Our Guide to Japan’s Bizarre Vending Machines

When we were offered the unique opportunity to visit Japan this fall, we jumped (swiftly and adeptly, obviously) at the chance. We packed our bags, hopped on an airplane and landed in Osaka after a mere 21 hours of air travel. Time to explore!

What to explore first? Go to a Sumo wrestling event? Eat a decadent roll from the birthplace of sushi? Explore a Japanese castle or ancient temple? Visit a samurai museum to stare at centuries-old glistening swords through plexiglass? So much to take in, such little time! We walked approximately 12 steps outside of our hotel and stopped in our tracks. There it stood, gleaming with neon-colored charm and calligraphic Japanese symbols: a vending machine.

We had read about the enchanting and ubiquitous vending machines of Japan on the plane ride. One real-life sighting was all it took to be instantly consumed by the wonder of the Japanese vending machines and the mystery swirling around their existence. As we sauntered around the unfamiliar territory, we grew hyper-aware of their presence and couldn’t help but wonder: What’s with all these vending machines?

Japan’s Vending Machine History: Abridged

Japan’s very first vending machine was a tobacco vendor dating back to 1888 and was invented by Tawaraya Koshichi, an inventor and furniture craftsman. Upon inventing the machine of the future that spread convenience and novelty to the masses, he took out a patent on it. Mr. Koshichi is also responsible for Japan’s oldest existing vending machine, a quaint wooden mechanical marvel with intricate carvings that spat out stamps and postcards, gave change and displayed prices. Think of this vending machine as a Japanese Socrates; ahead of its time and totally awesome. Fast forward to the late 1950s. Japan’s vending machine presence is booming. Suddenly, without warning, a fountain-style juice dispensing vending machine was invented and everyone’s mind was blown. For the low price of just 10 yen per cup of juice, you too can have your thirst quenched in two shakes of a Sumo wrestler’s belt. The alcohol industry took note and quickly hopped aboard the vending machine bandwagon. In 1964, Japan had roughly 240,000 vending machines; the number today amounts to more than 5.5 million vending machines.

For the Love of Robots

Japan has collectively expressed its love for technology and robots over the years, which explains their unwavering love and acceptance for vending machines. The vending machines of today vary greatly to cater to nearly everyone’s needs. Do you feel parched? Have a hankering for flying fish soup? Need a caffeine-induced jolt? Jonesing for a potassium boost that only a banana can provide? Need a new pair of unmentionables? There’s a vending machine for that!

Vending Machines We Saw

Sauntering around the streets of Osaka, we were blessed to discover more vending machines than we knew what to do with. Some of our favorites were the ones dispensing delicious beer and whiskey highballs – able to be consumed right there in the street or on public transit! We also enjoyed the various coffee vending machines, giving you the option for both hot and cold cans of coffee. The automated novelty didn’t end there. We rejoiced (dare we say, screamed) when we stumbled upon an ice cream vending machine. Our journey concluded with sightings of machines toting cigarettes, savory bowls of noodles and trading cards.

Vending Machines We Wish We Saw

We heard whispers of a vending machine serving a dozen eggs at a time – for when you need shelled protein on-the-go. We trekked all through Osaka on a mission to locate the underwear vending machine but were sadly unsuccessful unearthing the elusive underthings dispensary. Other vending machines we wish we had seen include the contraptions selling hamburgers, energy drinks and condoms (side by side), sushi themed socks, surgical masks and puppies (yes, puppies).

Our Japan excursion was nothing short of magical. The vending machines served as a warm and majestic blanket to the culture shock and jet lag. We swear we enjoyed other things immensely, like the unexpected barrage of Italian food and the genuine kindness from everybody we met – even customs! Japan is bright and enchanting, with a rich history of traditions, stunning architecture and the most awe-inspiring vending machines we have ever seen.