Apr 13: Special Report: Beverage Vending Machines

Many of you may be faintly puzzled by this post. I admit that I’m faintly puzzled by my own fascination with beverage vending machines in Japan. I don’t think twice about vending machines in the USA, and I don’t drink many soft drinks. However, I was quite taken with the vending machines in Japan. Dan and Richard will understand; I know that they share my fascination.

Vending machines are a very common sight in Japanese cities. There seems to be one on about every block (loosely speaking–not all of the cities we visited had “blocks” in the American-city sense of the word) and sometimes you find several at once. Here’s a photo of a large bank of them near the Meiji Shrine:

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The one on the left has cigarettes; the rest have beverages. They usually offer a wider range of beverages than those in the US. Here’s an example:

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You’ll notice a couple of familiar logos in there. US brands tend to be in the minority, though.

They also usually dispense both hot and cold beverages. There are colored strips, red for hot and blue for cold, and appropriate labels. Sometimes you’ll see the same beverage available at both temperatures, e.g. coffee or tea.

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Pocari Sweat is always sold cold, of course. I almost blew it and very nearly left the country without trying this famous Japanese delicacy. Fortunately I realized my oversight about 15 minutes before we boarded the plane in Osaka and was able to buy a bottle from a machine near our gate. It tastes more or less like mild, orange-flavored Gatorade but less salty. It’s pretty tasty.

Here’s the first drink I purchased from a machine:

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You’ll notice that it’s a Kirin product. In the US we think of beer when we see the name Kirin, but it turns out that they make all sorts of non-alcoholic beverages as well. The same is true for several other brands: Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. (You can get beer from vending machines but I didn’t since I don’t drink alcohol at all.) This can is black tea, and in this case it was hot. I was quite impressed by its quality. For tea in general it was quite good, and for commercially brewed tea in a can it was outstanding. I also tried several brands and blends of coffee; they were also quite good. Here are a couple of other teas that I tried:

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That’s Tracie’s beloved Creamy Cocoa on the right, of course. She tried a couple of other brands of cocoa and said that while they were all good, one was outstanding.

Sometimes you find familiar brands with unfamiliar flavors. One of these Fanta cans contains “Melon Creamsoda [sic]”:

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Many of the machines have plain water or mineral water, which was very handy since Tracie doesn’t drink consume caffeine and we weren’t always sure of the contents of the Japanese beverages.

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Some of the products are kind of strange from an American perspective. Corn soup, for example, seems to be quite popular in Japan and you can get it in cans:

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I didn’t try any corn soup so I can’t tell you how it tastes. Nor did I try any of the following vegetable juices. I’m not even sure what the stuff in the second photo is.

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Aside from the infamous Bikkle, there was only one item that disappointed me. I bought this bottle expecting it to be cold green tea:

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It was cold, and it was tea, but I think that it was roasted green tea. I’ve never liked roasted green tea and this beverage was no exception. It smelled exactly like wet cardboard and didn’t taste much better than the same. On the other hand, I did see several locals drinking it so I guess it’s popular there. It was in nearly every machine I looked at.

Odd as it may seem, memories of these machines and the products they dispense will remain among my favorite experiences of the trip. It’s hard to explain, but there is something profoundly satisfying about rolling a small, warm can of coffee between the palms of your hands while waiting on a cold train platform.

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