When in doubt, go to a Japanese vending machine!

One of the things that impress overseas visitors when they come to Japan is the vending machines.

The vast number of vending machines installed and their technological advancement are among the best in the world.

There are also vending machines with digital signage.

A motion sensor in the vending machine will detect when a person stands in front of it, then it displays the range of beverages on offer. Traditional vending machines will also show sold out drinks, but this new technology will only display the available items to purchase.

It also uses a camera sensor to identify the person purchasing to recommend products based on the season, time of day, gender and age.

Japan is the only country in the world where you can find such a machine.

The evolution of Japanese vending machines is truly unique compared to the rest of the world. We found some interesting vending machines, and we’re excited to share them with you in this article.

JR東日本の山手線の駅に設置された大型タッチパネル付きの飲料自動販売機。自販機の製造は富士電機が、飲料の販売事業はJR東日本ウォータービジネスが担う。日経 xTECHが撮影

■ A super luxurious vending machine with items costing over 1,000 yen!

When you think of vending machines, what are some of the products you can purchase from them?

Most people probably think of drinks or snacks in small bags. But vending machines can also control the temperature inside the machine, so they could sell a whole range of products, right?

There is a vending machine in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, that sells an unexpected and somewhat unusual product. Not drinks, not snacks, but canned foods!

And not just any cans, but pricey ones. I was surprised when I saw the displayed price. These cans cost between 1,000~2,000 yen EACH. Despite the high price tag, we were curious to find out what was inside of these cans.

The Nihonbashi area, named after the famous canal bridge built in the 17th century, is full of historical and notable sites, including the high-end department store Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store established in 1904, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

The location of the vending machine may seem unusual, just like the products it sells. The vending machine we are after is located in a coin-operated car park near Nihonbashi. For those unfamiliar with coin-operated car parks, it is, as the name suggests – a self-service car park where you pay for the duration of stay when you exit using coins. As Tokyo is a city full of buildings, there are also many coin-operated car parks.

Surrounded by crowded buildings, coin-operated car parks are a common sight everywhere in Japan.

I went to the coin-operated car park where the luxury canned food is sold.

I walked around the car park and found a vending machine tucked away in one corner!

At first glance, it looks just like a regular vending machine selling drinks.

But on closer inspection, it’s not selling drinks, it’s selling canned food! And when you look at the price, it says 1,600 yen. How expensive!

It’s sold by a company called CANNATUREL, which opened in 2016 in Takakura Nishiki, Kyoto, specialising in high-end canned goods. They offer a range of safe, additive-free canned goods made by producers from all over Japan.

You can tell their dedication to use the finest produce with such products as “Sweet baked potato”, which is full of fibre and rich flavours of the natural sweetness of the baked sweet potato, “Treasure of the mountains: Wild boar meat in spicy miso”, “OYSTER PASTE with oyster miso”, “Seko crab treasure ship (from Kyotango)” which uses a whole Seko crab, “Oyster ajillo” and more.

Due to the high price of the products, you can pay by credit card and cash.

I bought the oyster in kelp oil for 1,600 yen. The product came out of the machine nicely wrapped in high-quality paper.

Under the quality wrapping paper is a simple white can with nothing printed on it.

When I opened the can, I found a large oyster inside. There was also kombu seaweed in the can. Kombu is a popular type of seaweed in Japan, as it enhances the flavour of food. I tried it, and the rich taste of the oyster burst in my mouth! This is amazing!

Oysters in Japan are much larger than those found in Australia, so you’ll be surprised at the size too. The taste is quite rich and strong, so I recommend adding it to pasta or eat it with bread. They go very well with white wine too.

I never dreamed that I could find such high-quality oysters in a coin-operated car park in the city.

If you love oysters, you should give it a try!

■ A vending machine only restaurant

Next, let’s look at a region about two hours away from Tokyo by car.

Have you ever heard of Gunma Prefecture? Gunma prefecture is located in a mountainous area in the Kanto region and is a popular destination for drivers and motorcyclists. One of the best things about a road trip is the chance to stop at a drive-in when you get hungry. In Gunma Prefecture, there are unique and retro-style Japanese diners – “shokudo” – that only use vending machines. It is hard to find such vending machines in big cities like Tokyo, where you can feel the warmth of the locals and a sense of good old Japan!

We visited the “Vending Machine Diner”.

Located in Isesaki City, a place famous for auto races, it is the perfect place to take a short break.

We visited during lunchtime on the weekend, and it was crowded with parents, children and couples. When you think of vending machines, it’s common knowledge that it has a refrigeration function or sells sweet snacks, but the vending machines here serve hot food!

Here is the first machine we tried.

Once you put your money in, you’ll hear a mechanical sound for only 20 seconds. Soon after that, the ramen is ready.

The ramen we ordered from the vending machine diner had a light flavour, similar to the ramen Japanese schoolchildren eat at school lunchtime. The ingredients vary depending on the owner of the vending machine. This time it was simply wakame seaweed, chashu pork, naruto (cured fish surimi)  and menma (fermented bamboo shoots).

A lot goes on inside of the machine. First, a bowl is selected, then the water is boiled and drained several times. Finally, the soup is added to the bowl, and then your ramen is served.

The ingredients inside the machine are changed every day, so it never goes stale.

The udon with vegetable tempura is also delicious.

Next up is the burger. The burger is meant for takeaway only, so it’s best to heat it in the microwave at home.

I ordered my burger from a vending machine with a warming function.

It took a little longer than the ramen, and I waited for 60 seconds. Then the hamburger in a hot box came out.

The vending machine is like a self-checkout machine, and it’s perfect for when you’re in a bit of a hurry.

By the way, it only accepts coins for payment.

Retro-styled vending machines are rare in the world, so it’s interesting to look for them when you visit Gunma Prefecture. Almost like going to a Japanese game centre arcade.

Now you know Japanese vending machines sell a lot more than just drinks and snacks.

From the classic ones that have been in operation for a long time to the modern ones with the latest technology, we hope you have learned a little more about the vending machines that are no doubt different from those you have in your country.

There may be some vending machines that even my fellow Japanese people don’t know about, so let us know if you discover any.


Victoria Fang, Daisuke Kondo