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Japanese Vending machines
...and since we're at it, the drinks of Japan
Photo: Row of vending machines in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Never out of sight
Shinjuku, Tokyo

Fully automated ticket vendors at the station. A practical option that was chosen to ease the load on people standing in line for something as simple... something as often necessary as paying their fare. Vending machines as opposed to another ill-mannered legend of trying replace human workforce, are meant to serve in areas where their necessity became all too evident. For example, automating the most basic tasks of the stations made Tokyo, and all of Japan be able to keep its superb railway system as its preferred choice of transportation for the twenty-first century. You can try and stand in line at the window to buy the same thing, but if it will take just half a minute longer per person, you can imagine what it would do to the veins of the city... in a downtown rush-hour... so this was not an option anymore.
On the other side of the story, when thirsty or in need of a coffee, you don't have to walk any more than fifty meters to find a vendor ( selling the brands of its operating company ), and even able to buy things at places like in school in the afternoon, in the parking lot at the top of a mountain and on a deserted suburban street at two in the morning. You'll like it for practical reasons, but even kids who have something for pushing buttons will become bored of having to face a machine when buying drinks... not to mention that a vendor will never have as much of a selection as a store.
And the people who in fact are the most picky for variety in the entire world... will always opt for the nearest store when possible, when available at all, but... when they can't, don't have the time for, or are at a location where there's simply no such option, vending machines can be a lifesaver. So if you did so far... please don't hate them. Japanese vendors are so reliable they'll never swallow a single coin without giving something in return.

Drink vendors

Photo: Vending machine in between Ebisu and Daikanyama. Think of it as your own refrigirator.
Late night

Daikanyama, Tokyo

Perhaps especially for short time visitors, trying a lot of variety in refreshers can be a lot of fun... a lot of fun and a lot of disappointment if they can't remember which brands they liked and which they didn't. Vending machines are a great source to carry on this hobby wherever you are... and sooner or later you'll even start remembering brands that all Japanese grew up on. And that a Kirin featured machine won't be likely to sell Ito En products, and Coca-Cola is rarely included Sapporo automates. The variety in all kinds of drinks... tea, soda, juices, milk, coffee and beer... is huge... and variety is always exciting. If you haven't already, be sure to try the hot-honey-lemonade drink of ItoEn and compare it with the hot-honey-plum drink's taste. They look so similar in their little PET bottles... and yet...
An interesting thing is to make a mistake and buy something you didn't want but since you've bought it, and of course at least try its taste to minimize the financial burden... you sometimes even end up liking it after all.
There are some pretty creative ( ... ) combinations out there.

Hot and Cold
Vending machines for drinks not only sell cold refreshers, but also keep hot drinks on their proper temperature. In case you never have hold hot steel-canned coffee or honey-lemonade in a PET bottle, don't need to panic. They won't likely to burn your hands any longer than fifteen seconds... but then again for the same attribute they serve as a replacement two-in-one pocket warmer from October to march... for which they're widely recognized and admired for. Be careful that some drinks are sold both hot and cold, so don't just look for the can, but also the little bar on the shelf informing you whether it's the hot or the cold version... with a symbolism even a little child could understand. And even a completely sane and sober person can forget to watch out for.
Well, the secret uncovered is... red is for hot. Blue is for cold.


Photo: Hot tea and coffee in a parking lot vending machine at night, Nikko, Japan
Warming up
Deep in Sannai, Nikko

Japanese tea is... delicious because of its fragrance. Or so the commercials say. Let it be said right here that no matter what kind of overseas version you have encountered with a Japanese manufacturer... there is no green tea, not even bottled that has any sugar in it. There are many kinds made by a lot of companies, but when trying to add a new product to this sensitive line of traditional refreshers there's always a chance of a major mistake so... tea remains to be tea through the ages, even in a PET bottle. There are a lot of subversions to minor flavoring and the different methods of preparing green tea are always made into separate brands, but the most common is the unflavored classic and the jasmine flavored kind.
Oolong cha... well... is definitely only for those who have -learned- to like it probably from childhood. At the downright opposite end to Juusu, it's clear, refreshing, somewhat bitter taste is a favorite among people who like to know that they are drinking to make their thirst go away and not for entertainment purposes.
Lemon tea, red tea, black tea, milk tea... basically the English version of tea is also present on the market with a relatively noticeable share... brands like Lipton have kept their foothold being the only major company that sells western-style tea in a tea loving country... well at least sell it in such a manner. And since Lipton has its drinks flavored with sugar and lemon more often than not, their products really are an alternative to the traditions of green tea for those who are used to sweetness in this kind of drink.


Photo: A wide variety of seasonal drinks in a Yoga vending machine, Tokyo
Ever changing variety in seasonal drinks
Yoga, Tokyo

Juusu or juice in general is what Europeans call refreshers and Americans soda. None of the three means anything else than that people got tired of having to name everything by their substance and level of carbonation... thus in Japan everything is Juusu. As it's everything is soda in America. The selection is great, and are the tastes... most of the time they're more sweet than the average person can handle, but thus well balancing the fact that apart from this genre there are no sweet drinks in the country.
The most common of the most drinkable are the fruit based carbonated sodas. With a percentage of biologically acceptable content somewhere between twenty to fifty they're probably world class of their kind. Both Kirin and Sapporo tend to give each other a race in taste of apple and grape based refreshers as of this is written, leading to an interesting boom of new brands actually tasting like fruit. A more character themed version is also available who like golden pears in a suggestive enough package we'll let you have the fun to find yourself.
The most common of the most popular are more food-paint based than anything else, but are an important part of culture because of their widely spread use as a coloring for ice-cream and shaved-ice cones. Yes, it's melon soda. As vibrant neon green as nothing else in the universe and basically tasting like liquid sugar, but being somewhat addictive it has become an irreplaceable icon of refreshers in the country, just like other classics such as Ribbon.
International brands like Coca-Cola, DrPepper, and subversions of Fanta of all kinds ( fro red grape to pineapple ) are also available in so many types of cans you won't likely be able to keep track. A general hint on this is that if the can is not closable after opening... it will probably cost less, even if it holds more... or perhaps exactly because it holds more than you can drink at once.
From pure fruit juices apple juice is the one made most common in Japan, tastes good, is made of real apples and isn't expensive at all. On the other hand people who are used to drinking orange juice will find that while it is available, neither the variety nor the price is the same as in California for example. Simply because in Japan there aren't as many orange groves. And since many of the popular juices are a level higher in cost than regular refreshers, the target audience consists of mainly those who need or think they need vitamins the most, children and adults leading a health-conscious lifestyle. Thus drinks that feature less common fruits as their base are - more often than not - themed to appeal to either of the above two categories.
Vitamin enriched versions with health mascots and characters may scare some people away, especially those who don't know that this has nothing to do with how seriously you can take the list of ingredients. Needn't worry, just because it has such packaging... or perhaps exactly because it is actually aimed to be appealing to children, the contents can definitely be trusted to be healthy.
But other than 100% fruit content juices you'll find a much larger variety, with things like mikan ( mandarin ), melon, aloe, and other kinds being also a common sight.


Photo: Hot drink vendor with a TFT display, Yamanote line, Shibuya, Tokyo
Hot coffee and tea
Shibuya Station, Tokyo

Unless you have known this from a different source you'd probably be amazed how big of a tradition Japan has in drinking coffee. This of course is not limited to the canned version of the drink, but rather is reflected by it, resulting in a selection of so many different brands and blends that even the Japanese have a hard time keep track of.
In general the basics are pretty much the same as everywhere in the world, regardless of which company has put the series on the market.
Black coffee is... black coffee. Bitter and untouched of any other flavor than its own blend.
Then there's the most common, most popular miruku-koohii or kafe-ore kofe-latte which stand for milk coffee, coffee au lait and coffee latte. Well for those who know coffee, or have some sense in foreign languages, yes, the similarity is of no coincidence... meaning they're exactly the same thing. At least ingredient-wise, milk coffee includes the same amount of sugar, milk and coffee in most products, a quite smooth, mildly sweet... more tasty than functional option for those who don't like the bitterness but can't live without caffeine.
And there are the special blends with flavors like almond or vanilla, which are the least common and least commonly looked for... if you're up to drinking melange and other newborn coffee fantasies, you better head to a cafe instead of standing in front of a vendor. It be prepared that while coffee au lait is around a hundred and twenty yens at most, the next level in service and class starts around twice to three times as much.

Milk drinks as supposed to by the fact that they sit in a machine for weeks before consumed... rarely contain any more milk than ten percent. But are nonetheless delicious, especially ichigo-milk, or ichigo-ore ( strawberry milk ) which is a good alternative to soda.

Photo: Vending machines are almost always placed in groups. In between Shibuya and Sakuragaoka, Tokyo
Vending machine pit stop
Shibuya, Tokyo

Cans, PET bottles and bins ( glass bottles )
Basically these are the three kinds of containers you can expect. Cans themselves have two major kinds, the more common being closable like a bottle, but otherwise made all-aluminium like its non-closable classic ancestor. PET bottles come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, the smallest around two to three deciliters, up to half a liter. Most tea, water, and health drinks are sold in half liter bottles. Coffee and other hot canned drinks are sold in small, two deciliter steel cans that will lose their outside temperature fast enough for people to be able to hold them, and are so much heavier you'll always think that there're still some of the stuff left there somewhere, but don't sweat it too much, it's just an illusion... other than that, coffee sometimes is filled into small glass bottles with a non-reclosable top.

Most vending machines have the a set of recycle bins next to them of the same type as the bottles and cans they offer. If you haven't found any you just didn't look hard enough, for on busy spots they're often hidden inside a wall or so, and only the suggestively shaped top can be seen... indicating which type of bottle should you drop into it.
You won't find a trashcan in Japan. There are only recycle bins for each and every type of consumable products, and they're never too far away to walk up to with your waste, so please recycle. It has never been so easy.

Photo: Ticket vendor at the Shinjuku gate of Shinjuku Gyoen - Imperial Park, Tokyo
Shinjuku Gyoen admission tickets
Shinjuku, Tokyo

Other vendors

Park gates
The tickets that you use to enter imperial park gates are also bought at such machines. However, in case you want to you can walk up to the ticket window just like at a train station.


Photo: Tobacco vending machine and kiosk side by side in Ebisu, Tokyo
Cigarette vendor and cigarette kiosk
Ebisu, Tokyo

Cigarette vending machines can be found accompanying other kinds most of the time, and are nearly always put to well visible corners of the street. Theoretically no underage person should buy tobacco even from such an automate but... apart of the machines shutting off at sunset and turn back on only at sunrise when the rush-hour begins... there's not much the operators can do about this freedom. Most major brands, including the internationally known ones... well... or rather including some others next to the internationally known ones... can be bought at these vendors, and for the same money they cost anywhere else.

Alcoholic drinks
Beer and other alcoholic drinks are also one of the most common merchandise you can get by pushing the right button, but are placed perhaps even more with the above concern in mind than tobacco vendors. And before you start to wonder, just because the logo said Kirin on the side of the box it doesn't necessarily mean anything else than you're facing a Kirin operated vendor. And Kirin manufactures a lot of other things beside its world famous beer. The second most common and most popular drink type is the canned fruit flavored soda-like version of different well known spirits, around the same as beer in strength, somewhat sweet, definitely fully packed with the semi-artificial flavors we all know and like so much... and are most of the time so flashy in their package design you just have to have them. Otherwise alcohol you can buy on the street is quite limited, head for a convenience store for a somewhat larger... or to an izakaya or yakitoriya for a more complete selection and more proper place to drink.

Use your change

Photo: Train ticket vending machines, Shibuya, Tokyo
Train ticket vendors
Shibuya, Tokyo

Although visitors coming from a country with a currency at least as strong as Australian dollars will likely to disregard their change when thinking about money... they really shouldn't. Every single coin has its significance once you have accustomed to the fact that vending machines are only as convenient as much proper coins you have on you. Not that most of them can't take a bill... you can even pay with the ten thousand yen you have, but paying with a one gram piece of paper for a hundred and fifty yen drink or train ticket... and receiving half a kilo of spare change will increase your load in an unnecessary manner.

Most vending machines can and will give as much change in bills as they have though. But all in all, those coins will do great when buying drinks, paying on buses, buying tickets at train stations, or making a long distance phone-call without a telephone card.

Japan Guide

- Japan Visa, border entry, what to bring and be prepared with
- Japanese maps, Navi mobile navigation, easy orientation for travelers
- Convenience stores, the resupply stations that sell everything
- Japanese Vending machines, for drinks, tickets, cigarettes and more
- Japanese Food, and all kinds of food in Japan, restaurants, fast food, cheap food...

Tokyo guide

- Tokyo - as we see it - introduction
- Budget Tokyo apartment rental, accommodation, let go of the concern
- Tokyo Prices, the real cost vs. western legends, how to make most of your budget
- Cheap Tokyo Stores, bargain tips, where to find what, fashion to electronics
- Tokyo Cafe life, a guide to Cafes serving as meeting points, hangouts and life-savers
- Tokyo Parks and Gardens, well maintained icons of tranquility, tradition or having fun
- The Tokyo crowd... escaping from Tokyo to Tokyo, evading downtown rushhours

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