ONEAfter a short wait for the quiet hum of moving machine parts, the small box that falls into the plastic-coated shell is comfortably warm. Inside is a perfectly passable burger in a chewy white bun topped with a dollop of ketchup and diced fried onions.
There was no human interaction in completing this transaction. The Guardian’s outdoor lunch was courtesy of one of dozen of vending machines in Sagamihara, a lackluster city near Tokyo.
Nostalgia has kept the 90 or so jidō Hanbaiki here, but after decades of steadily declining their numbers nationally, the coronavirus pandemic in Japan has sparked a revival in vending machines as retailers put their hopes on “untactical” sales to customers who are still nervous, food, beverage, and others Buying items the traditional way.
When the midday business picks up, truck drivers line young couples, customers in a nearby tire repair shop and curious tourists on a cold early winter day at the row of machines.
You are spoiled for choice. The ripening machines – the contents of which are immaculately fresh – offer a multi-course menu, perhaps starting with tempura soba noodles or curry and rice, with an ice cream for dessert and a cup of hot one Matcha Tea to finish off.
Despite their declining numbers, it’s virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Japanese city and not spy on the tell-tale light that emanates from you Vending machine in the distance.
According to the Association of Retail System Manufacturers in Japan, the number peaked at 5.6 million in 2000, or one in 23 people. It was just over 4 million last year, but the country still has the largest number of machines per capita in the world.
More than half of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines sell food or drinks, but their diverse range also extends to items that appear a bit out of place behind a pane of glass: Anime and Manga goods, characters, panties, toothbrushes, skin care products, umbrellas, and ever since Beginning of the pandemic, masks and Covid-19 test kits.
Kenmin Foods is one of a growing number of companies turning to contactless customer service to make up for lost sales during the pandemic. The rice noodle maker installed a vending machine outside its Kobe headquarters in September and collected 23 million yen (£ 153,000), three times its original target, according to Yomiuri newspaper. A seafood seller in Hokkaido, meanwhile, has started fillets of fresh salmon and mackerel after many of its regular customers closed due to the pandemic.
In downtown Nagoya, three companies have teamed up to sell groceries – including bread and instant noodles – nearing their sell-by dates at vending machines at discounts of up to 50% off the normal price.
Maruyama Seimen now sells its frozen noodles and dumplings via vending machines at 30 locations and plans to expand these to 100 by April 2023. At the height of the pandemic in Japan, vending machines were emptying more than 10,000 packs a month, the Nikkei store reported, while traditional sales plummeted by a fifth.
“The convenience of vending machines is being reassessed because of the pandemic,” Prof. Hidehiko Nishikawa, a marketing expert at Hosei University, told Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. “Efforts to increase added value, such as awarding points via apps for vending machines, are important in order to win customers.”
In Sagamihara, two women pull down their masks and eat freshly tapped bowls of steaming udon on the back of their van while a couple feed coins into a vending machine that sells sweet snacks. After lunch of burger and a bowl of pasta, the Guardian decides, with a heart full of carbohydrates, not to queue.