Weirdest Vending Machines Japan
By Taryn Siegel on 8 May 2017
I once saw a really funny comic portraying Japan how foreigners imagine it vs. how it actually exists. In the left panel, towering skyscrapers and technicolor holographic billboards with ninjas and samurai flying out from all corners; on the right panel, a bustling city filled with Seven-Elevens and Starbucks. Sadly it’s funny because it’s pretty accurate. Not to say that Tokyo isn’t one of the coolest cities I’ve ever lived in, but the things that are ubiquitous to the point of being iconic are not what you would expect. Case in point: vending machines. If I were to make my own comic called “The Symbol of Japan: Foreigners’ Imagination vs. Reality” it would have a left panel full of pikachus, robots, and samurai and a right panel that was just a vending machine.
There’s an estimated 5.5 million vending machines in Japan, which works out to be 1 vending machine for every 23 people. Or, to give you a different picture, if you arranged all the vending machines in Japan back-to-back the line would stretch across the entire United States (with the last 5 vending machines falling off into the Pacific Ocean). You might reasonably wonder why a small nation like Japan needs so many vending machines (especially considering the ubiquity of convenience stores), but the vending machines here offer a bit more than can coffee and Coca-Cola products. For one, every vending machine is stamped with that location’s address. The only time I ever called an ambulance in Japan I was miles from my apartment and had no idea what my current address was, so the emergency operator told me to find my nearest vending machine (and of course there were literally 6 machines within a 10-step radius). And while most of the 5.5 million machines offer a standard array of drink products, there are many that go far beyond this. Some offer toys, some offer hot food, and some offer things that you probably never imagined a normal human would want to purchase, let alone would need to purchase from the convenience of an automated vending machine.
I offer you, in no special order, the top 10 weirdest vending machines in Tokyo. And since these machines are all helpfully stamped with their address, I recommend you go out and track down these weird vending machines yourself.
- Banana vending machine
In the basement of the Shibuya metro station (specifically level B2 near exit 3, outside the ticket gates) you’ll find this nice Dole banana vending machine—helpfully located inside a major transit center so busy salarymen who skipped breakfast can grab a nice potassium-rich snack on their way into the office.
- Touchscreen vending machine with camera
This weird vending machine doesn’t have anything particularly weird to sell, but the way it operates is pretty cool. This touchscreen drink vending machine has a built-in camera so it can stare at customers as they approach the machine and offer recommendations based on its own snap judgments. I don’t know what factors it looks at exactly, but I think it has a computer that can read the current weather and then maybe considers the drinker’s gender? In any case, it recommended for me a small bottle of water, which actually was exactly what I was planning on buying…
- Natto vending machine
For those of you who don’t know, natto is an infamous food product in Japan. Made from fermented soybean, it’s incredibly rich in nutrients but less so in flavor and has an odd sticky texture. For some reason it’s the stereotypical food that foreigners are reputed to not like, so Japanese people love asking foreigners about it. I don’t think I could even count how many times I’ve been asked if I like natto. I always disappoint by having a sort of middle of the road opinion on it, though. Anyway, this nice little vending machine offers up fermented soybean packages for the natto lover on-the-go. You can find this one in Shimokitazawa in front of the famous natto goods store Natto Kodo Sendaiya.
- Umbrella vending machine
In Japan, it’s considered really bad form to not have an umbrella on you when it’s raining. They take this concern so seriously that I’ve actually been offered an umbrella to borrow by kindly shopkeepers three times on the few occasions where I forgot mine. So it’s little wonder that the JR Suidobashi station decided to put a little umbrella vending machine just outside the east entrance ticket gate so commuters will never find themselves stranded in the rain.
- Cigarettes vending machine
I won’t bother putting a “location” for this vending machine, since they’re literally everywhere. Of course the first question I had when I saw these was how do they keep underage kids from buying cigarettes if you can get them from a vending machine? Prior to 2008 I think the answer was “they don't,” but since then a new system was put in place. Now you need an age-verification card called a “taspo” to purchase cigarettes from a vending machine. You need to live in Japan to be issued this card, so if you’re a tourist you won’t be able to try these out, unfortunately (though you can always just buy cigarettes from a convenience store).
- Creepy action figures
You can find a few of these creepy action-figure vending machines on the platforms of the JR Akihabara station. I’m not sure who the target consumer for this weird vending machine is, though. I mean I guess I’ll admit that I was almost tempted to buy one myself, but I don’t see who would need these in the convenience of a vending machine. I don’t think any consumers are walking through Akihabara station thinking, “Man I could really go for some fat cute soldier figurines…oh, excellent, a vending machine.”
- Treasure vending machine
Next to the KFC in Akihabara you’ll find this special “treasure” vending machine. It’s essentially gambling—you put in ¥1000 and some prize will come out. It could be a Nintendo DS or fancy headphones, but more likely it’ll be a flashlight or a big-headed baby figurine.
- Ice cream vending machines
This is another one that doesn’t need a location because you can find them all over. Ice cream vending machines are so common in Japan that I’ve long since ceased to think of them as any weirder than drink vending machines. But I can still remember being delighted the first time I saw one in Japan.
- SIM card vending machine
This SIM card vending machine can also be found in Akihabara, but I’m sure it’s not the only one in Tokyo. Obviously these are intended for Tokyo visitors, since the whole machine is (very unusually) in English.
- “Bar” vending machines
In a clandestine corner under the railroad tracks next to Yurakucho station is a little alcove of alcoholic vending machines complete with a dinky table and a few bar stools. These actually don’t have any way of restricting underage buyers, but there is a tiny little stand inside where a real person sells snacks, and I imagine their other job might be to stop kids from using the vending machines. But also Japan is pretty lax about drinking age-restrictions and very serious about “honor code” policies.
Beyond these ten, there are actually many more wacky Japanese vending machines that I couldn’t list here either because they’re extinct, not in Tokyo, or they just eluded me in my hunt for them. These include: necktie vending machines, fresh flowers vending machines, t-shirt vending machines, a live lobster vending machine, lettuce vending machines, and the infamous and slightly horrific used panty vending machine… Some of these are supposed to still be in Tokyo somewhere (not the live lobsters, though, that’s in Osaka), so see if you can find one!
Hi there! I'm a freelance writer, part-time Physics tutor, and amateur musician living in Tokyo, Japan. I'm originally from New York, but have also lived in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Scotland. My interests are nearly equal parts reading, writing, travel, guitar, coffee, and Physics. When I'm not trekking around glorious Japan, I'm likely biking around Tokyo, reading in cafes, or at a live show of one of my greatly more musically talented friends.