Discover the diverse, convenient and occasionally heroic world of Japanese vending machines.

Japan is famous for technological innovations, especially in the world of robotics, as scientists create more and more lifelike robots. But if machines ever take over Japan, it might actually be the vending variety. Why? Japan is lousy with vending machines. There are about 5.52 million scattered across the nation, or about one per every 23 Japanese, everywhere from remote villages to the scenic summit of Mt. Fuji. But these machines are not just for pop and sugary snacks.

You can get the usual Japanese hot and cold drinks, from canned coffee to Calpis, but there are also machines that offer piping-hot meals, like ramen, gyoza or even a hamburger and fries—a godsend when you’re at a highway rest stop and no restaurants are open. Likewise, if you’re caught in a sudden rainstorm, you may find an umbrella vending machine. If you’re at the public bath and somehow have misplaced your socks or underwear, you may be able to grab a brand new pair. Other peculiar, potentially useful offerings include batteries, stamps, magazines, gum, oranges and fresh eggs (just don’t ask what kind of magic they use to keep the eggs from breaking). There are also cigarette and alcohol vending machines for your grown-up needs, which used to be unregulated, but since 2008 they’ve been updated with a card-activated age-verification system. Don’t worry if you’re feeling guilty about your One Cup Sake or Asahi bomber, because many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines now offer vending machines stocked with omamori, traditional protection amulets with prayers for all your spiritual ailments, as well as omikuji fortune-telling tokens.

Vending machines are also increasingly being used to protect the physical as well as the spiritual body. Some large parks and stations now stock defibrillators, allowing ordinary people to save lives when emergency services can’t get on site immediately. Local fire stations offer free lessons on how to use them. After the 3/11 triple disaster, companies also began strategizing how to use vending machines during natural disasters. As a result, machines have become more energy efficient, and some now have an “emergency mode” that allows free access to water or information during natural disasters. One company even made a hand-cranked machine that can be operated during total power outages. From the very first machine invented in 1888 to dispense tobacco, to today’s high-tech emergency service features, Japanese vending machines have come a long way.

Making your selection

Vending machines are very user-friendly, so you’ll probably do just fine on your own, but here are a few quick reminders about how to make the most of your Japanese machine experience.

DO try a hot beverage

Especially if you’re travelling in winter, a hot canned coffee will warm you right up.

Do NOT rely on plastic

Most machines only accept cash or coins, so leave your credit card at home.

DO use the recycling bin

There are few public trash cans on the streets of Japan, so be careful about drinking and walking.

Illustrations by Reiko Ema