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Unsung heroes of Japanese culture - Vending machines

Updated: May 29, 2021

Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.

Vending machines

A particular aspect of the Japanese street scene that has always fascinated and amused me is the vending machines. And I say this coming from the Netherlands where tourists flock to our special snack-walls where you can get local, cardiovascular disease inducing treats without the burden of human interaction. Yet even they are humbled by your average Japanese backwater. Sure, I knew that they were somewhat of a thing. But nothing could have prepared me for their overwhelming omnipresence, populating what appears to be every inch of uncontested city space. To say ‘many’ does reality no justice: according to official numbers there is 1 vending machine for about every 23 people. Your average class in school has to settle for less teacher than vending machine per child -- utter madness! When using the figure of speech ‘on every other street corner’ to describe the presence of konbinis, in a literal sense, this would often be an understatement for vending machines.

In busy city districts you may find 10 almost identical machines in a row (which I can only imagine serves some derailed sociological experiment) and even in the middle of nowhere you will inevitably cross their path. On many hikes, far from civilization and in the middle of nature, I would be greeted by the familiar rectangular shape and soft hum. It’s almost comforting: wherever you may be, you won’t be able to escape these automatons enticing you with refreshments. Because that’s what most of the machines sell: drinks. Which is unsurprising if you’ve ever been in Japan during summer: with 40 degrees centigrade and 100% humidity, rehydrating every 200 meters becomes a fact of life if you do not wish to perish on the spot.

Perhaps this is one of the drivers of this cultural phenomenon. What’s likely important as well is the general lack of vandalism and theft in Japan. As is the fact that it is still very much a cash-based society, which made me liable to have at least half a kilogram of coins on me that I’d more than happily part with. And so many more partial and potential explanations exist. What’s clear however, is that vending machines apparently cater to a need that the already abundant and convenient konbini’s do not sufficiently meet. The fun doesn’t stop just with relief in the heat of summer either: many of the bottles on offer can be gotten warm as well, especially when it’s cold outside. And that’s just the drinks! There appears to be a vending machine for everything in Japan, with beer and hot meals being particularly pleasant surprises.

My favorite specimen so far was a rusty old machine selling batteries in the middle of a quiet, old-fashioned street on the outskirts of central Kanazawa where its redundancy was particularly striking. I can only picture how its visionary owner must have dreamt to perhaps one day forever change the life of a lost and desperate tourist with a dying first-generation navigation system. Japan is a country where presentation matters greatly, making service one of the greatest goods. And service these armies of machines definitely offer.

This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on May 7, 2021.

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