Vending Machines

In Japan, vending machines are pretty much everywhere: outside stores, inside train stations, along quiet suburban streets, or out in a field. Reportedly, there is one machine for every 23 people in Japan. If true, that’s a lot of machines (over half a million). There is little or no regulation of their location, or apparently of their contents as cigarettes and beer are often for sale, alongside such things as cans of hot coffee, batteries, eggs and stranger things. Looking on Flicker, I found over 7,200 images of them with CC licenses, and another 12,000 without. Here’s a selection of the former which I found interesting for location, contents or design. I’d wanted to limit these to machines found in and around Tōkyō itself, but in the end I’ve used images from elsewhere in Japan (or where the location wasn’t given as more specific than “Japan”) where useful to illustrate a point.

These are important for my modeling because they are such an omnipresent scenic detail. But also because I can use the images themselves. Kato makes some simple plastic vending machines as part of their station platform details, so I have a large number of those. These come with some simplistic stick-on decals, but I decided to use the same technique I’m using for signs to paste pictures of real vending machines onto these, and the result was quite good.

Vending Machines - even closer 3142
Kato Vending Machine Set with two photos attached

The images here viewed square-on from the front I’ll probably end up using on plastic models of such machines on the layout, either Kato’s or simple boxes I make myself. The others serve as useful reference for where such machines can be found and how they’re arranged there.

Things You’d Expect: Snacks, Beverages and Cigarettes

Most people, or at least most people in the U.S. associate vending machines with soft drinks and snacks, and if we’re old enough with cigarettes although those are illegal now in most places, and perhaps everywhere. Japan has that kind of machine, in great numbers. And these aren’t only found indoors or in front of associated stores, they also appear by themselves, and as one solar-powered example below shows, even away from electrical wiring.

cig-newsmokingway bev-pair-white
Cigarette (left, 2003, “Japan”) and Beverage machines (right, 2007, Tōkyō)
Photographers: Kempton and andy_kyte_uk

bev-green bev-red-coke-solar bev-suntory-tlj2
More beverages (left, 2007, Saitama), solar-powered (center, 2011, Tōkyō) and a celebrity endorsement (right, 2009, Tōkyō)
Photographers: abuckingham (left and right), ykanazawa1999 (center)

Other Beverages

Beyond what you’d expect, you can buy alcohol from a street-side vending machine (apparently they trust underage people not to buy from those; strange country), and you can get beverages by the cup. Plus there are so many beverage vending machines, that they often try to distinguish themselves with bright colors.

beer-silver bev-coke-glasses bev-tea-side
Beer and Wine (left, 2010, “Japan”) and Coke by the glass (right, 2010, Ueno Park, Tōkyō), Side view of Tea machine (Right, 2006, Nankai Namba Station, Osaka)
Photographers: discopalace, svachalek, and andreakw

bev-coke-yellow bev-pink-roppongi
Colorful beverage machines (left, 2002, Sasazuka, Tōkyō) and (right, 2002, Roppongi, Tōkyō)
Photographer (both): iiyamaman

bev-suntory-girl-blue bev-suntory-blue-tlj coke-red-a
And yet more bevage machines (left, 2009, “Japan”), (center, 2008, Tōkyō) and (right, 2006, “Japan”)
Photographers: bthomso, ames sf, and iiyamaman
Note: the right was is one of two from the original image.

Other Food Products

But there are also other food-related vending machines, and some of them seem a bit out there. Fresh produce and eggs are not things I’d normally associate with a vending machine, but in Japan it seems the machines often stand in for a local store, or for a human presence, and provide things a busy person on the way to or from work might need to pick up, without spending the extra time to go to a store.

Eggs (2005, “Japan”)
Photographer: mckibillo

food-bananas produce-white-chofu icecream-narita
Bananas (left, 2010, Tōkyō), Fresh Produce (center, 2010, Chofu) and Ice Cream (right, 2008, Narita airport)
Photographers: alainkun, Jean-François Chénier, and jpellgen

A Row of “Rice by the Sack” vending machines (2005, Tōkyō)
Photographer: iMorpheus

Non-Food Staples

As the vending machine often seems to stand in for the corner store, many things can be found in them that make sense for a passing commuter who needs to pick something up on the way home from work.

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Gloves, Shirts and Shorts (Left, 2008, Yokohama), Cameras, Memory Cards and Ties (Center, 2006, Kyōto), and Umbrellas (Right, 2007, Akihabara, Tōkyō)
Photographers: Molly Des Jardin, Ant & Carrie's photos, and heavylift
Note: the right photograph is no longer online.

bat-toshiba flowers
Batteries (Left, 2009, Shibuya, Tōkyō), and Flowers ( Right, 2007, Tōkyō)
Photographer: jpellgen, and frigginawesomeimontv

And the Really Odd

There are things you don’t expect to find in a vending machine. They have those too.

Perhaps the weirdest of all isn’t shown here, as I’ve never found a cc-licensed image of one. It’s the semi-mythical “used underwear” machine, serving one of Japan’s kinkier subcultures. I’ve seen photographs reputed to be of these, including one on a blog linked in the references section that’s from “suburban Tōkyō” and which has a note that they were outlawed in 1993 but can still be found (see references).

Kid’s Stuffed Animals (2007, “Japan”)
Photographer: mag3737

prayer-orange clothing-lingerie
Prayers at a temple (Left, 2009, Kyōto), “Lingerie” (Right, 2005, Kyōto)
Photographers: miwalker, w00kie

Adult magazines and videos (apparently in a forest) ( 2008, Nabari, Mie)
Photographer: DannyBen

Where Are They?

It’s not just the contents, sometimes the locations seem distinctly odd to a western sensibility. Just as Japanese property mixes residential, commercial and industrial together without regard for the zoning regulations common in the west, vending machines can be found in many places that don’t appear “commercial”. And, of course, in many that do.

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In a bike parking area (left, 2007, Osaka), and along a sloping street (Right, 2008, Tōkyō)
Photographers: jpellgen, and gewitterhexer

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On train station platforms (Left, 2008, Hokkaido), (Center, 2008, “Japan”) and (Right, 2010, Shizuoka)
Photographers: shirokazan, dshack, and marko8904

set-alley - Version 2 set-row-rural
In urban alleys (Left, 2007, Tōkyō) and rural parks (Right, 2010, Koyodai, Tōkyō)
Photographers: gullevek, and eerkmans

set-white-tokyo set-shikoku
They come in large groups (Left, 2007, Tōkyō) and (Right, 2008, Shikoku)
Photographers: lydia susan, and tinisanto

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And all by themselves (Left, 2007, Fujinomiya) and (Right, 2008, Yufuin?)
Photographers: solidaster, and Jrim
Note: the right photo is a parking lot outside a restaurant.

shrine-outside loc-house
In residential areas, often near temples and shrines (Left, 2007, Kanazawa) and (Right, 2007, Kyōto)
Photographers: Marpix, and mikeleeorg
Note: although in front of a house, the right photo is described as “next to Sanjusangendo Temple”.

shrine-nescafe bev-shrine
Shrines and temples draw large crowds, and hence machines (Left, 2005, Fukuoka), and (Right, 2010, Ueno Park, Tōkyō)
Photographers: Wm Jas, and

But even a tiny, roadside shrine can have its own machine (2009, Kyōto)
Photographer: busy.pochi


Westerners seem to find Japanese vending machines notable. Not only are there lots of photos online, you’ll find collections of “strange vending machines” (often with a Japanese focus) posted in blogs. Here are a few that caught my eye, several of which came from a discussion on JNS Forum.

There’s an entire group on Flickr devoted to Japanese Vending Machines. However, it contains only a very small subset of the photos of Japanese vending machines on Flickr.

12 Bizarre Vending Machines,
This includes one of the “used panties” machines, plus live lobsters and bait, and more normal (for Japan) things.

14 Cool Vending Machines from Japan,
This one has another view of the umbrella machine, plus a machine containing a full-size car (you can’t actually buy the car though).

Egg House, Egg Vending Machines in Yumi,
Egg machines from Hokkaido, Japan

Japan Vending Machine,
A short blog post describes some of the economics behind all those machines.

Japan Vending Machine 2.0,
Describes a machine that “recognizes” the age/sex/etc of people in front of it, and displays appropriate beverages. Apparently, they are in use already.

Strangest Vending Machines Around the World,

Vending Machine Extravaganza,
This includes one with facial recognition so it won’t sell beer to minors.

Vending Machines,
Cites the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association for the “one machine for every 23 people in Japan” statistic.