Japanese vending machines – a closer look at Japan’s love of convenience

Anyone who’s been to Japan has surely noticed the incredible number of vending machines on offer. They’re found everywhere, from neon-lit city intersections to shady forest walks, and even on trains. Vending machine culture is everywhere!

Japan is the perfect home for so many vending machines. Vandalism and crime is low, and the demand for on-the-go convenient snacks is high. Let’s take a closer look at why Japan has so many vending machines, and what we can find for sale inside them.

Sketch of a Boss coffee vending machine in Japan
A Boss Coffee vending machine in a backstreet in Tokyo

The stats on Japanese vending machines

So how many are there? There are 5 million of them, countrywide. That’s one machine per 23 people. To put that into perspective, 5 million is twice the population of Osaka. And according to the Japanese Vending Machines Association, if you placed all the machines end to end, you would form a line from Japan to Hawaii!

So, are they profitable?

You bet!

And in terms of revenue, annual sales total more than $60 billion USD annually. If $1 USD is about Â¥110(the price of a cheaper drink), then we’re talking about tens of billions of cans of drink sold – about 472 drinks per Japanese citizen, per year!

Not to mention, Japan’s crime and vandalism rates are so low, that these machines are actually well-looked after.

Nikkō-themed vending machines in Japan

Japanese vending machines can be found everywhere

It makes sense that vending machine is such a successful feature in Japan; they’re cost efficient and reduce the need for convenience store sales clerks, whilst taking up very little real estate.

So from the biggest shopping avenues to the smallest alleys, in tiny traditional villages, on top of Mount Fuji, and even on shinkansen trains, they’re simply everywhere.

Illustration of two Japanese vending machines on a street corner
Vending machines on a quiet street corner in Kyoto

They stock pretty much anything

The majority of them sell drinks such as cans of coffee, iced tea, anti-hangover electrolyte drinks, and water. Coke and Fanta are not as popular as they western world, and aren’t that common.

There are other with snacks such as crackers and chips, but there’s also machines for ice creams, train tickets, phone charegrs, umbrellas, bowls of hot noodles, and miso soup.

There are vending machines for beer, sake and cigarettes as well, but they require an 18+ Taspo card to purchase.

There’s one in Shinjuku with fresh bananas, and another in Osaka that dispenses roast chickens. And there are rumours abound of all kinds of crazy vending machines; you may have heard the urban legend of vending machines stocked with underwear.

Spare a thought for the hard-working restocking staff as well, who may have up to 40 vending machines to restock (in Tokyo) per day.

Gachapon, the toy capsule machines

Then there’s the gachapon, which are found all over shopping areas and train stations. Though not technically vending machines, these dispense little plastic capsules with a collectible mystery toy inside (everything from Harry Potter keychains to zombie pineapples).

They often appear clustered together, or even in their own shop, with dozens of themes of toy to try and obtain. It’s not just for kids either – Japanese people of all ages are crazy for them.

Hot and cold drinks (in the same vending machine)

All of them were cans – and the vending machine was heated so the cans were piping hot. And here comes the genius – In the exact same machine, all those same drinks exist in the chilled section for an ice-cold option. Inspired!

** Handy Japanese trick – put a hot can of coffee in your jacket pocket to warm up on a cold winter’s day!**

Illustration of a hot can of Premium Boss Coffee Black
A hot can of Boss Coffee Black

Using vending machines to order from restaurants

Greeting us at the entrance of more than a few restaurants we visited was a machine, with pictures of noodles on a list of buttons. We pushed the button, paid, and the vending machine spat out a receipt.

Just give that token to the chef and Voila! Ordering done, and no translation confusion!

The products and cheap and delicious

The average coffee is great value at 130 Yen. Thats AU$1.70, or 1 Euro. And because of their popularity, the stock is constantly refreshed. Taking my early morning walk down the street and around the corner, in the middle of Japanese winter, became one of my most treasured daily rituals during our visit there.

I couldn’t fathom how different the vending machine experience is compared to any vending machine in the western world. By contrast, Cokes or chips are massively overpriced, they machines are covered in graffiti, and they get stuck all the time.

Making the impossible choice

I was getting excited at the thought of coffee, standing in front of a Tokyo vending machine. I turned some 100 Yen coins in my palm, considering my options.

The brown one, or the white one? Maybe the rainbow can? All the descriptions were in Japanese, but I was intrigued by one particular can because Tommy Lee Jones was advertising it.

I finally made a decision. The big can of Boss black (the strong bitter one, and sugarfree, too). Bingo! I took a Royal hot milk tea for Cindy, with a bottle designed to look like a warm tartan blanket.

I’m such a fan of Japanese vending machines, it’s often high up on my list of reasons to revisit Japan!

22 thoughts on “Japanese vending machines – a closer look at Japan’s love of convenience

  1. Awesome illustrations. I was amazed by the vending machines on our recent trip to Japan. Only photos, not great sketches, like these. 👍🏻😉

    1. I’m actually heading back to Japan in about a month’s time, and i’ve got to say i’m already really looking forward to some more cans of Boss Coffee! 😀

      1. Great! And thanks for following my photography blog. Would love to go back to Japan and shoot some more. And drink Boss Coffee. 😄

  2. I have only been to Japan (Tokyo) once. The hot coffee with milk and sugar dispatched from the Vending Machine was an absolute highlight.

  3. I hope to redeem myself in Japan, and when I do, I will make sure to try out lots of different vending machines!

  4. Your sketches are incredible! I lived in Tokyo from 1980-85. I don’t remember any vending machine at that time. Too bad, my sons would have loved them! Nice to see you are concentrating your blog on illustrations. 📚 Christine

    1. Thanks for the nice comment! Wow, I can only imagine how much Japan has changed since then, and not just in terms of vending machines 🙂

    1. Thanks very much! I hope you are able to plan that Japan trip – it was such an incredible country, I ended up blogging about it for a year and a half 😛

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