undermined by the fact that we sell all sorts of bread products (uncooked) in Pillsbury dough-boy emblazoned tubes in the U.S. I guess it's ok to buy cylindrical bread so long as it doesn't look that way after it's baked.

When I see the kinds of food that we associate with a sit-down meal at home crammed into cans and offered up in this fashion, I feel like the Japanese took the (now largely defunct) concept of an Automat and ran wildfire with it. Despite some of the odd-ball concoctions that may come out of this type of modification of food-stuffs, it's actually a pretty good business move. You have people who are rushing to work and in need of sustenance on the go so they toss in a coin, rip open a tube and gobble down some quick, fortifying bread product.

There are also people who are stuck hanging out on the platform with little to do besides wait for the train. Catering to those who may be peckish when the kiosks are over-crowded or closed makes sense, particularly when the sales points are unmanned and require almost no staff to make a sale. Additionally, it's well-known that people will consume more when bored and when things just happen to be around. It's possible that the presence of a vending machine may incite unoccupied people to consume. It could be the equivalent of someone standing in front of the refrigerator inspecting the contents and hoping to find something "good" to eat or drink. If that is the case, the more vending machines, the merrier from a sales point of view.


Helen said...

When I first came to Japan I got a few chuckles out of the Rice vending machine. I laughed about it to my co-worker, until she said to me, "Well, what do you do in Canada if you run out of rice before dinner?"
Umm....Eat potatoes? Bread? Pasta?

My first winter here I probably gained 10 pounds drinking all the variations of hot sweetened coffee and tea. Now I don't drink many at all. It was such a novelty though.

Shari said...

These days, I don't see those sorts of rice vending machines around Tokyo. I wonder if they've been supplanted by the plethora of convenience stores carrying "real" foodstuffs. Back when I first arrived, "konbini" didn't carry so many grocery-type items and markets tended to close by 7:00 pm (now, many are open until 10:00).

It's funny about the coffee and tea drinks. They are definitely chock full of sugar. Japanese people often deride sodas in the U.S. for being too sugary but they don't realize how sweetened a lot of their beverages are.

Thanks for the comment! :-)

tornados28 said...

The beer vending machines still amaze me. They would be looted if they were in the US.

Also, it amazes me to see lines of vending machines on the sides of roads in seemingly desolate locations in Tochigi-ken. How do they survive.

Androo said...

When I was studying in Tokyo, I actually had favorite vending machines because they'd sell Aquarius or Pocari Sweat or Coke for cheaper than any other machine I found. They were off the main roads between my school and station, so if I were walking with friends, I'd make a detour and reappear later down the road, drink in tow. I guess my upbringing just wouldn't let me blow 30 extra yen every time I bought a drink, knowing a cheaper one was 50 yards away.

I'd never seen the umbrella one before. It's a bit unusual because I'm just so used to seeing stacks of plain white ones sitting outside of pretty much any store once it starts raining.

Shari said...

tornados: I never thought about the beer machines getting looted but you're almost certainly right! Of course, the real reason we don't have them is the possibility of underage drinkers!

Androo: I confess that I've never drunk Pocari Sweat! I'm not a fan of isotonic drinks and I've always associated it with things like Gatorade.

I'm with you though, I'd go out of my way to pay less for soda if it were as much as 30 yen cheaper. I go quite a bit out of my way to get Coke 50 yen cheaper per bottle now!

Thanks to both of yo for taking the time to comment!

Wai said...

There's around 50 vending machine pictures at this site. One is really weird. Go to: