America’s love affair with vending machines goes back generations. There are about 7 million vending machines in the country, selling Americans sodas, snacks and sundries — and bringing in nearly $22 billion a year.
But when it comes to mind-numbing variety and volume, Japan is hands-down the vending machine capital of the world. The country has one vending machine for every 30 people.
The blinking lights and friendly glow of the machines seem to beckon from every nook and cranny. Banks of vending machines line busy walkways. Super-slim versions sprout from lonely corners, making it nearly impossible to escape the pause that refreshes.
A low crime rate and a craving for convenience have made Japan a mecca for automated self-service.
Japanese vending machines offer consumers a seemingly infinite variety of choices: dozens of different kinds of coffees, teas, mineral waters, juices — and even soups. Junk food is actually harder to find than options like fresh bananas or artisanal soup broth, which includes a whole grilled fish, right inside the bottle.
There’s also a wide variety of treats to choose from: scorpions, rhino beetles, grasshoppers and giant water bugs — all full of protein, and gluten-free.
“There are a lot of opinions about this, but Japanese are basically shy. Vending machines are perfect for introverts,” said planner Masashi Sakurai said.
There’s a tyranny of choice in Japanese vending machines, from plush toys to wood crafting kits, to collectibles, like trading cards, pop-star posters and cat sushi trinkets.
At one Buddhist temple, good-luck amulets are sold as discreetly as sodas. Even higher-end products get the vending machine treatment, like Tiffany & Co. perfumes and freshwater pearls.
Vending machines are also now considered high art. An image of a snow-covered vending machine by photographer Eiji Ohashi auctioned in London for more than $40,000.
“Shining there in the snow, the vending machine seemed human to me,” said Ojashi.
Ohashi has amassed 1,000 more photos of vending machines after 13 years spent traveling and capturing the machines, and he said he’s only begun to scratch the surface.