We all know that vending machines provide a quick and convenient alternative to finding a brick and mortar store. Japan has taken this convenience to a whole new level. As a result, there are more vending machines per person (approximately 23 people per machine) in Japan than anywhere else in the world. Their popularity is on the level of Starbucks in North America. There’s one (or more) on every corner in Japan. There are well over five million machines available to date. Speaking of North America, vending machines can be found in malls, offices and recreational centers. There are more outdoors but these tend to be beverage and snack machines. In Japan, the majority of machines are found outdoors. Because of this convenience, more people have gradually started to rely on them. This in turn has encouraged cities to offer a wide range of products. Since there are low rates of vandalism in major cities, availability has steadily increased.
While conventional beverage and snack machines are available in Japan, customers can also buy some of the most outrageous items you can think of. Anything from underwear (sometimes used!!) to business cards to meat sauce are available. The wide range of available products might be surprising for anyone living outside of Japan but vending machine businesses have clearly found a market for their products. Take a look below to discover surprising (and downright unbelievable) items that can be found in Japanese vending machines.
15. Canned Bread
This one is definitely high on the list of unexpected things to find in a vending machine. I know, you’re asking yourself, “When did this become a thing?” It became a thing back in 2006 after an anime series called Clannad became popular. The series focused on a teenage girl whose parents were bakers. The fact that bread cans now have various anime characters on them relates back to this show. In addition to the novelty factor, the bread also comes in a variety of flavors such as chocolate, green tea, strawberry, butter, raisin, blueberry and milk. Surprisingly, the bread can last up to six months. Word is the bread doesn’t taste bad but it doesn’t come close to fresh baked bread. If you find yourself in desperate need of bread, it’s a good option.
You might be surprised to know that this product concept actually came from New England in the States. Its since become a camping and emergency supplies staple but originated when settlers baked their breads in cans. They didn’t have ovens so it made sense at the time.
Yes, that’s right, cars. If you’re out and about one day and feel the hankering for a new set of wheels, simply stop by a vending machine and pick one out. To be fair, you don’t actually drive away with a car after visiting one of these machines. There are two main types of car vending machines in Japan. With one option cars are stored in something that looks like a glass parking garage. You simply choose a car from a screen and a series of lifts and gates will find the car and deposit it in a display case in front of you. Dance music plays and lights flash as the car sits on display. After a minute or two it’s returned to its parking space.
Another concept used by Mercedes for their SMART car displays one car in a case. If you’re interested in what you see you can pay for a SMART capsule. These capsules contain information on new models available for sale, car dealers that are nearby and of course SMART stickers. You have to admit; this is a pretty cool marketing technique. The concept of car vending machines is becoming more popular globally, especially in the States.
13. Fresh Lettuce
This particular vending machine is called the “Chef’s Farm” because it manages to grow lettuce daily. That works out to approximately 60 heads of lettuce grown everyday using only fluorescent lighting. That’s over 20,000 heads of lettuce grown in a year. If nothing else, it’s a testament to embracing alternative methods of growing food (no need to worry about starving if we ever run out of food). The machine doesn’t cater to folks who need to run out and buy a head of lettuce for an impromptu salad, they’re geared towards restaurants who value locally grown produce.
These vending machines come with special sponges with seeds already planted within them. As you can imagine, it takes a large amount of water to help the plants grow quickly. If needed, the machines are built to grow up to five different vegetables at a time. The individual components (for example, lighting and temperature) can be controlled independently for each vegetable bed. The result is a versatile machine.
12. Beer (Draft or in a Can)
Before you start asking about the legality of this one, precautions have been put in place to combat underage drinking. When these vending machines were first introduced, they required a lot of trust in the general public since underage drinking was a problem (the legal drinking age in Japan is 20). Public concern led to the inclusion of ID scanners. These scanners confirm the age of the person buying the alcohol and only unlocks access if the customer meets the minimum age limit. Of course there are still loop holes to this but some of these machines shut down at a certain time at night. This is likely done to remove the risks of late night boozing and trouble with people and the law.
Although unbelievable, the machines are hugely successful (probably because of the convenience factor). In a move that wouldn’t fly in other places, vending machines are often set up right next to a beer and liquor stores. Store owners are justified in their concerns that this close proximity will steal some of their business. After all, there was a time when owning this type of business was very profitable.
11. Ice Cream
This is another item that’s surprisingly very popular in Japan. Ice cream is popular in Japan because of their hot summers but the fact that you can get a soft serve cone, frozen treats and bars in a vending machines makes this unique. Whenever the mood hits you, you’re bound to find a machine with frozen goodness inside. Each machine is loaded with a variety of flavors so you’ll find something that suits your taste buds. Some machines also offer limited edition flavors. These flavors are available for about a month before they’re replaced with a new one. Don’t fret, staple flavors are always available. Customers can choose from flavors such as wasabi, corn, eggplant, black sesame, green tea and Ramen. As you probably guessed, Japanese ice cream manufacturers don’t shy away from experimenting with new flavors.
10. Corn Soup
Canned soup is nothing new but this flavor is what makes this vending machine interesting. Corn soup (also known as corn potage) is served as a popular beverage in Japan. You might be surprised to know this flavor isn’t original to Japan. It’s actually a French dish. Amazing, right? Like many other things, Japan has adopted this soup and has put its own distinct twist on it. Who would have thought you could get soup (whether hot or cold) from a vending machine?
To boost the convenience factor, hungry folks can drink their soup cold while they’re on the go. If this isn’t for you, some machines are able to warm up the soup first before dispensing it. Either way, it makes a great meal or refreshing snack if for customers who are pressed for time or forgot to take lunch to the office.
These eggs are very fresh and are restocked daily. The machines are usually found in farming communities on the outskirts of large cities. Because of where they’re located, the eggs aren’t always refrigerated. Fortunately, the eggs are edible as long as the weather doesn’t reach extreme and can last up to two weeks. If needed, farmers or businesses that manage the machines might place an air conditioner nearby in the summer (the machines are located in small store fronts).
Unlike the majority of vending machines which drop products down a shoot, customers open a door (some are automatic) once they pay and have to carefully remove their eggs. Even when being careful it’s common for eggs to break as doors close. One major downside is the fact that these machines are located so far away from city centres. Customers have to have a car or another way available to get to the machines and transport their purchase back home. It’s worth it though, many say the eggs taste great.
Dole Japan introduced the county’s first banana vending machine a few years ago. Customers can buy one banana at a time (for approximately $1 US) or a bunch for a little more. While this might be considered expensive, it’s worth the convenience it offers. While not widely available everywhere in Japan (the few that exist are at subway stations), this has spawned the development of fruit vending machines. Customers can even buy a small bag of apple slices if they choose.
This is another extremely unique vending machine product but it makes sense. Bananas are so easy to transport and leave very little mess. At some machines customers will even find Dole branded garbage cans. How thoughtful. These machines are great for professionals and students who are constantly on the move but want to stay healthy. Bananas are “served” chilled and are guaranteed to be fresh because they’re replaced daily.
7. Hot Meals
This is a very unique one. Rather than going to a restaurant or a fast food restaurant, customers can pick up a hot meal at a vending machine. The machines heat up a frozen meal of choice and then dispense the steaming meal in a matter of a few minutes. Machines can be found at highway rest stops or places where meal options are limited after a certain time. Most are available 24 hours a day. The convenience factor is huge because meals are quick to grab and they appeal to a wide range of customers.
Depending on what a customer craves, they’ll find something they like. They can buy a chicken, fish or seafood dinner or pick up a hot dog or burger. The quality and presentation of the prepared meal might not be the greatest but for customers who need to grab something quickly, this does the trick. There are even vending machine restaurants! They’re like regular restaurants but without the staff. These spaces are filled with a variety of food and beverage vending machines and offer utensils for visitors.
As strange as this sounds, these machines really do exist. While these sweet treats are appealing, they’re rare to find. Folks who’ve been lucky enough to find one of these machines have commented on how delicious they are. For about $2 US, customers can select from a variety of flavors. They can choose flavors from chocolate and caramel to fruit and cream to satisfy their sweet tooth. Crêpes are served chilled, wrapped in plastic (they look a little like Twinkies) and in a glass jar (to prevent squeezing).
For anyone whose visited Japan, you’ll have noticed how clean the streets are. As a whole, the country makes an effort to keep cities clean. Vending machine operators play a large part in this. Rather than customers throwing away the glass jar their crêpe came it, they’re asked to return the jars after use. To help with this request, there are bins located next to the vending machines. There’s no excuse to litter.
This is the perfect solution for forgotten birthdays or anniversaries. They’re great for folks who want to say sorry in a special way. When on the go, customers can stop by one of these vending machines to pick from a selection of fresh flowers. The arrangements are super cute and come with ribbons and a basket or fancy wrapping paper. Gone are the days where an order had to be placed in advanced. Customers no longer have to go looking for a flower shop and deal directly with a sales person. This can be intimidating for those who don’t know exactly what they want but know what they like when they see it.
This is a great example of these machines stretching boundaries. Who said vending machines were just for beverages and snacks? Flowers aren’t the only gifts customers can buy from a vending machine. There are many machines that specialize in children’s toys and collectible items such as figurines.
4. Toilet Paper
You might be asking, “Is this necessary?” Surprisingly yes they are and many are available. This concept made sense to someone at some point but it’s an unexpected surprise when tourists realize that they have to pay for toilet paper when in public. Many of these machines are available in front of public restrooms at tourist attractions. Tourists probably enter restrooms and quickly realize that there isn’t any TP available. Fortunately, they can run outside and grab some. This may leave you wondering, “If you have to pay, why pay for an entire roll?” or “What happens if you don’t have enough change?”
It seems free toilet paper is something many countries take for granted. It’s very different in some places in Japan. There’ve been instances where free samples were given inside of newspapers. Who knew there was such a premium placed on toilet paper. Perhaps this means folks will have to start bringing their own from home, just in case there’s an emergency.
With advances in technology over the last few decades, it doesn’t make sense to sell batteries, especially in a tech savvy country like Japan. Despite being virtually obsolete (most devices require you plug them in to charge), there are still vending machines that sell batteries (we’re talking AAA and up). Many machines look worse for ware and have collected layers of thick dust and their displays showcase rusty old batteries. While some of these machines are still operational, many don’t seem to have any operational power. They’re permanently on display and serve as a reminder of a different time. Why aren’t machines removed if they don’t work? Especially when there’s little need for them? They’ve likely been forgotten about and are too expensive to remove and dispose of properly. As the need for more relevant machines growers perhaps something will be done with them then.
This is for folks who’ve rushed out the door only to realize they’ve forgot their umbrella at home. Or folks who get caught in an unexpected downpour. Now there’s no need to worry about a ruined hairstyle or soaked clothing because in Japan they’ve got you covered, literally. There’s no need to search for a store to buy a new one. Instead, customers can find one of many umbrella vending machines which can be found at subway stations. The umbrellas are very inexpensive.
In 2015, there was a trial run that allowed customers to take umbrellas for free during sudden rainfall. Customers are expected to return the umbrellas to the same vending machine within a few days. This requires extreme trust in the public since there’s no penalty for not returning a borrowed umbrella. It just means that there won’t be an umbrella available during the next downpour.
This is strange but hands down, it’s a genius idea. This just goes to show that companies have thought of everything. Whatever you need in Japan can probably be found in a vending machine. Businessmen who plan to head to a social event after a long day in the office, can pick up a new tie on their way. In just a few seconds, they’ve refreshed their look. For clumsy folks out there who have a tendency to spill food or drinks on their tie, they now have a quick fix. They no longer have to go through the rest of their day feeling as though everyone’s looking at the huge coffee stain.
Each machine comes with a small variety of ties but for customers who aren’t picky, this is a quick fix. They’re often sold with other items like batteries and disposable cameras. Because they’re paired with technology we use less of, does this mean they’re also on their way out the door? We’ll see.