Tuesday, 10 May, 2005

Vending machines in Japan

There is at least one vending machine on every street corner, and several along every block.  I'm not kidding.  There is quite a variety of stuff available in the machines: water, tea, soda, and coffee of all types, snacks, cigarettes, beer, and even whiskey.  Really.  There's a beer and whiskey vending machine in the hotel.  In some of the fast food restaurants you buy a ticket for whatever item you want and present it to the kitchen staff.  It's an interesting concept:  employees don't have to handle the money.  The shot above is of a tobacco shop that's just down the block from my hotel.  The shop itself is rather small, but there are a dozen vending machines outside.

I'm not too sure about some of the stuff that's being sold.  "Pocari Sweat," for example, doesn't sound particularly appealing, even though I don't know what a pocari is.

Calpis doesn't seem too bad, right? Except that the TV advertisments for it include a cow, and the Japanese don't have an "L" sound in their language. "L" becomes sort of a mangled "R", and the result is distressingly similar to "cowpiss." I couldn't bring myself to try it.

I just had to include these two advertisements from the sides of vending machines.  That girl on the left sure seems to like her tea.  And the girl on the right, well ...

You'd think that with all these vending machines there would be people walking down the street drinking out of a bottle or smoking a cigarette.  Surprisingly, that's very rare.  Eating and drinking on the streets is strongly discouraged, almost to the point of being a social taboo.  You'll see some people smoking on the street, but not many when you consider the large number of smokers.  Rarely, you'll see somebody buy a drink from a vending machine and open it there.  But that person stays right next to the vending machine while he drinks it.  It's almost like there is a ten foot radius around the vending machine where the social taboo doesn't exist.

You also might expect to see litter everywhere.  Again, you'd be disappointed.  I saw very few people throwing cigarettes out of their cars or crushing them underfoot on the sidewalks.  The city streets are incredibly clean.  If you take a walk early in the morning you'll see shop owners sweeping the sidewalks in front of their strores and picking up the trash.  In the U.S., even if shop owners swept the walk, they'd just sweep it out onto the street.

U.S. coinage makes selling stuff in vending machines difficult.  Our largest coin is only one dollar, and nobody uses those even though Congress seems to think we should.  In the U.S., nobody uses anything larger than a quarter.  Many vending machines in the U.S. take one dollar bills but very few take fives or anything larger.  And the bill accepters are pretty inconsistent.

Japan has a 500 yen coin, and most vending machines that I've seen take 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen coins.  They also accept 1,000 yen notes.  The current exchange rate is just a little over 100 yen to the dollar, and 500 yen coins are common.  It's easy in Japan to sell relatively high value goods in vending machines.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that there is very little crime in Japan.  None of the vending machines I saw had bars across them or any kind of special protection on the cash box.  They're locked, of course, but I think more to prevent tempting people than to try to avert crime.  In the U.S., vandalism and theft prevent the widespread use of vending machines on the scale that they're used in Japan.  Sad, that.